Spring Break on the Gulf Coast

This spring break, undergrad and graduate students across the country are going to be heading down to Biloxi, Miss., Mobile Ala., and New Orleans, La. Not to party hearty, or to get their groove on at clubs catering to them and their dollars, but to help make a difference in the lives affected most by the biggest natural disaster to hit the United States in recent history, thanks to the organizing efforts of the Katrina on the Ground initiative.

"A lot of people are going to want to go to New Orleans because of how the media has displayed New Orleans. But my choice is to go to Alabama and Mississippi, first, because, I have a personal connection," said Chazeman Jackson.

Jackson, 26, is a microbiology Ph.D. student at Howard University who will be spending her spring break in the Gulf region, hopefully in Mississippi, where she's originally from, and where she got her undergraduate degree.

"I'm really, really excited about this … A lot of times, people judge this generation of students as apathetic. But this is a call, and I think a lot of our age group is going to answer that call," said Jackson. "We're not a lost generation. We do care. And we don't just care, we organize ourselves and mobilize ourselves."

We caught up with one of the lead organizers of Katrina on the Ground, long-time activist, Kevin Powell, during one of his speaking engagements in Ohio. According to Powell, if Katrina on the Ground is a success this spring, the initiative will be back this summer for another round of students to take part in. Powell and fellow organizers are hoping for at least a thousand students to attend this March.

Celina R. De Leon: How did you become involved with Katrina on the Ground?

Kevin Powell: I was one of the folks who came up with the idea for it, so I've been involved since the very beginning. I organized two Katrina benefits in New York, one in September and one in December. And I went down to New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston, about a week after everything went down. It's been something very near and dear to my heart since the very, very beginning.

When [a group of us] were talking about what we can do, I thought about my years in college in the late '80s and my involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. And I knew we needed to go down there.

CDL: Can you explain further the four main goals of the initiative -- physical and emotional reconstruction, legal education and assistance, and financial literacy?

KP: Having been down there, I knew for a fact, that there is an obvious need for human help. There are a lot of great organizations on the ground and coalitions of all kinds, but there is still a shortage of human help … For example, help cleaning up the area. They need people to help build new houses. And certain places should actually be deemed unlivable because of how bad they were hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Another need is the fact that this is an incredibly traumatic experience. And so for us, it's about making sure students know that there's a need for sensitivity with these folks in the community -- that [students] are not just talking to them, or with them, but actually listening. I know from being in New York -- we've been doing a lot of work with the Katrina survivors who are living in hotels there, which FEMA is trying to kick folks out of now -- one of the basic things people just need to do is unload their stories. This means listening, and also collecting oral stories, because it's now a part of America's tragic history. So, in our recruitment, we also have a lot of psychology majors, etc. … This is just very important when talking about how trauma affects people and how it carries out through several years, especially when it's not handled properly.

In terms of financial literacy, a lot of the working class people -- we saw poor Blacks, but there are also poor white folks, poor Latino brothers and sisters, and Haitians who lived in the surrounding areas who were affected by [Hurricane Katrina]. Class was not orchestrated by Hurricane Katrina, but it was definitely exasperated by it. And so trying to get people to understand that we might not be dependent on the government to move forward, so what are some of the things that we need to do financially to move forward. For example, while we were at the Astrodome we noticed some people got their hands on the government checks for $2,000, and these folks were going out buying Xboxes and sneakers, and stuff like that. In this country, we're conditioned to think that once we get money, we need to spend it. So what we mean by financial literacy is we have to educate people that just because you have money doesn't mean you need to spend it.

We also need to bring back jobs to the community.

[In terms of civil rights and legal education and assistance], there's supposed to be a mayoral election in April. And you know, folks are scattered all across the country. So, who's going to vote? You're not there, but you're not there because of a natural disaster. And so what we have is people not participating in the election of the mayor and of the city council, who will be representing their state for the next four years. So here we go again, back to people paying taxes in this country and not being part of the democratic process. These are the things we're talking about …

We also need to focus on all of these issues, and see links between them, and not just focus on one -- or justifiable battles.

CDL: Are you hoping Katrina on the Ground will spur a bigger movement in this country?

KP: Yeah, I think so. I see this as a national mobilization of all these different forces that have been operating, and how can we come together and link this thing around the issue of jobs, around the issues around a woman's right to choose, the issues around the war in Iraq. How do we organize people to form linkages between all these different things?

The Left is not really going uphill, like it did a generation ago when I was in college during the apartheid movement … It died for a lot of reasons, which I can't get into right now, but it's our turn. It's as simple as that. And what I mean by it's our turn, I mean Generation X -- 30-somethings like myself -- and Generation Y -- teenagers and 20-somethings -- it's our turn, we've got to do it.

CDL: Who will students be working with once they're down in the Gulf region?

KP: Students will be working with local organizers. One of the things we wanted to recognize when we went down there is to recognize and respect local leadership. In what we're calling "The 21st Century Leadership Camp," students will be given an orientation to prepare them for what they're about to go through. Think about it, lots of students have never been to the South. Lots of people have lots of biases about the South. But what's important is that they understand the cultural, geographical terrain that they're going to enter.

And No. 2, really trying to prepare the students to work with local organizers. So a lot of the workshops that they're going to be doing in orientation will be local organizers actually leading them. And they'll just plug in and be shipped out to the different cities.

When we did our benefit in September [2005] in New York City, and everyone was focusing on the one hosted by the American Red Cross, we had over 1,000 people, and no media came out. Most of the times, activists and organizers are not covered, and then people turn around and say, "Young people aren't doing anything." And I'm like, "How can you say that when young people are doing something, and you choose not to cover it?" It's just really ridiculous.

One of the things we're clear about, we don't want younger leaders to become the media whores that the older leaders were. This is not about one person. I'm opposed to male-centered leadership … And it's got to be leadership that understands that, which is what we're going say when we get down there for orientation -- this is a movement of inclusion. We don't care if you're black, white, Latino, Asian, male or female, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual -- we just want you to care about other human beings. It's as simple as that. We have to start saying what a progressive coalition is going to look like, and if you're going to be a leader, you're going to have to have the ability to bridge gaps -- the cultural divide.

CDL: Do you provide housing for the students?

KP: Students are going to be staying, just like in the '60s, in the local community with local families. It's all set up. If it goes well, which I think it will, we'll have people coming down in massive waves in the summer as well.

CDL: And what do you have to say to students, who, for whatever reason, can't take part in Katrina on the Ground? What can they do to help?

KP: They can spread the word. They can have Katrina on the Ground workshops on their campuses. Or, we're going to be doing a documentary on the whole thing. We have a number of students bringing cameras. You can make sure that you get someone on your campus to show it. And to also understand, this is the first wave, it will be happening again in the summer.

Also to really just get the word out there. And just really educate yourself around race and class in this country. Hurricane Katrina really floored a lot of folks. And gender issues, a lot of people who were affected by [Hurricane Katrina] were poor single women.

To learn more about opportunities to join the Katrina on the Ground project, visit their website at Katrinaontheground.com.

Students are asked to commit to volunteering for at least one week between March 6 and March 31, 2006. Students will arrive in Selma, Ala., at the 21st Century Youth Camp site on three successive Sundays: March 5, March 12 and March 19. A one-day orientation will occur on three successive Mondays: March 6, March 13, and March 20.


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