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!

No comments: