Points for Visiting Activists To Consider

Sean, Camilla, Miss Claire, Simon
Date Published: 
October 15, 2005

Points for Visiting Activists to Consider
by Sean, Camilla, Miss Claire, Simon
Saturday, Oct. 15, 2005 at 12:39 AM

As residents of New Orleans, we offer a few suggestions for people who have come to help us rebuild our city on how you can better stand behind the concept “Solidarity not Charity.”


As residents of New Orleans, we offer a few suggestions for people who have come to help us rebuild our city on how you can better stand behind the concept “Solidarity not Charity.” First, we must say that we are very glad that people are here helping, and we are glad that your skills, labor, and resources are being offered to communities that have needed them for a long time. We are not making these suggestions to make you feel uncomfortable or unappreciated, but to help you put your skills and resources to use in ways that are most helpful and least alienating. It is crucial at this point for returning New Orleanians to feel like they are coming home to the city they left, not to a strange place filled with well meaning, but unfamiliar people who don’t know our culture or our city.

We’re writing this as members of the New Orleans radical community. We share many experiences, political ideals, cultural values, and social identities with you. We are not intending to speak for our city as a whole, and make no claims to speak for the most intensely impacted communities, who are poor or working class African Americans. Even our presence here, our ability to access the resources that enabled us to return home, underlines our separation from the city’s overwhelmingly poor, mostly African-American, and indefinitely displaced majority. The point is that if we, the segment of the population most likely to identify with visiting hurricane relief activists, is made to feel alienated in our own home-town, imagine how un-welcome those who are less culturally aligned with you as well as less privileged may feel as they finally make it home.


• First off, because New Orleans is a relatively distinctive and self-contained city that has managed to save many of its quirks from the forces of cultural homogenization, logic that applies in other cities may not apply here. Try to ignore your expectations, especially if you weren’t already familiar with our people and customs.

• Make sure that projects you start here are sustainable and won’t just stop when it’s time to head home. Understand that any project undertaken without input from people who lived here before the storm and who will live here after you are gone will have no one to sustain it. It is important that anything you do is run alongside local people. One of the most important signifiers of a successful direct action or community project is the capability of the project to survive without its initiator. If the project as a body can survive without its head, that is a sign of success. If you can go home knowing a project you helped to start is being run by residents, you can go home knowing you’ve done a great service

• Be respectful of locally-organized meetings and cultural events. If you hear about a neighborhood meeting and feel that you might have something to contribute, send ONE or TWO delegates from your organization or project, who can then report back to the rest of the group. Please do not show up en masse with a dozen out-of-towners. When you do this, you risk overwhelming local initiatives and creating unnecessary tension between locals and outsiders. Whether or not you intend it, showing up in large numbers makes locals feel that they are being co-opted and excluded, and that their own initiatives are being overpowered. When a locally-organized grouping of people consists of more outsiders than locals, this creates a very alienating and unhealthy group dynamic. Right now local voices need to be heard loudest.

• It is not necessarily appropriate to be videotaping community events and meetings. This is not a summit; this place is home to many different types of people who are rebuilding their lives and communities and could feel uncomfortable being surrounded by cameras during that process. People living in New Orleans deserve privacy and to have that privacy protected.

• When going into communities you are trying to help, do it with a respectful attitude that involves listening instead of suggesting or offering advice. Before deciding what projects to start, try getting into neighborhoods to ask people what they need. Compile lists of houses that need to be cleaned or fixed or where meals or other services are needed. Don’t plan projects in neighborhoods you’ve never been to or have only been to once. For example, don’t start a community newspaper unless you are a member of the community it is intended for. Instead, try offering your own resources if asked to do so by locals trying to start their own community newspaper.

• Keep in mind that most New Orleanians haven’t returned yet. It’s a little strange to have relief workers literally outnumber the residents of the city. Please consider that moving in relief workers faster than residents are capable of returning may be straining resources that are intended for victims of the hurricane.

• Likewise, an important task in the recovery effort might be to organize to help the displaced New Orleanians who are scattered about the country return home so that they might be involved in the rebuilding of their own community, rather than recruiting even more activists to come down here from other places. An example of how you could help, is by telling friends in your town that instead of coming down to volunteer, they could instead spend what would be their ticket cost on buying a ticket for a stranded resident to return home.

• There was a radical community in New Orleans before the hurricane hit and there will be one after you leave. Even though you might recognize some of us from protests, summits, or festivals, please keep in mind that WE LIVE HERE. When you meet someone for the first time who fits your demographic, please don’t greet them in a way that assumes they are not from here such as, “did you come over from Algiers?” or “Where are you from?” Instead, try asking “do you live here?”

• Also, local radicals are dealing with grief as well. Though some of our spaces look intact, our community is in shambles: some of us have lost our homes and we ALL have friends and/or family who will not be returning, so we may not be able to work as hard or at the same pace as you. We are working to rebuild our communities, but we are also trying to rebuild our own lives. Please be respectful of people who might seem “lazy” or “uninvolved.” This also means being mindful of your own pace so as not to make people feel uninvolved in projects in their own community just because they need to have jobs and clean their houses or maybe just cry for a while.

• New Orleans is home to an assortment of different cultures and classes. Don’t make assumptions about a person’s class background based on their race or their dress and appearance and don’t draw conclusions about the variety and severity of a person’s needs based on your perception of their class background.

We’re sending out these guidelines in an attempt to open a broader and more effective dialogue between locals and non-locals in the grassroots effort to support and rebuild the city we call home. We’re deeply grateful that there is such a strong relief effort, but we’re concerned that a lack of communication with local communities may cause much of that strength to be misdirected in wasteful or even counterproductive ways. We are just a handful of individuals, but we feel that because of our circumstances as radical hurricane victims trying to rebuild our lives as well as our city, our sentiments and concerns might be useful for anyone attempting radical or grassroots relief work in New Orleans.

Sean Benjamin
Miss Claire Gillis