Love Letter to Common Ground Clinic

Catherine Jones
Date Published: 
December 1, 2005

Winter 2005

Hi Common Ground folks,

I hope all of you are doing really well. I would love to be at this discussion with all of you, but Ican’t. I decided to write y’all anote instead, so you could know what I’d say if I was around. (When I started this I thought it wouldbe a paragraph or two, but I guess

I had a lot on my mind J. I know it’s a lot to read, but I really do hope you find the time.)

First, I hope you know that I’m saying what I’m saying out ofrespect and love, and from a place of complete amazement at what all of youhave accomplished in the past few months. Common Ground has done some incredible work since the storm, and I thinkits potential is boundless. Icontinue to be awed by all the passion and energy and creativity and love I’veseen from so many of you, and I can honestly say that my life is better fromhaving had each one of you in it.

Some of you might not even know me, since I’ve been around solittle in the past few weeks. Ifeel sad that I’m so disconnected to this space these days, and I feel likeit’s important for me to let y’all know why it’s been happening. About a week before Thanksgiving I leftLouisiana for the first time since the storm. I knew leaving would be a really intense experience for me,but I wasn’t prepared for the major disability I would feel upon returninghere. There were days when I gotback where I could barely meet my minimum obligations, days when I would drivethrough so many neighborhoods I used to live in, or play in, or work in, andjust cry. I had finally hit thatwall of sadness so many of my friends and neighbors and family went throughwhen the storm came, when I had been too busy working to let myself feelanything. I feel like this isstill happening for me, and since so much of my usual support network has beenscattered to the winds, I am dealing with this intense loss largely alone.

I’m not saying this so that people can feel sorry for me; I’msaying it because it’s real, and not just for me but for most of us who arefrom New Orleans. We are stillshell-shocked. I think sometimespeople forget that we are still experiencing such deep sadness, that it cutsinto our lives and that none of us is quite whole, yet.

The reason I’m saying this to y’all, though, is because some ofthe most severe culture shock I experienced upon returning to New Orleans wasaround coming back to this clinic. I feel like it’s my responsibility to communicate this to you, notbecause how I think or feel really matters that much in the long run, butbecause if it’s happening for me, and I share at least some aspects of cultureand identity with many of you, I can only imagine what must be going on forpeople from this community who are trying to become more involved in theclinic. And, perhaps mostimportantly, because I believe in this work, and I believe in all of ourability to do it, and I want it to be as effective and as accountable as it canbe.

When I came back to New Orleans, I was coming back from DC, whereI’d been meeting with national leaders from the American Medical StudentAssociation, and where the majority of my weekend was spent discussing how wecan build a concrete strategy to end institutionalized racism in the healthcaresystem. Medical students,y’all! This is a group ofextremely educated, primarily white people not only willing to give up a lot ofthe power they have, but actually totally invested in that process because theyknow how damaging racism can be to any attempt at providing competenthealthcare. To come from a meetingof medical students where so many folks were passionately talking about workingagainst racism, to this clinic, another primarily white grouping of progressivehealthcare providers, which barely has any significant collective consciousnessof race or of its own privilege, was jarring. It compounded the sadness I already felt about returning tomy destroyed city, and made it that much harder to come back.

I began working more with primarily local groups, like thePeople’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee, which is consciouslymultiracial and African-American-led, and also spending more time working withthe Latino Health Outreach Project, because I felt like a big part of our workin LHOP centered around building relationships with local Latino organizationsin the city, which was really important to me. Working more with local folks helped me move toward balancein my own life, since everyone else was also dealing with how to grieve andwork at the same time and I didn’t feel like a slacker for not being able toput in 18-hour days like so many folks working at Common Ground. At the same time, I also became evenmore conscious than before of the disempowerment that can happen when a groupof outsiders with power and resources enters into a community and beginsimplementing its vision without a whole lot of input from that community. In the end, it doesn’t really matter ifthat group is “progressive:” disempowerment is still disempowerment.

I think this dynamic plays itself out in a number of ways atCommon Ground. I want to focus onthe ways we interact with the community, the ways we interact with local socialjustice organizers, and what we do with our resources. There are also some aspects to ourinternal structure that can have drastic effects on the larger New Orleanscommunity and the effectiveness of our work. I could point to a whole lot of things and explain why I amconcerned about them, but I think sometimes it’s better to pose a series ofquestions and trust that a good conversation will come out of it. I hope that you take the followingquestions seriously and hold any answers you may find, even the uncomfortableones. I hope that if any of thesequestions makes you feel uncomfortable, that you don’t dismiss the questionitself, but that you are able to sit with it, breathe, listen, pay attention.

How are community volunteers integrating into the clinic? Do community volunteers have adedicated space where they can voice opinions and concerns about how things aregoing? Do they know about thisspace, come regularly, and speak out? If not, why not? If thereis such a space, how (concretely) does the rest of the clinic take itssuggestions into account? Do most of the community volunteers comeregularly? How many are“one-timers” who don’t come back? Do we follow up with people who don’t come back to find out why theyaren’t coming back? What do we dowith this information?

How many out-of-town volunteers interact regularly with thecommunity volunteers, besides saying Hi or Thank You? If not many, why not? How many out-of-town volunteers actively support the participation ofcommunity volunteers, by giving people rides, taking care of kids, tellingfolks about when meetings happen, encouraging them to take leadership in therunning of the clinic, and helping them figure out concrete ways to do so? Do we trust community volunteers withmoney? If not, what does that sayto them about us? How many communityvolunteers are members of the steering committee, or any workgroup?

How many local social justice organizations do we have goodworking relationships with? Howmuch about the history and context of local social justice organizing do weknow? How do we learn about localorganizing, and how much energy do we put into finding out about locally-ledefforts? Who are the groups we doknow about and why do we know about those groups in particular? Do we include local organizers inprojects they express interest in, or on which they have done significantamounts of work already? Do wecommunicate with local organizers about our work? Do we share resources withlocal organizers, if we have resources and they need them? How might the following statements,uttered by Common Ground activists to or about local organizers, be interpretedby the local organizers?

“I’d love to work with New Orleans people, but they’re all so slow.”

“Nothing was going on in New Orleans before Common Ground.”

“They’re just jealous because we’re theonly ones doing anything.”

(The following statement was said by a Common Ground person to a localAfrican-American organizer who has a deep, strong history of organizing bothlocally and in national organizations) “If you join our project, you’ll beempowered.”

What does it mean that Common Ground activists can be assured of thetruth of these statements, without a complete understanding of the pre-andpost-hurricane political context in which their work is occurring? How might a grieving community memberinterpret a sign in front of the clinic that says, “Less tears moreaction?” What assumptions haveCommon Ground people made abut local organizers and the work they are, or arenot, doing? Can we point to anyprojects where we’ve supported the leadership of local people, on their ownterms? If not, why not? When we say things like, “nothing elseis going on” or “the community isn’t ready,” what evidence are we using to backup those statements? What concreteways do we have of making sure we listen to local leaders who are also fightingfor justice here, in their home?

Do you know how we are spending our money? If so, why? If not, why not? How much of our money goes directly into the community itself (not toCommon Ground projects or to Common Ground volunteers who didn’t live in thecommunity before the storm)? What does it mean that the clinic is paying rentfor out-of-town volunteers and not reimbursing people for the cost of gas ifthey drive from their residence to work at the clinic? How did we choose which of thesethings to prioritize? Which clinicvolunteers benefit from this arrangement? Under this arrangement, who may face barriers to being able to workhere? What does this say aboutwho we invest in and why?

Remember when I said I felt like a slacker because I suddenlybecame less capable of working the insane hours so many folks at the clinic putin? What do you think about that? What does it mean that the people whospend the most time at the clinic are also the ones who hold the mostpower? And that almost all ofthose very same people do not have significant roots in New Orleans? Do we accept that things have to bethis way? What does it mean thatthe culture of the clinic celebrates intense work, almost to the point ofburnout? Who benefits from thisculture? Can we ever expect thatlevel of work from people who have roots, and lives, and family here; who arestill grieving a vast tragedy, and who don’t have an intact home to go back toone day? What does this say aboutwhere power will eventually lie in the clinic, and what does that say about theeventual purpose of the clinic? Do all of us understand how decisions are madein the clinic, and where power lies within the clinic? If not, why not? How do we arrive at a collective senseof what we are accountable to, as a group of people working together?


That was a lot of questions. I hope they start some kind ofconversation, or at least some process of internal, or within-the-clinic,reflection. I also hope that ifthese questions have brought up uncomfortable feelings, or anger, ordefensiveness, for people, that people are able to hold those feelings and notdismiss the questions because of their reactions. I know for me sometimes that can be really hard to do,especially when I feel really invested in something. I guess that investment itself, more than anything else, iswhat I’m questioning. Becauseultimately this work is not about you, or me, or any one of us. It’s about building a world where allof the structures that keep people down don’t exist anymore, and where anyhuman being among us has the power to decide, for real, how they will livetheir own life. Right? And for that to even begin happen in alegitimate way, we need to own up to our role in that whole process. How we help it along, and how we standin its way. And that really, untilthat happens, all the work and the time and the busy-ness and the bustlingaround and feeling burned-out and going to meetings and being important, all ofthat doesn’t make a difference ultimately, because it isn’t honest.

I want to stress again that I’m not saying all of this because I’mdying to point out a billion negative things about what I still think is acompletely incredible spot of brightness in this sad, sad world. I’m not sayingit because I really want to type four pages (!!) in the middle of the nightthat I’m not sure anyone will ever even read. I’m saying it because even after everything I am not evenclose to writing off Common Ground. Even after everything, I am also learning that after two weeks of notbeing around, I miss you all. Imiss your energy, and the five thousand projects all going on at one time, andthe ways I’ve learned to think about health and healing from so many of you. Imiss the food and the neighbors and the levee and everyone’s random attempts toimplement a system for us to start cleaning up after ourselves. More even than that, though, I’m sayingthis because I know not only that we have work to do, but that each one of ushas the potential to do it. And toshine! From what I’ve seen of eachof your hearts, and all of your passion, and all the incredible beauty everysingle one of you has put into the world, I know this. Above anything else, see, this is alove letter.

And so all I ask of you is this: Please, for the sake of thiswork, just take a deep breath and look around. Please just start there. I think our future might depend on this one small step.

With solidarity and my whole entire heart,


PS—I’m not one to drop bombs without having some way to followup.

Starting next week I’m planning on working at the clinic on Monday

mornings, and being around for LHOP meetings on Tuesday afternoons,

and community workgroup meetings on Thursday mornings. I’d love to

talk to any of you around those times, and you can also call me at

504-250-6655. xoxoxo

Solidarity not Charity: Racism in Katrina Relief Work

By Molly McClure

I recently spent three weeks working at the Common Ground ReliefClinic in New Orleans, an all-volunteer run free healthcare project that openeda week after the hurricane. The following are some thoughts I had about thedifference between solidarity and charity, specifically reflecting on the roleof folks like me--- white activists from out of town--- in Katrina relief work.

As many people have said, the mess of Katrina was caused by astorm of racism and poverty more than wind and water. Katrina was about theracism of war that took money away from fixing the levees and other much-neededdisaster preparations and went instead to the killing of poor people of colorin Iraq and around the world. Katrina was about the racism of US-led capitalism that acceleratesglobal warming, bringing bigger hurricanes and tsunamis and other “naturaldisasters” which always disproportionately affect the poor. Katrina was aboutthe legacy of slavery, which meant that many white New Orleanians had theeconomic resources to evacuate, such as a car or other means to escape thestorm and subsequent flooding, while many Black New Orleanians did not. Katrinawas about the racism of FEMA and the Bush administration in their murderouslyslow response (you know it would have looked different in Connecticut!). And Katrina was about the racism of thepolice chief of Gretna, who, with the support of his predominantly white town,turned Black survivors away at gunpoint as they tried to cross the CrescentCity Bridge to safety because he “didn’t want Gretna to turn into theSuperdome.”

Like most of you, I’m guessing, I was outraged and heartbroken bywhat I saw, and I wanted to go down and see if there was some way I couldsupport the people of the Gulf Coast in their efforts to deal with this mess.When I got there I saw and heard devastating things, stories of loss my earsare still full of, images of destruction that cut into the meat of myheart. I also saw and heard many,many inspiring things--- stories of resistance and hope, of survival and vision. I met incredible people who fed me redbeans and rice on Mondays and told me about their families and their lives, whoshared with me some of what New Orleans meant to them, people who through theirstories helped me understand the depth and breadth of this atrocity.

(By the way, I’d really encourage folks to seek out thesefirst-hand stories, and prioritize reading information and analysis aboutKatrina written by survivors and long-time residents of the Gulf Coast, forexample “New Orleans and Women of Color: Connecting the Personal and Political”by Janelle L. White, which is available online).

I was also inspired by how many folks from outside New Orleans hadgone down to volunteer, had seen what was happening and were appalled, andfound a way to go down and support in any way they could. I met incredibly committed activists,folks with skills and energy and immense creativity and huge hearts.

And while it was moving to see how many people came down tovolunteer, with that also came one of the unexpected heartbreaks for me ofbeing in the Gulf Coast post-Katrina: the racism that white activists likemyself brought along with us, even as we came intending to stand in solidaritywith the people of New Orleans. And although there are many many stories I wantto tell, this is what I feel a really deep need to write about, and I see thisas part of an ongoing conversation. (Note: for this article, I’ll be using thePeople’s Institute definition of racism, which is race prejudice plus power, andusing it interchangeably with “white supremacy,” meaning the system of wealth,power, and privilege which keeps racism in place).

First, I want to say that I’m not approaching this conversation asif I’ve got it all figured out, because I have a ton of work to do and makeplenty of mistakes, including the ones I’m about to discuss. And I want to say that while I will bespeaking from my own perspective, there have been many people of color whoseanalysis and experiences have helped me develop the antiracist framework I’musing to think about this situation. I just want to put that out because I think it’s important to recognizewhose labor and experiences have helped inform what I am saying, and how I’m sayingit.

So having said all that, I want to talk a little about the waysthat we white folks, no matter how well-intentioned, bring our white privilegeand our racism with us wherever we go, and how this really hijacks solidarityprojects and imperils our capacity to be true allies. Despite the fact that what happened in New Orleans wasunderstood by the majority of whites even slightly left of center to have itsroots in racism, it does not seem that this awareness has translated into uswrestling any more seriously with white supremacy, even as many of us mobilizeto support the communities of the Gulf Coast.

One example I want to give is about the looter/finder distinctionmade by mainstream media outlets in describing stranded New Orleanians carryingfood. Do folks remember seeingthat? The captions of picturessaid white people “found” stuff, and Black people “looted” stuff, though theimages were identical except for race. Lots of us forwarded an email aroundabout this, and were justifiably outraged at the blatant criminalizing of Blacksurvivors in the media. People Iknow wrote letters to the editors of newspapers, sent scathing emails, andcalled in to radio shows to protest that and other racist portrayals of Katrinasurvivors.

The question I want to ask is how many of us white folks makethese kind of looter/finder assumptions about people’s behavior all the time,in our heads? How many of us make these kinds of racialized good guy/bad guydistinctions when we’re walking down the street in our hometowns, standing at abus stop late at night, interacting with new people in our activist spaces,talking to co-workers at our jobs, seeing patients in the clinic?

While the media portrayals were egregious and telling, I think theinsidious, often unconscious prejudice that we’ve learned by living in a racistculture is also incredibly dangerous. The People’s Institute for Survival andBeyond calls this “internalized racial superiority,” and that’s what I sawplaying out so dramatically among many white solidarity workers who came to NewOrleans, even though many of us were there because we felt a deep desire totake action against what was clearly a race-based hate crime.

So I have some questions for white folks thinking about goingdown, questions I am still asking myself: first of all, why you? Why are you going? Could our resourcesand energy be better used supporting survivor organizing at home orfundraising, rather than spent traveling to the South? Are we committed to doing support workthat may not feel as “exciting” as going down ourselves? How did it come to bethat we are able to travel to and around New Orleans, while many survivorsstill can’t go home? What are webringing with us, what will we take back? What has been the role of white people and white institutions in thedestruction and reshaping of communities of color in the US, in the history ofNew Orleans? When we go down, arewe expecting to be thanked, to be welcomed, what is our real motivation forgoing? What will be the long-term impact of our work on the Gulf Coastcommunities with whom we're supposedly standing in solidarity? How are we goingto be accountable to what we saw and heard and did when we come back, and towhom do we feel accountable? How are we going to make meaningful connections tothe same kind of injustices back home? Do we know about the issues facing poorcommunities and communities of color in our hometown, and are we as motivated,as committed to dealing with those issues where we live, which could bear astriking resemblance to what’s going on in New Orleans? Are we seeing survivors of Katrina as“worthy” poor, deserving of resources and relief work, without recognizing thatthe poverty back home is equally a result of systemic racism, and equallycrucial to address?

In the three weeks I was working in New Orleans, I spent most ofmy time at the Common Ground Clinic, where most of the volunteers andhealthcare providers are white. (Though the call to create Common Ground was put out by Malik Rahim, aBlack activist and organizer who never evacuated New Orleans, the people withthe resources and time to respond first to that call were overwhelmingly white,class-privileged folks, who continue to be numerically the majority). While I was there, I heard commentslike “this is so cool that New Orleans is going to have a free clinic now!” orother statements suggesting that we, the white saviors, had come to bringcapital a ACTIVISM to the region, which before we got there was presumably somekind of political wasteland. Now,I definitely didn’t do my homework like I should have before I got there, but Iwas pretty sure that the city had had a vibrant history of resistance andorganizing from the time of the slave revolts on, and I had recently learnedabout the Saint Thomas Clinic and other local healthcare justice projects. The fact that the town was so intenselydepopulated may have made it possible for an inexperienced out-of-towner tomistake the absence of people with the absence of organizing. But I know there was more to it thanthat---racism fosters in white people an easy, unconscious arrogance, aninability to see past ourselves, the capacity to be “blinded by thewhite.” Mixed up in this also, Ithink, is the classist assumption that poor folks aren’t politically consciousor organized, or that they only “become” so when outside organizersarrive.

Another example of these racist assumptions could be seen whenfolks expressed the valid concern that the community wasn’t involved enough inrunning the health center, even though flyers were put up around thesurrounding Algiers neighborhood inviting residents to volunteer and become apart of the clinic. I’ve been partof this dynamic in the past--- wondering why “they” don’t come to “our” meetingor event, without understanding how alienating the white culture of our projector organization might be to people of color, from the language, timing, andstructure of our meetings to the way we dress (especially in places like CommonGround, which, when I was there, had a predominantly punk/hippie subculturalscene going on). When there hasbeen a lack of community involvement in other neighborhood projects of whichI’ve been a part, it’s usually because the project began or evolved without aconcerted effort to connect in a respectful, non-tokenizing way with people inthe neighborhood to see what they were working on already, what theirpriorities were, what strategies they’d tried before, how we might supporttheir work before starting a brand spanking new project with us inleadership.

In the case of the clinic in particular, it was an immediatedisaster relief project that needed to happen, and I see it as a fantasticexample of the capacity of the left to effectively mobilize in an emergencywhen the state infrastructure failed. But now that the clinic is a more permanent fixture, there will be somereal wrestling with power and privilege in the months ahead, if it is to reachthe stated goal of transitioning to community control, and if it is to have arole that is less about service provision and more about rebuildinginfrastructure and offering resources in a way that supports communityself-determination.

Another example I want to offer is a hand-painted sign at theclinic that said, “Less Tears More Action!” I never found out who painted this, but I’m guessing it was awhite person from out of town, like me. And no matter who created the sign, I wondered what the impact of thatstatement was (for the day it was up) on the people who came to the clinic, whowere mourning immeasurable losses and experiencing worlds of grief that we asoutsiders would never be able to fully comprehend. Yet we felt entitled to offer brightly-painted suggestionsabout it being time to quit whining and move on, and presumably we were to bethe role models of what kind of “action” folks should take.

One day at the clinic, Kimberley Richards and Bridget Lehane,organizers from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, came to meetwith us about the possibility of doing an antiracism training for volunteers atthe clinic. Kimberley pointed outthat like it or not, we--- mostly white healthcare providers and activists in ahurricane-ravaged poor Black town--- stood to profit off our time in NewOrleans, either socially through gaining “activist points” or professionally bywriting papers or books about our experience. She asked us how were we going to be accountable to thatfact, how we were going to make sure that the people most affected by thistragedy would also stand to gain and not be profited off, as they so often wereby the organizations and institutions that were supposedly serving them.

The difference between charity and solidarity felt huge that dayand as we discussed whether or not we could--- more truthful to say whether ornot we would--- close the clinic in order to participate in their two and ahalf day training, called the “Undoing Racism Workshop.” I realized that solidarity felteasier when I thought about it in terms of us simply offering a crucial resourceto the community --- providing free, accessible healthcare and free medicationsin a place and time when that was a dire, dire necessity. And that’s incredibly important.

But the challenge of real solidarity is that it requires us totake a critical look at the bigger picture of Katrina, the context, and to seehow we fit in. Solidarity means looking at how power and privilege play out inour own lives, and obligates us to consider our role in relation to the stateand system that helped engineer this disaster. To be in solidarity we wouldneed to understand how our class and race privilege impact why we were the onesable to offer the healthcare resources in the first place, and be real aboutwhether the clinic serves to challenge or reinforce that inequality. Solidarityrequires us to seriously grapple with our racial prejudice, and recognize howit affects the work we do in the clinic and how we interact with the community.To really be in solidarity, we would need to more fully examine and drasticallyoverhaul the assumptions and biases in how we deliver healthcare, we would haveto acknowledge and deal with the white culture of the project and how thataffected our patients and which providers felt welcome in the clinic, and wewould need to see and wrestle with the fact that our presence in New Orleanswas profoundly changing the class and race dynamics of the intenselydepopulated neighborhood and town. We would have to be willing to look at and be accountable to the ways inwhich we might actually stand to gain more in the long term from our“solidarity work” in the clinic than the community who we were supposedlyserving.

At this point I still have more questions than answers about whatbeing in solidarity really means. But I know solidarity’s a hell of a lot less comfortable than charity,and involves me not just going to someone else’s decimated town and helping outfor a little while or even a long while and then going home and doing areportback, or writing a reflection piece, though that could be part of it.Real solidarity means keeping up the conversation about race and class in theUS with other white folks, and working diligently to break down the racism inmainstream white communities---where institutional power currently resides---aswell as challenging racism in the white left. Real solidarity requires me to go on an ongoing, difficultjourney to reckon with my own stuff, and my family’s stuff--- to recognize andchallenge our collusion in the system of white supremacy. My experience in NewOrleans makes me ask myself what I’m doing right now, right here, to supportthe self-determination of communities of color and of low-income people, whatI’m doing right now to support a revolutionary transformation of systems ofpower in this country. It makes me ask myself what I’m doing right now, righthere, to help root out the racism in my own heart and the heart of communitiesI’m a part of, so that I can struggle in true solidarity with communities mostaffected by injustice as they lead the movement for radical social change.

Molly McClure does sexual health and racial justice work inPhiladelphia, and is excited to hear your comments, questions and discussion:genderific [at] hotmail [dot] com. This writing happened with a lot of support, feedback,and insightful conversation for which I’m incredibly grateful.