Saturday, August 16, 2008

Background and some personal notes

Brief background about UCLA Law School and New Orleans Reconstruction

When I arrived at UCLA Law School I met Elly and we bonded over the stress of New Orleans reconstruction and naively decided to plan, organize and coordinate the trip to New Orleans this summer.  I am originally from New Orleans and had worked in New Orleans before going to law school.  Immediately after the storm, the predominantly African American and Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans was slated to be a landfill by Mayor Nagin.  When all diplomatic means to shut down the landfill and explore environmentally friendly alternatives had failed, UCLA Law students, Linh Ho ‘07, Rosalind Chan ‘08, and Thuc Nguyen ‘08 were involved in organizing the youth and elderly in the community to stage a direct action against further dumping in the community.  I was very impressed with their work and it became clear to me that law students could play a very unique role in the New Orleans reconstruction process.

Even before Linh, Rosalind and Thuc, UCLA students had organized themselves in 2005 and 2006 to go to New Orleans and work with alum Jen Lai, a youth organizer in the Ninth Ward when the storm hit. When the storm hit Jen returned to UCLA and recruited students through CRS and PILP to organize a trip to go to New Orleans and help with the reconstruction.  Among other success stories, the efforts of the students and Jen contributed to the creation of a Worker’s Center for Racial Justice where Elly had worked before going to law school.

In Spring 2007, another group of students went to New Orleans through a volunteer organization called the Student Hurricane network.  The network has limited capacity and  can be a great resource for general student volunteer service.

In Fall 2007, Elly and I met up and decided that we wanted to help carry on the UCLA Law School and New Orleans reconstruction partnership and also to institutionalize further the relationship so as to establish continuity and accountability by student volunteers in the reconstruction.  Elly and I had strong professional relationships in New Orleans and we leveraged our resources (housing, organizational relations) to seek funding from Dean Schill.  Dean Schill was very generous and helped close the funding gap to make the trip possible.  Further, Elly and I sought support from professors to brainstorm ways to formalize the UCLA Law School student effort to reconstruct New Orleans, focusing specifically on the development of the Worker’s Center for Racial Justice and support for the efforts of legal agencies on the ground, including the Louisiana Justice Institute.


Organizing people, places, events, etc.

Planning and coordinating a trip for sixteen students as a 1L is a time consuming and demanding process.  At this point I think it is important to thank some very key players in the process;

*Tracy Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute, Reverence Vien Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church and other speakers met with the group and shared their insight about challenges in the reconstruction of New Orleans after Katrina

*Elly set up work placements for a majority of the students

*Citadelle help organize the student meetings during the school year. 

*With the help of Robin Barnes of Seedco Financial Services, Xavier University generously provided us free housing for the two weeks (it would’ve cost us over $3,000 otherwise)

*Jarin Jackson's mom opened her home to us and fed us delicious comfort food

We were able to plan some things in advance, some things we could not, and invariably we did not cover everything.


“If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu”Post Katrina New Orleans Reconstruction: An urban development ideological battleground

After the storm I served as the business development director at a community development corporation in the Vietnamese neighborhood in eastern New Orleans.  This summer, I went back to work for the City’s Office of Recovery Management and help put together a proposal for citywide small business development.  Throughout I was engaged in various grassroots organizing efforts and worked closely with the state of Louisiana and city of New Orleans to develop and implement economic development projects.  The following are some of thoughts based on my experience.

After Hurricane Katrina, one thing went without question in the big easy, New Orleans will rebuild.  This commonality unified the city after the storm but the reality of scarcity of resources for the reconstruction of New Orleans quickly sunk in.  Folks in New Orleans have very distinct visions about what to rebuild and how to rebuild.  As you can probably guess, the division of opinion is usually along socio-economic and racial lines.  Do we rebuild based on the areas most heavily devastated or the areas that sit on highest ground?  If they all sit on even ground, do we first rebuild the areas where more people reside or the area with a higher property tax base?  How do we manage the billions of cubic ton of hurricane debris?  Do we and how do we rebuild affordable housing?  The city was almost entirely devastated and this list goes on to ask about almost every basic city infrastructure you can imagine.

For better or for worse, throughout the past three years of reconstruction in New Orleans, those individuals and communities with money and/or state and city political influence have determined the answers to the above questions. And as one wise New Orleanian once said to me, “If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu”.

At the height of battling for resources, I witnessed two minority communities in New Orleans fight at the state senate level about which hood should bear the burden of storing the city’s billions of tons of hurricane debris.  Meanwhile, a more affluent neighborhood, not faced with the same city debris policy, organized itself to pull down over four million dollars (almost twice the average amount for other neighborhoods) for streetscape redevelopment. 

Another example of a clash in ideology in New Orleans redevelopment dates back to a meeting I had when I first returned to New Orleans to serve the Vietnamese community.  At a citywide visioning event, a purported philanthropist requested for a meeting with me.  When I met with him he proposed a plan to develop a sewing factory in our community.  I was open to the idea of job creation and exports but as I inquired further, he proceeded to tell me that he has factories in China and Taiwan and he knows that Vietnamese woman have dexterous hands and can work very fast.  His comment was insulting on so many levels.  Firstly, there was total disregard to this specific Vietnamese American community, their entrepreneurial spirit, and their other capabilities.  More personally, he seemed to have forgotten that I am a Vietnamese woman and that I have no interest in sitting at a sewing machine for his profit.  I relayed this story to a friend from the lower nine who commented that it would be same as going to the lower nine and proposing to develop a cotton field because ‘blacks have strong backs’.

When I returned to New Orleans this summer I learned that the same philanthropist is the co-founder of a major private sector organization that is partnering with the city of New Orleans.  He currently serves as the leader of race relations.  This same group has bought out huge parcels of land in he city and will build exquisite riverwalks for the tourists and wealthy of the community and manufacturing plants in the minority communities. Community culture is being appropriated for tourism, while the up river money continues to feed the hands of anyone willing to see economic development without a social context.

Many have appropriately titled New Orleans a tale of two cities.  And with the limited resources, it seems that these two cities are battling out ideological differences that will shape the future of New Orleans. 

Friday, August 15, 2008

Safe Streets/Strong Communities builds police accountability

For my full-time legal work, I interned at an organization called Safe Streets/Strong Communities . This organization was founded after Hurricane Katrina in the wake of several highly publicized shootings and beatings of unarmed civilians by police officers. New Orleans has a notoriously violent police force– and like everything else in the city, the history is twined together with a history of racism. A local academic traced the history of law enforcement in New Orleans back to slave catchers during the pre-Civil War era. Most of the incidents of shootings and beatings of unarmed civilians by police officers in New Orleans involved African American victims, including the CNN-covered case of the retired African American schoolteacher who was beaten bloody by New Orleans Police while CNN taped the whole incident.

Most people in New Orleans agree that prior to Katrina, violence was a problem in New Orleans. The murder rate in New Orleans post-Katrina has also been very high, with the vast majority of the murders and violence being committed against African Americans. However, people’s opinions are mixed about the cause of that violence and the way to end that violence.

Safe Streets/Strong Communities was co-founded by Soros Senior Fellow and former prisoner Norris Henderson, and it operates on the philosophy that safety does not originate out of increased numbers of police patrolling poor neighborhoods, but instead from low-income communities of color collaborating together to address community violence and raise the city’s level of response and accountability. Safe Streets places great emphasis on the engagement and representation of people in low-income communities of color, since these communities are profoundly underrepresented in the electoral political process. The organization is connected to nationwide fights for racial and economic justice through the national Right to the City campaign , and is simultaneously deeply rooted in New Orleans low-income communities.

The work I did with Safe Streets included:
• Going to a city counsel meeting with an intergenerational group of Safe Streets members – from little girls to grandmas in wheelchairs – all of whom were wearing orange Safe Streets T-shirts and ready to testify about the need for accountability in the city. We had a hard-won victory when council members came out in favor of the Safe Streets-endorsed move to create a position that would independently monitor the actions of the city and the police department. This independent monitor would be funded by city taxes so that he/she would be beholden to no special interest or funding source.
• Working to provide free expungement services to over 200 people who came to a criminal records expungement fair sponsored by Safe Streets and other local organizations. In New Orleans, anyone who has been arrested and booked – even if they were later acquitted or were never prosecuted to begin with – has their picture in the New Orleans crime database, and employers routinely check that database before hiring workers. People who are trying to lead law-abiding lives are frequently excluded from jobs they apply for, even if their names appear in that database because of arrests that never led to convictions. Safe Streets works in collaboration with local lawyers and community members to expunge people’s records and open up people’s access to employment.
• Driving a 16-passenger van to the small town of Jena, Louisiana with a group of lawyers and youth activists to observe part of the trial of one of the young men arrested and charged as an adult following a racially charged fistfight in which only African American young people were charged with offenses . We got to speak to the brother of one of the accused youths, who told us about the white part of town and the black part of town and how he had enlisted in the military to escape the pervasive racism. The white side of town, incidentally, included the only local public school, the courthouse, the township’s official buildings and most of the businesses.
• The vast majority of my work consisted of campaign and policy research. Safe Streets engages in community organizing. Since any community problem can be tackled from multiple angles, one of the most important jobs of legal volunteers is to identify the playing field – who has power, who is making funding decisions, and where change can be created to better people’s lives. I was at the organization during an exciting time, when the organization was working with the vibrant group of community members who defined the work of the organization to develop a major campaign around police accountability. They needed more information about the funding going into and accountability requirements placed on the task forces and private security forces that were pervasive in the area post-Katrina.
After Katrina, a large agglomeration of federal, state and local law and immigration enforcement entities began to collaborate together through task forces. These task forces frequently were amorphous entities – seemingly answering to no one boss and often providing only the most amorphous information to the public – supposedly the ones being protected – about their activities. Were these groups accountable to local authorities? State authorities? Federal authorities? If someone was beaten by a law enforcement agent working in one of these task forces, who would that person go to for redress? And who was monitoring these groups to ensure that they were engaged in effective work that served the needs of the communities they were acting within?
Likewise, immediately after Katrina, many property owners hired private security firms to protect their possessions. These private security firms were likewise question marks for community members. What laws did these people – some of whom were mercenaries and ex-military – follow, and who did they answer to? Were they bound to respect people’s rights as state actors because their responsibilities so paralleled those normally assumed by the state? On a more personal level, where could a mother go if her young, straight-A student son was grabbed on the street while socializing with friends, frisked and beaten by such a security agent?
I was able to research the multiple task forces and security that existed in the region - from drug-specific task forces charged with surveilling the larger state to anti-gang task forces focused on the Asian community (which people from the Asian community found puzzling, since as far as these lifetime residents knew, there was no Asian gang activity in New Orleans).
This information was difficult to track down, and I wished I had more time so I could have started to file FOIA request with state and federal agencies. There were so many pieces of the puzzle, and so many places where basic information – even a phone number or a central contact for a very openly known task force (such as one mentioned in Department of Justice press releases) was unavailable. One thing was clear - there was a lot of federal money being invested in these task forces from entities such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. It was much less clear – and impossible to figure out in a month –what exactly was being done with those millions of dollars and who had oversight over that money and activity.
At the end of my work, I was able to leave Safe Streets with a binder of information around the dozens of task forces operating in their city. I also had to leave them with many questions, some of which would have to be answered by subsequent law student volunteers or which would be revealed in the course of Safe Streets’ work.

Throughout this work, I was able to connect with a wide range of people – community members, lawyers who had been working in their communities for dozens of years, young activists, fellow law students and organizers who were dedicated to working together to improve community conditions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How did the New Orleans Reconstruction Project come about?

Another UCLA law student and myself met each other in the first week of classes and bonded over the work we had been doing in the Gulf Coast prior to law school. We also bonded over our culture shock at being in a place like West Los Angeles where the cars were so shiny and undented, all of the houses aggressively maintained and stray dogs didn’t run in the street. Both of us had been tremendously enriched and challenged by our time in New Orleans, and both of us were clear that this was work that would continue to be important to us. We also felt like New Orleans was falling off the national radar and we knew firsthand the level of work that remained to be done there and the importance of national attention and support.

We discussed ways to leverage our positions of access and resources and law students, and with the financial assistance of our Dean and the Epstein Public Interest and Policy Program and the Critical Race Studies Program, we founded the New Orleans Reconstruction Project (NORP) within the law school. We were able to procure funding to bring 14 other law students down to New Orleans to do two weeks of volunteer legal and organizing work .

As NORP, we recruited a highly diverse group of students who were interested in the issues playing out in the Gulf Coast. We arranged free housing and then provided them with context on the city, including visits to key important places in the city such as the place in the Ninth Ward where the levee broke and the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which provided students with an understanding of the rich and distinct culture of the African American community in New Orleans. We then placed the students at six different community organizations doing work around a wide range of issues from school improvement to immigrant worker safety to access to public hospitals to economic redevelopment for small businesses. These students provided a combined total of over a thousand hours of volunteer services during their time in the Gulf Coast, and were very well respected by the organizations where they were placed.
At the end of the two-week period, the students were impassioned about their work. The organizations they were placed at were uniformly impressed and grateful for the students’ energy, enthusiasm and skills. Many participants volunteered with additional projects and made a lot of additional work happen that otherwise would have fallen on the shoulders of overburdened organizers and community members.

We talked with organizations about ways UCLA Law students could continue to support the reconstruction process in the Gulf Coast, and the group left New Orleans with a bevy of exciting ideas, including encouraging 1L law students to work in New Orleans for their entire summers, having advanced students collaborate with local groups on research, and potentially building a clinical class focused on New Orleans. One of the more unexpected suggestions given to us by a highly respected local civil rights lawyer was to think about bringing students from our entertainment law program down to assist the community of musicians in New Orleans, who formed the heart of the city and a key economic attractor and who also frequently remained impoverished and unable to benefit from their hard work.

We are excited to continue our relationship with the New Orleans work, and already have plans for this upcoming year!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gone Fishin' in New Orleans

Think twice before you take a bite into a catfish po’ boy or dig into a crawfish boil. Our team has feasted on fried crab-cakes, fresh shucked oysters, and spicy shrimp these two weeks. But amidst the abundance of seafood, many people do not know about the commercial fishermen’s struggle after Hurricane Katrina.

My job at Seedco Financial is to explore the fisheries industry in context of the rebuilding process in Louisiana. I took a crash course in “trawlin'” for shrimp and laying oyster beds. Fishing is an industry that often goes under the radar – especially in the context of Hurricane Katrina and the reconstruction efforts.

Louisiana is the largest producer of shrimp, oysters, and crawfish in the United States (supplying 20% of these particular seafood), and this industry also took the hardest hit after the storm. I learned that fishermen hang their livelihood on their boats. After the storm, they lost everything. They have no means to make a living when their boat is destroyed by winds and floodwaters. Most fishermen are self-employed and do not have the capital to fix their boats or qualify for loans to rebuild. They often have very little education, and I’ve even met some older fishermen who are illiterate. It is very hard for them to get back into the waters, but at the same time, they often only know how to make a living by fishing.

I’ve been working with Seedco and the state of Louisiana on their loan/ grant program for commercial fisherman who suffered loss from Katrina. We’re providing them with low interest loans and grants to help them get back onto their feet and start fishing again. Every afternoon, I head out to Plaquemines Parish (a county outside of New Orleans) to staff Seedco’s new Fisheries Assistance Center. A short twenty minute drive takes you out to the rural Southern countryside. Fishermen come from their boats to get information and business assistance from the Center.

Today, I just came back from a town hall meeting at a local high school for fishermen. The State and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries are hosting workshops and meetings for fishermen to learn about financial assistance and grant programs. I’ve never been in a room with so many fishermen my whole life. It’s an interesting experience to hang out and talk to hard-working, down to earth men and women who spend days or weeks out at sea. They play a vital role in Louisiana’s economy, suffered from the storm, and usually are unnoticed by the media.

As a law student from urban Los Angeles, I’ve had next to no experience with fisheries until these two weeks in New Orleans. It’s great to hang out in the rural out-skirts of New Orleans and talk to fishermen. It opened my eyes to a different industry that most law students would never be able to explore. It’s saddening to hear about the losses fishermen incurred from the storm, but at the same time, it’s fascinating to learn about their resilience and determination to get back onto the waters.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Down on the Bayou

I spent my Saturday down on St. John's Bayou in MidCity New Orleans tabling a booth with the Parent Organizing Network at the Bayou Boogaloo Festival. Sireen and I worked alongside two amazing, dedicated women, program director Aesha Rasheed and Shana Turner, providing information about New Orleans public schools to parents and other festival attendees. We fielded questions and distributed the Parents' Guide, a resource for parents that Sireen and I have spent a good chunk of our workdays revising and updating. The guide provides essential information about the ever changing, nuanced landscape of the city’s public education system. Along with the closure and relocation of many schools following the storm, the state takeover of the district and the start-up of numerous charter schools have created a situation that parents and district officials alike have difficulty fully keeping tabs on. Along with organizing and empowering parents to have more of a voice, the Parent Organizing Network works to provide much needed transparency about the application process and the choices parents have about where to send their child for school.

It was an especially hot afternoon on the Bayou, but festival attendees beat the heat by enjoying snowballs, cold lemonade, and New Orleans iced tea. The food was mouth watering (I enjoyed a tasty 12 hour roast beef Po'boy with worcestershire sauce and grilled red onions) and the crafts were fun to browse, but the music was definitely the highlight. On the lineup card were New Orleans legends Rebirth, The Soul Rebels, and Walter the Wolfman Washington with Joey Crown. Needless to say, listening to soul stirring live music and eating distinctive New Orleans cuisine have truly defined my experience in this amazing city.

On Sunday we were back at the Bayou enjoying a truly unique (and rare!) New Orleans experience. It was Super Sunday and the Mardi Gras Indians were out to celebrate a century-old tradition. Mardi Gras Indians are mostly African-American Carnival revelers who dress up for Mardi Gras and Super Sunday in colorful, ornate suits inspired by Native American ceremonial apparel. The tradition was said to have originated from an affinity between Africans and Indians as fellow outcasts of society, as well as blacks circumventing some of the worst racial segregation laws by representing themselves as Indians. Collectively, the Mardi Gras Indians' organizations are called "tribes," ranging from a half dozen to several dozen members. On "Super Sunday," usually held the Sunday closest to Saint Joseph's Day, the Mardi Gras Indians (including children and men and women of all ages) parade through various neighborhoods dancing and playing drums and brass instruments. It was quite a sight and we all felt privileged to be a part of the experience!

A Tail of Two Cities

Being raised in New Orleans, I believe I had slightly different experience than most. In one respect, it was good reuniting with its diverse population, its savory food, and the combination of brass instruments the produces such a unique sound. On the other hand, It was difficult being reminded of just how much work still needs to be done; how many lives still have yet to be returned to something remotely considered normal. Sure, everyone hopes New Orleans is reborn with the same uniqueness that attracted so many to come visit and with the same culture that attracted so many to call it home, but hope is the easy part. How are we supposed to rebuild when so many still don't have jobs? How are we supposed to move on when so much still reminds us of the past?
The fact of the matter is that New Orleans was plagued with problems long before Katrina ever reached its shores. A poor public school system combined with corrupt city officials ensured that no middle class was ever established. This led to a large part of the city's population living their lives lost in a sea of ignorance. This is the same group of people that we expect to be able to rebuild their lives with little or no help from the government. This is the same group that we blame for not having the proper insurance; for not gutting and rebuilding their homes. Is it right then for us to bulldoze the houses that people cant afford to rebuild? Is it right for us to kick people of out their FEMA trailers? The answer to both of these questions is almost certainly no. But how then is the city supposed to progress and put this tragedy behind them? There in lies the problem. Although they both occupy the same physical space, there's two different cities in New Orleans right now. One city who will do whatever it takes to rebuild the city bigger and better than ever before. And another city fighting to keep the little that the most devastating nature disaster in history of the United States has left them.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Seeds of Human Resilence

Today I complete my first volunteer week with Mary Queen of Vietnam, Community Development Corporation (MQVN CDC). I smile while reflecting back on my oh-so-many adventures, mini epiphanies and blossoming relationships that have brightened my stay here in New Orleans.

On one of my first days of work, Tuan Nguyen, the Director of Development for MQVN CDC gave me an extensive tour of East New Orleans, particularly the Versailles Community. He highlighted the devastated areas and the following redevelopment efforts stemmed by community organizing. After Hurricane Katrina, many communities were devastated and the human will to fight became scarce. The Versailles community, which is home to predominantly Vietnamese families, is not unique in this regards. Nearly thirteen miles from downtown New Orleans, the Versailles community stands in the wreckage of thousands of grungy abandoned houses that were once home to the vibrant and booming New Orleans East. Many businesses shut down with no plans to return, and thousands of residents evacuated leaving behind generations of memories. Strangely, in the midst of this desolate backdrop, the Versailles community has sort of emerged like a baby butterfly finding her way back home. After several years of hard work and community commitment, over 1,000 people have returned to Versailles.

I saw the strength of the city as I passed by hundreds of restored homes, and businesses, including restaurants, grocery stores and medical clinics. I hear the tales of children back in public schools, private schools and even newly constructed Charter schools which were recreated to fulfill the developmental needs of the struggling youth. However, out of all the vast development projects I witnessed, the most touching scene for me was a beautifully landscaped patch of land, which was dressed by bursting colorful flowers and lush vibrant greenery. What makes this small plot of land even more striking was the fact that it was surrounded by other empty and desolate nuetral grounds of weed and dirt. This particular vivacious nuetral ground was a community project organized and funded purely by community member, some of which lost everything, but hope. This plot of land represents the hope that the entire community holds onto, in light of the hardships that they were handed. The dirt and weeds represent struggle, in which only community commitment and self-sacrifice can slowly overcome.

Although Versailles is hardly an ideal development, the vast amounts of improvements that have been accomplished in such a short amount of time, despite lacking resources, have become the inspirational force behind the redevelopment of many other devastated communities in New Orleans. The community was certain that if they rapidly rebuilt and occupied their homes, the city government would have to provide services. Perhaps the most important key to their success is that the community refused to place its recovery into the hands of the government. My exploration of this small, yet inspiring community has helped me realize that underneath the ashes of despair, there will always lay the seeds of human resilience: courage, self-sacrifice and love.