Katrina Volunteer

From July 10 to July 31, 2006, I went to New Orleans as a volunteer with a non-profit organization called People’s Organizing Committee (POC). This organization’s main goal was to get the people most affected by Hurricane Katrina to play a leading role in rebuilding New Orleans. One year after the storm, the lower income communities still have not received proper care or been helped to rebuild their homes. POC decided to “get hands on” with helping these communities. The organization did this by having volunteers work with the victims of Katrina.

The volunteers did two things when working with POC. One group gutted residents’ houses that were most affected by the storm. This group basically took everything out of the house until nothing was left but its frame. This group mostly worked on houses in the lower ninth ward, a mainly low-income community. While the “gutting group” was gutting, another group was canvassing in different communities in New Orleans to invite residents to a Survivors Council. In this Survivors Council, POC guided the residents to organize their community’s top priorities. Some of these communities’ issues were building schools for the kids, building hospitals for the sick, and getting the residents back in their homes. For three weeks I did this as a volunteer. This trip was an experience of a lifetime, personally and educationally.

Personally, before the trip, so much anger was building up in me as I lived and saw the conditions Black and Latino communities are living in. I felt this trip was not only an eye opener, but also an emotional cooler. Basically, POC’s way of logically thinking through situations taught me to turn my anger into something useful, perhaps moving me to take a leading role in changing the direction of my communities’ lifestyle or to join groups that agree with my views to make a change.

When I went to New Orleans and actually experienced a taste of what the lower class residents of New Orleans were going through, I became angrier. But the more time I stood down in New Orleans, I began to realize that being angry wasn’t useful to myself or my community. In fact, it caused more harm than good. I soon began changing my whole attitude, and instead of being angry at the world, I realized I could fight passionately and smartly against the oppressor. What really inspired me were the Katrina victims. Just seeing how badly they were being treated by the government, I thought they would be angry and sour but instead they didn’t let their condition bring their spirit down. These people were open-hearted and God-loving and didn’t even show how angry they were. They fought for their homes, fought for their rights, and never gave up. Now I feel at peace. I feel like I’m ready to take on the world with a different attitude, a different understanding of myself. It may be tough, but I feel like I left New Orleans with a burden on my shoulder to change how minorities are treated in America.

This trip was also educational: I learned a lot about class-ism, racism and sexism. These issues were brought up in several conversations down in New Orleans. POC’s staff encouraged me to approach these issues logically and strongly which allowed me to take a stance on all of them. These issues are so large and complex I can’t give you a solution for any of them, but this experience allowed me to think “out of the box” and attack some of them in my daily routine. For example, in my culture, the word “bitch” is a common word in speech directed to females. I was educated about how that might be sexist and how that affects how I treat women.

Another thing I learned when working with POC was bottom-up organizing. Bottom-up organizing is basically expecting the people at the bottom to take power in organizing whatever needs to be done in their communities. Instead of having the rich higher class or politicians make the decision for the working class, the working class should make the decisions telling the politicians what they need to do. This was POC’s main goal and view and by working with this organization more and more, I understood bottom-up organizing and why it is key for America to function correctly with it.

I learned a lot of cultural things in New Orleans. Jazz is big down there so I learned a lot of interesting facts about jazz. Also, the housing structures down there were built by slaves and hold a lot of stories in the structures. The most interesting thing I learned was that in New Orleans, the deceased are buried above ground.

Overall, the experience was a life-changer. I came to New Orleans confused with my life and where it was heading, and I left ready to move onto the next chapter prepared. Now I know what direction I want to go in life. I don’t want to be stuck in the “ghetto” all my life. I want to be the wise old man that lived through the darkness, but found a spark of light and used that one spark to move on and live in light. This trip was that spark. Even though it was only three weeks, this experience built my character a lot. This experience made me less passive and more aggressive with my future, more focused on the task at hand, less focused on my peers and girls. I learned to express myself and not close myself when people don’t understand where I’m coming from. It may seem like all of a sudden I woke up a new man, but I see it like this: I just needed to clear my mind and really think about life in a new environment and not in chaos, which I’m usually the center of. I want to thank Herb Mack and the staff of Urban Academy for never giving up on me and allowing me to experience this trip. Thank You.

Urban Academy Laboratory High School
Urban Academy Laboratory High School, “a small school with big ideas,” is a public high school in Manhattan, is a CES Mentor School. In addition to being affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, Urban Academy is a part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium.

Julius Rainey is a recent graduate of the Urban Academy Laboratory High School in New York City. Formerly a Harlem resident, Julius now lives in the Bronx. He spent a good part of this summer in New Orleans working with the People’s Organizing Committee and the Survivors movement. Julius is also an accomplished artist who works as a painter, illustrator, and photographer.