Behind the Paneling Sunday, Mar 3 2013
The New Orleans Course Tuesday, Jan 22 2013
Today marks the beginning of the seventh spring I have taught the New Orleans class. I’m having some difficulty with that realization, which may be because the course helps me mark the passage of time – there’s Christmas, then New Year’s Day, then New Orleans. Moreover, six classes of students and hard-working volunteers have become friends, graduates and colleagues.
Because I have a short attention span, the class evolves from year to year. The bones, the basic structure for the course remain the same, but from year to year there are changes in assignments, readings, and volunteer opportunities. The class dynamic likewise changes. And, as Hurricane Katrina grows smaller in the rear view mirror, New Orleans and the way we approach the storm have been witness to substantial changes, as well.
My first volunteer trip to New Orleans was in March 2006, a little over seven months following Katrina. I worked with some 1300 volunteers out of a FEMA camp in Chalmette, LA. We were fenced in. We had armed guards. Lights out at 10:00pm. A Dollar Store was the only retail establishment open in all of St. Bernard Parish. We were surrounded by thousands of homes, virtually all unoccupied, most still damp from flood waters, and many permanently soiled by oil and petrochemicals. Trees and shrubs could not shake-off being submerged under brackish water for weeks and failed to emerge that spring. And one had to strain to hear a song bird or witness life of any sort.
We worked in teams of 10 to 12, gutting homes in and around Chalmette. Collapsed ceilings and insulation, moldy walls, fetid refrigerators and freezers, and the waterlogged belongings of once proud homeowners were removed, and houses stripped to the studs. With masks, gloves, and goggles we worked in the filth and humidity, revering breaks during the day and racing to the showers and laundry in the afternoon. The homeowners, who cared, came and cried. We piled what porcelain, photographs, or other belongs that could be salvaged in a pile for them to reclaim. It was the worst and hardest job I have ever loved.
To escape the confinement and crowds of the camp, I discovered the Chalmette National Cemetery and Chalmette Battlefield a short walk away. They, like everything else, were damaged by the federal flood and closed, but there was nothing to stop me from visiting. I walked through the graves of generations of soldiers, many of them African-American soldiers from the Civil War. I sat among brick walls crumpled by the flood. I stood behind the redoubt where Andrew Jackson led a rag-tag army of frontiersman, local militia, free blacks, pirates, and Native Americans into battle on January 8, 1815. On the plain that lay between me and our camp, that force defeated the British army that had months prior forced Napoleon into exile. It was there, nearly two centuries later, of course, that the New Orleans course was conceived.
On a couple of evenings I hitched rides into the City where I discovered Frenchmen Street, a musical antidote to the commercialized sleaze of Bourbon Street. Even as the City struggled to recover from the storm, traditional music was rising above the devastation. On Mondays, red beans still boiled on the stove. Café du Monde had a banner proclaiming “Beignets are Back.” And as I sat on a bench on the battlefield and revisited the week in my mind, I thought: how do I share this profound experience, this new found realization with others?
I got back to Durham. I read everything I could find. I listened to musicians and genres that were foreign to me. Together with the rawness of my experience, the New Orleans class was born. A year later, in the spring of 2007, the inaugural class had to suffer through my attempts to share everything that I had learned using dense and wordy PowerPoint slides and drawn-out lectures. It was an act of love for me, but the mode of delivery must have been frustrating to them. At the same time, I worked with UNH-Alternative Break Challenge to organize several trips to work with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans over spring break. I invited my students to apply and join us.
Five of my students did just that and joined me with UNH-ABC; two others went to New Orleans separately during spring break. We stayed in Violet, LA and worked in the Upper Ninth Ward in and around what would become Musicians’ Village. I watched them work hard during the day. They met and talked to residents. They tapped their toes to music, they caught beads at parades, and they ate Creole food. They combined what we had learned in class with experience. It stuck. It had meaning. And they gained knowledge and understanding in a way that the other students in the class could not. A year later, I asked if the trip could become part of the class, half expecting for the answer to be no. But, I was pleasantly surprised; the trip has been a central part of the class ever since.
Now, the trip defines the class. Before the trip, I give them informational markers to provide reference for them once they get there. And while none of us have attained the fluency of a native, students have just enough history, culture, music, and language to be able to communicate. And boy, do they communicate. They talk to folks in the neighborhoods, the former gang member who recounts mayhem, as well as the great-grandmother who in late 2005 returned to a home in a neighborhood without power; to a City without an operating grocery store. They talk to the musicians about their craft, the waitress about her late, unfortunate incarceration, and they bring all of those conversations back to class. They process. They try to make sense of those threads and combine them with what they read in books and see in film. They make their own judgments. And ultimately, they learn.
And I get to watch the whole thing unfold; and learn with them.
The REAL Spirit of New Orleans Monday, Apr 2 2012
Student Viewpoints Gabrielle I. Chesney, Habitat for Humanity, House of Dance & Feathers, Hurricane Katrina, Lower Ninth Ward, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans culture, Ronald W. Lewis, UNH students 1:50 pm
Looking back to the weeks before my first trip to New Orleans, I remember being nervous and wondering what to expect from a city known for its indescribable culture. After spending one day in the city, I was hooked. Our first day experiencing New Orleans as a class helped me to understand the spirit and culture of the city that Bill had been trying to describe to us for the first half of the semester.
Once everybody had settled into the museum, Ronald shared some of his experiences with Hurricane Katrina. While I had heard a lot about Katrina before visiting New Orleans, I didn’t truly understand how it affected the city and her people until hearing Ronald talk about his experiences. He helped me to understand the depth at which the people of the city were affected. One thing he said really stuck with me. When asked about the response to Katrina and the progress that has been made over the past few years he said, “It not the hot story, but it’s an ongoing story”. This was a really great thing to hear right before we started our work with Habitat for Humanity. Living in a world filled with daily disasters and news stories, it is hard to remember that the problems that occur from these events persist long after the hype goes down and volunteering is not longer the popular thing to do. This concept resonated with me and was something I carried with me as I volunteered and hope to remember now that I am back home and far away from the damage of Katrina and the people of New Orleans. So often people jump on the bandwagon to support issues but forget about them shortly afterwards. It makes sense, but it is a shame.
Those are the stories that made the week we spent amazing. Without the people, New Orleans would just be a picturesque city by the water. Once you add these eclectic and passionate people, you have a place that is impossible to forget and sure to change you in one way or another.
Abita Springs Thursday, Mar 15 2012
Uncategorized Abita Springs LA, Dr. Michael White, Habitat for Humanity, New Orleans music, Operation Helping Hands, Peace Mission Center, Slidell LA, UNH students, Walter "Wolfman" Washington 5:11 pm
I deeply miss the opportunity to have my students work in New Orleans with Operation Helping Hands. It’s not that the work is far different from what we are doing this week, but for the purposes of the New Orleans course, the chance to work in the neighborhoods and learn the streets, meet and talk to the people, and have them stop and thank you (and talk some more) is very important. And the young, full-time volunteers, most of them just out of college themselves, were fun to work with and provided my students with good role models.
That said, the experience of working with the two Habitat agencies in St. Tammany Parish and the housing at the Peace Mission Center has been great. The volunteer coordinators have been informative, helpful, and welcoming. And as always, I am amazed at the construction heads, crew chiefs, etc. that Habitat is able to put on site. They are born teachers; they are patient (to a remarkable degree), quick to assess skill levels, and always looking to make the experience a meaningful one for the volunteers. And it helps that I have a cracker jack group this year who are threatening to leave next week’s volunteers with nothing to do.
And, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I love visiting and learning about new places. For fear of online retribution, I will not list the handful of places for which this is not true. I’ll just leave it at that. Slidell has been a pleasure. The food is good, the people are friendly and almost as welcoming as those down the road in New Orleans, but we’re talking gold standard here. The terrain is pleasant, although I could do without all of the strip malls. I realize that this is, for the most part, a national epidemic, but it does seem that my native-South has perfected the blight.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to follow one of our groups over to their work with Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany–West. The work site was just outside of Abita Springs, which until then was just a name on one of my favorite regional beers (their Turbodog, to be exact, but their amber is good, too). It is a beautiful little community, just north of Mandeville. They’ve preserved much of their downtown, complete with tin roofed buildings, undisturbed trees, and locally-owned businesses.
The Habitat build was just to the west, and as you pulled off of the main road, you see a whole community, largely built by Habitat for Humanity. One of the crew estimates that nearly seventy homes in this area alone have been built by Habitat over the past two decades. That’s right. Before Katrina. We sometimes forget that events like Katrina, this spring’s tornadoes, etc. do not cause a shortage of quality, affordable housing in the richest country in the world, they only exacerbate it. And such events hopefully highlight the need for those who would rather forget about that fact. Habitat for Humanity does not forget. Their mission is to alleviate it, one house and one deserving family at a time.
The students were working with a wonderful crew of professional builders, young people, and those unable to truly retire, not becuase of economic need, but because they care. And the students, whether they realized it or not, had been paid a very high complement. The house they were working on was about to be turned over to a family, who had also had to put in considerable sweat equity — a Habitat requirement. There was a punchlist of items that had to be done before the papers are signed and usually, becuase these tasks can seem rather random, yet time sensitive, a crew member usually completes them. However, our group so impressed on Tuesday that they were there completing the punchlist: touching up trim and walls, installing screens; removing debris from the yard and shed; and pouring cement landings in front and back. It will be interesting to see what they are allowed to do the rest of the week.
The two groups working for St. Tammany-East Habitat for Humanity are not being left in the dust by the other. They are laying sub-flooring at one site, painting porches on completed homes, and power-washing in preparation for future paint jobs. The construction manager is complaing that they are moving so fast that he is worried about having work to do for the 32 volunteers arriving next week. He is giving them a late start on Friday; 10:00, rather than 6:45 a.m. I suspect it is both reward and an attempt to slow them down a bit. Needless to say, given the performance of this year’s class, both volunteer coordinators are eager to have us sign on for next year. And I just might.
After work, students returned to the Peace Mission Center for warm showers, some online time, to write in their journals (remember those journals!) and to shoot baskets or throw a football. They had very satisfying chicken pot pie and for those so inclined, veggie burgers, for dinner. For dessert was angel food cake with freshly made blueberry or strawberry sauce.
After dinner, we drove across New Orleans to Xavier University of Louisiana for our annual fix of traditional jazz. There we met with Dr. Michael White, jazz clarinetist, composer, bandleader and holder of the Keller Endowed Chair in the Humanities of New Orleans Music and Culture. He and his quartet, which includes Kerry Lewis on bass, Detroit Brooks on banjo, and Gregg Stafford on trumpet and vocals, led us on a musical journey from the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans, up through one of Michael’s new compositions in the traditional idiom. I was especially taken with White’s channeling of Sidney Bechet while playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” and the ensemble’s performance of a newer composition “Give it Up” (Gypsy Second Line), a traditional-style tune with a hint of Eastern European flavor. One of my favorites. It was fun to see the recognition on the students’ faces when they played “Basin Street Blues” with Gregg Stafford on vocals. It was one of the ten tunes they had to learn for their mid term, just a week ago back in Durham.
We were joined by Joonhyung and Desiree Cho. Joon has a masters degree from UNH and works in the intellectual property division of the LSU Agricultural Experiment Station. They had attended the conert with us before, but Joon, is known to the the class as the guy who provides us with a king cake during Carnival season. Last night, he also brought each student a small package of LSU-licensed rice. All he and Desiree got was good music and a pair of “UNH–New Orleans” tee shirts.
After the concert, you could see that the fatigue of the past two days had really set in. A small group of intrepid cultural warriors headed into the City, but most chose to make their way across the lake to the relative comfort of our base in Slidell. I went to Frenchmen Street where I caught a long and enjoyable set by bluesman Walter “Wolfman” Washington at d.b.a. It was tempting to stay for another, but as with the others, the Northshore beckoned.
On Site Wednesday, Mar 14 2012
After weeks of anticipation, the students and leaders were excited to finally get to work. I went with the Baratarians and Los Islenos groups to work with East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity in Slidell. The Wild Magnolias had a 45 minute drive to St. Tammany West. It would have been an early day, even if it weren’t their spring break. The morning yielded slapped together lunches, yawns and sleepy eyes, and a 6:45 a.m. reflection time, all prior to heading for the the work sites.
After some struggles to find work placement for the class, it was heartening to see them all put to work within a few minutes. In a fine example of self-selection, the ones who wanted to use power tools and build a house went to once site; the ones who were just fine with prep work and painting porches went to another. While it proved to be a fine day weather-wise, the preceding rainy days left yards of wet sticky clay and mosquitoes the size of sparrows. A quick run to the store for bug spray and the emerging sun solved the mosquito problem. The clay didn’t go anywhere — besides footwear.
The third group, was over north of Mandeville; it split into two groups. The larger worked on the punchlist for a house outside of Abita Springs. The smaller group stayed behind at Habitat and their adjoining ReStore to work on small projects.
The students seemed very satisfied with the day, clay and all. And it was clear from the Habitat folks that I have talked to that they are quite pleased with the students’ work ethic. As a result, the students will be given more and more complicated projects to work on as the week rolls on.
For me, there were mixed feelings. Even after seven years, the prospect of students using power tools terrifies me. They receive great training, are eager to learn, but… In addition, I am nursing a bad shoulder that is going in for surgery later this month. Thus painting, hammering, and much lifting are out of the question. And that is driving me crazy. I can only watch the students working for so long. To make up for it, I’m volunteering in the kitchen at the Peace Mission Center. It’s fun working with Stephanie and work like chopping and paring doesn’t generally require holding your arm above shoulder level. And, I might learn something new.
After a meatloaf dinner (as much as I cook, I’ve never had the opportunity to put my hands in thirty pounds of ground beef), students gathered for a trip into the French Quarter. They had taken the night before off, and there was shopping to be done on Decatur and Royal, music to e listened to, and beignets to be eaten. I had the chance to see the Treme Brass Band at d.b.a. on Frenchmen. The music was great, especially their versions of “I Ate Up the Apple Tree,” “Big Chief,” and “Bourbon Street Parade.” The crowd seemed well lubricated, as well, which offered entertainment driven by somewhat morbid fascination. A couple of women, in particular, seemed to defy gravity as they lurched in front of the stage. However, by the time I left after the second set, they were still, amazingly, upright.
Most of us were back around midnight. And lights did not stay on long. Morning, and another day of hard work, would be coming soon enough.
Things to Do in New Orleans — Part 1 Thursday, Mar 1 2012
We’re about a week away from heading down to New Orleans. In addition to working with Habitat for Humanity in St. Tammany Parish, we will be experiencing the history and culture of New Orleans. And in looking ahead, we will have plenty of opportunities to do just that.
You’ll be arriving in Slidell next Saturday. If you arrive early enough, we can go into the City. If it a little later, there is a fire pit where we are staying. We can can hang out. Rest after 30 hours on the road. And be well prepared for an action packed Sunday.
On Sunday morning we will head down to the Lower Ninth Ward, ground zero for flooding from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. We’ll head to the intersection of Tennessee and Galvez, once the center of a vibrant and close-knit community. Much of it was washed away in August 2005 and of the all the neighborhoods hit by Katrina, it has been the slowest to be rebuilt. Many of the houses near the levee are the product of Brad Pitt’s Make it Right initiative. The houses are innovative and sustainable. And other charities have built houses in the Lower Ninth. Development has been slow, but it is being recognized as a model of sustainability.
After that, we’ll head over to 1217 Tupelo Street, also in the Lower Ninth. There we will visit one of the most personal museum collections anywhere. We are going to visit Ronald Lewis’ home grown museum, the House of Dance and Feathers. Long before Katrina, Lewis, who spent years repairing street car tracks, began collecting Mardi Gras Indian and Second Line memorabilia from the Lower Ninth of his birth. Remarkably, much of his collection survived the flood. And since, he has built a place for people to come and appreciate his handiwork and the work of others.
Afterwards, I’ll turn you loose. I suspect most of you will head over to Metairie for the St. Patrick’s Parade. There you find beads and catch cabbages. As fun as that sounds, I’ll likely be off chasing a Second Line parade (I plan to catch the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade on March 17th). In the evening, we’ll meet with our friends from UNH Intervarsity for a concert by New Orleans born singer, song writer, guitarist Paul Sanchez. I saw him for a brief set with John Boutte several years back, so I’m looking forward to hearing him again.
Uncharacteristically, we have Monday off, so we will make full use of it. I’d like to hit the City early so we can visit some of the cemeteries. Afterwards, I’ll leave it up to groups. Whether you want to kick around the French Quarter, take the ferry to Algiers, or ride the streetcar uptown — it’s up to you. All I know, we have to back out in Slidell by 1:30pm for a swamp tour on the Pearl River watershed. Hopefully, it will be warm and sunny so that we get bored seeing alligators and other reptiles.
Afterwards, I suspect we’ll head back to the Peace Mission Center, have dinner, gather around a fire, and call it a day. Stay tuned for Part 2. I’m still looking at what music is playing week after next.
Spring Break 2012: St. Tammany Parish, LA Saturday, Feb 11 2012
After three wonderful years of working with Operation Helping Hands in the neighborhoods, 2012 brings a change of scenery for the New Orleans class. Certainly we’ll be visiting the Crescent City as often as we can, but on this trip run by the UNH-Alternative Break Challenge, we’ll be working and sleeping across Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish. Through the years, I had the pleasure of working/staying in St. Bernard and Jefferson, so for me, it will nice to experience another part of Southern Louisiana.
Two thirds of the class (the Baratarians and Los Islenos groups) will be volunteering for East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity in and about Slidell, LA. The third group of nine, the Wild Magnolias, will commute over to Mandeville to work with Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany West. We will all be staying in Slidell at the Peace Mission Center, which is operated by the Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church to provide housing for those volunteering in the area.
And while we will be taking I-10 in and out of the City, the leaders and I are planning outings near our home base. In addition to a swamp tour in the nearby Pearl River basin, it look forward to sampling life and meeting good people in a place that is new to all of us. And if the experience is half as enjoyable as communicating with them long distance, we are in for a great experience.
Spring Break in New Orleans Monday, Jan 16 2012
The title of this post might suggest youthful drinking and exposing body parts for beads, but since Katrina, thousands of college students have gone to New Orleans during spring break to help rebuild a broken city. While much of the country wonders why the job is not finished, anyone who has been out in the neighborhoods in New Orleans knows the extent of the damage wrought by the flood. And that doesn’t even address the fact that New Orleans was in need of quality, affordable long before anyone had equated the name Katrina with a devastating storm.
Since March 2006, a few months after the waters receded, I have worked with dozens of young people who have selflessly given their break from school to help others. They have gutted homes, cleared brush, landscaped, framed walls, spackled, scraped, caulked, primed and painted. And in the process of helping Gulf residents, they have learned about others far different from them…and I suspect they have learned a good deal about themselves.
Since March 2007, I have had the pleasure or working side-by-side with students from the University of New Hampshire. And from that year forward, students in my New Orleans course have been there; initially only a handful, but since 2008 almost every student in the class has made the trip. We have worked in St. Bernard Parish, Waveland, Mississippi, and in neighborhoods throughout New Orleans (Upper Ninth, Faubourg Marigny, Treme, Gentilly, and Carrollton). However, this year is going to be a little different.
We have very happily worked with Operation Helping Hands, a program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans for the past three years. Alas, they have phased out their volunteer program. So this year, the students in the the New Orleans course, in conjunction with the UNH-Alternative Break
Challenge, will be moving across Lake Pontchartrain to work with Habitat for Humanity. Mind you, we will be a presence in New Orleans, but during the day we will be working with two different Habitat for Humanity agencies in St. Tammany Parish. Our work will be centered around Slidell and Mandeville, Louisiana. And we’ll be staying at the Peace Mission Center in Slidell. By the way, the volunteer accommodations and meals come highly recommended.
So on this day, as we celebrate a life of Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent his short time with us peacefully advocating on behalf of others, I look forward to working with another group of students who will generously give their time and creature comforts to move his dream forward.
Operation Helping Hands Monday, Mar 1 2010
Since 2006, I have worked with three different relief operations along the Gulf Coast. Habitat for Humanity needs no introduction. They are the gold standard for building affordable housing for those in need. In 2006, in the wake of the storm, they focused on gutting homes (left). A year later, I joined UNH students working with Habitat on constructing new homes in the Upper Ninth Ward, in and around the Musicians’ Village. In 2008, my students and I worked with Katrina Relief, a small agency operating in and around Waveland, Mississippi. They are a jack-of all-trades organization that contributes much-needed manpower to a hard-hit, yet out of the way section of coastal Mississippi. Then last year, we moved back into New Orleans to work with Operation Helping Hands.
Operation Helping Hands coordinates volunteers for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. They did not exist prior to Katrina, but in the aftermath of the tempest, the Archdiocese fielded thousands of call from people who wanted to serve on behalf of the people of New Orleans. And from the time the waters began to recede from the city, Operation Helping Hands has hosted over 22,500 volunteers. And those volunteers have put in nearly two-thirds of a million volunteer hours. In the process, these volunteers have gutted nearly 2,000 homes. They have built 140 homes with 21 underway. And they have painted 295 additional homes. And my students were an active and involved part of that.
Our experience with Operation Helping Hands was a gift. The food was OK, the housing over in Jefferson Parish was adequate, but the work experience was exquisite. The team leaders were young, energetic and accessible to student volunteers. The work was meaningful and tied to New Orleans neighborhoods. Students came away, not only with a sense of accomplishment, but with the realization that they could exhibit the same level of selflessness as the OHH leaders once they graduate from college.
That is: it was a great introduction to New Orleans; a fine example of service learning; and a tangible model of what direction one may take after graduation. To me, that was the gift to us of working with Operation Helping Hands.