Fieldwork I Post Katrina Portrait Story Project

Sun. February 4, 2007
Categories: Research

My work has been to reflect on liberation & depth psychologies in regards to disaster relief. For example, that hurricanes represent ruptures in the relation between nature and culture. Whether from a breach of peace to open hostility between warring nations or to something breaking or bursting, as the levees in New Orleans did, I desire to learn a different language and context for the work of disaster relief.

Communitas, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness, is characteristic of people who experience liminal space together.  Liminal space is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminancy. Liminality is a period of transition during which the normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed, opening the way to something new. The opportunity for communitas is present during the course of apolitical upheaval or natural disaster, it is a time when liminality holds the possibility of a transition to new ways of relating.

I wanted to know if Communitas was present in my own community of Topanga, California and if not present, I was ready to envision a future where it might become more evident.  My earlier inspiration was to work in New Orleans with the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, nevertheless, I stayed close to home to start fieldwork. But then I came upon divisive issues involving class and property ownership that hurt me. The division between hippie and yuppie became apparent, as did the conflict between owners and renters, and I sensed marginalizations that would become major issues if we were to experience disaster. My fieldwork advisor, Mary Watkins, pointed out that I was dealing with core issues that were similar to those in New Orleans after Katrina, and that these are common to all communities.

In the meantime, New Orleans opened up for me through a portrait artist untrained in relief work. Francesco Di Santis calls himself a visual folklorist and feels that art is fundamental to the human condition that we have biologically and culturally evolved into. Folklore, he says, occupies the cultural space somewhere between artistic expressions and history. In New Orleans post-Katrina, that meant something very specific and he turned his artistic talent into drawing their faces and documenting their experiences as his form of socially active research evolved. Many of the portraits make no reference to any form of relief effort or politics but the very act of allowing subjectivity can be seen as a form of activism. The portraits and the stories are the subjects’ interpretation of their own lived experience. This is very important in research. The guidelines for having a portrait drawn included the following:

1)    Contribute to the self-empowerment of voices of survivors and those in solidarity with survivors since Hurricane Katrina by becoming your own media.

2)  Write on your portrait what you have seen, done, heard, felt, understood and come to recognize since surviving the hurricane or arriving in the Gulf region.

3)  Write who, what, where, why, when and how of your involvement on the ground, for example, what has been your contribution to the event?

4)  Provide day-to-day information that may be helpful to future grassroots relief efforts whether tactical, logistical, organizational, historical, psychological or spiritual to illustrate the dynamics of disaster relief and community.

5) Respect the fact that if you just arrived recently, then you don’t know as much about the place as if you were born and raised there. Respect what you can write about as a witness but not as a participant.

What impressed me was that between drawing portraits and collecting stories, Francesco worked with other volunteers in the Ninth Ward gutting moldy houses (that means taking out all the belongings so that they could dry out on the street or be demolished), and they helped to distribute food and supplies to survivors while taking part in acts of civil disobedience. For over a year he enabled people to tell their stories of survival alongside the stories of hundreds of volunteers that descended upon New Orleans from all parts of the country to help. Community activists ran The Healthy Soil Project, a grassroots, citizen-based response to both long-standing and post-Katrina problems of environmental degradation and soil toxicity in the New Orleans area. Focused on promoting the clean-up of New Orleans’ soil using natural processes of bioremediation, the project is dedicated to furthering the health and safety of all residents. The project employs plant-based, microbial and fungal remediation techniques to extract or break down toxins found on residents’ land and in public spaces like gardens and schools.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith says in “Decolonizing Methodologies” that the agenda for indigenous research connects local, regional and global efforts which are moving towards the ideal of a self-determining indigenous world” (p 115). Although there were indigenous people affected by the Hurricane, isn’t it interesting that the same research agenda prevails? What is happening in New Orleans but gentrification of the Ninth Ward and isn’t that a form of colonization? We can read hundreds and hundreds of these stories and they speak to the issue of self-determination, and as such, self-determination becomes not only a political goal, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith says, but along with social justice, it becomes a part of the research agenda (p. 116).  She says that there are four processes in an indigenous research agenda and listen for how this applies to poverty stricken communities struck by disasters:

1) decolonization, 2) healing, 3) transformation, and 4) mobilization to determine their own agendas.

The stages through which indigenous communities, as well as disaster and poverty struck regions, struggle through are:

1) survival, 2) recovery, 3) development, and 4) self-determination.

Not only physical survival but cultural survival, the recovery of their land, their rights, and the history of what has happened, the rebuilding of physical structures and economic development, and most importantly having a voice in determining their own futures instead of being subject to external agendas.

I see the similarity between the indigenous research agenda that she describes, and the reality of what is needed in New Orleans  especially when she says that recovery is very often a response to an immediate crisis rather than a planned approach, both of which are needed. Sometimes an immediate crisis requires immediate action, for example when specific lands and designated areas are about to be bulldozed. In New Orleans, relief workers stood in front of bulldozers to save homes, they suited up and cleaned out the homes, applied the microbes to kill the mold, alongside the owners who helped if they were present and able to. From reading the stories, you can hear of their solidarity, courage, grief, hope, love, despair, yes, every imaginable sentiment.

I know what you are thinking: that I got someone to collect the data for my field research and this is true.  My full-time job in Los Angeles, as well as health issues from living in moldy houses for the last four years [that is enough to give anyone compassion for this subject] and the physical move to a newly built “organic” studio prevented me from leaving, but it all worked itself out in the collective unconscious.

I came across the Common Ground Collective and called Francesco di Santis. I became involved in the creation of a website to distribute 425 of the portraits [for free download]. At the same time, I read the stories from the lens of depth and liberation psychology. This is in order to form a coherent thesis on behalf of the victims and volunteers as socially conscious, politically-inspired disaster relief. This is not the Red Cross kind of disaster relief.

From the beginning Francesco was one of five volunteers working for the grass-roots organization called the Common Ground Collective. Eventually eight thousand volunteers from around the country went to New Orleans over the course of one year, and at any single point in time there were about 700 volunteers present in the Ninth Ward. The Common Ground Collective is a community-initiated volunteer organization offering assistance, mutual aid and support. Their mission is to help people by providing for their immediate needs while emphasizing that people themselves work together to rebuild their lives in sustainable ways.  The Common Ground Collective seeks to do what FEMA fails to do.

Pre-existing problems in the Ninth Ward, i.e. poverty and crime, were fully underway before the hurricanes. The so-called carpetbaggers had been gentrifying the Ninth Ward unsuccessfully, so the hurricanes became a golden opportunity for property seizure. The night that I was there, public housing residents met to discuss plans of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, also known as HANO, to demolish most of the flood-damaged public housing complexes. Thousands of public housing families remain scattered and distressed that the government has aimed a wrecking ball at the homes where they once lived. The meeting was required by law before HANO can send bulldozers to raze the city’s four largest public housing complexes which would result in private developers rebuilding them into private mixed-income neighborhoods.  The residents don’t want demolition because it means destroying affordable public housing. If they had been allowed to return to their homes, they would have gladly cleaned them up.

Socially conscious research, besides collecting stories from volunteers and hurricane survivors,  led Francesco and other volunteers to fight for changes in the law successfully, changes that made it impossible for Katrina survivors to get evicted without adequate due process. These major victories would not have happened without people organizing together to improve their conditions: the hurricane survivors and grassroots organizations together created a strong voice to demand real justice and accountability.

Reading the portrait stories is not easy, for example, I experienced a lot of initial resistance, but I continue to read on and I encourage you to as well, to let the stories move you as I have let affection for the people of New Orleans grow inside of my heart. I love the images of “communitas” bouncing off of the pages in some of the stories, and am concerned by the social injustice towards those we call “marginalized.”

“In hindsight, the most obvious systemic problem with disaster relief is that governments pro-actively turn away volunteer rescuers and other organized disaster relief efforts, and then on the other side of that, organizations such as the Red Cross accept a “no go” by the government, thereby internalizing the authority’s command for death by omission” (di Santis, 2007).

In conclusion, one of the most important things I have learned is that anyone who does disaster relief research doesn’t get to fully define the project. This is the same for grassroots relief volunteers who need to listen to survivors to know what kind of shape relief efforts should take in order to be the most constructive, effective and relevant.

Francesco di Santis travels to various regions depicting the folklore of regional struggles for self-determination. This Post-Katrina Portrait Project has established a precedent  for many art and story documentary projects to come.

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