Music and politics are unlikely dance partners, but Needham’s Rebecca Wilson is determined to match them up. The Baton Rouge native has been dancing to the music of Louisiana for as long as she can remember. A Mardi Gras dance at Ryles in February, with its infectiously happy music and outlandish costumes, captured the indomitable spirit of Louisiana’s “Let the good times roll” for Wilson. It also reminded her of the dark cloud of uncertainty hovering over some quarters of New Orleans.
“As a native of Louisiana, I go back fairly often, so I’m acutely aware of how New Orleans is struggling to fully recover. Many people haven’t come back yet because they have no homes to come back to. I want to harness the New Orleans spirit that I felt that night at Ryles and use it to make people aware that the recovery is ongoing,” she said.
“Like many, I watched in horror the pictures of flooded homes and helicopter rescues, and was shocked to read of the slow and chaotic federal response,” Woodbury said. He heard about Common Ground Relief, a small volunteer based group dedicated to immediate cleanup and long-term relief. He packed his bags. His first two trips were in February and April 2006.
Since the group had several legal projects, including eviction defense and police brutality issues, he thought his legal background would be tapped. “But when the v olunteer coordinator noticed that I had put ‘plumbing’ on my list of skills, I got an immediate call, and reported to a house used by the health clinic staff for offices, overflow exam rooms, and sleeping,” he said. By the time he left, there were two functioning bathrooms and a score of grateful volunteers.
A well-timed letter from Woodbury, who happens to love dancing, sent sparks flying in the local zydeco community. His appeal for money, prior to his return to New Orleans in 2008, saying, “Common Ground’s goal continues to be to help restore the Lower 9th Ward by rebuilding homes and by helping bring back the schools, churches, and cultural events that make community possible,” arrived around the same time as February’s Mardi Gras dance.
It’s hard to tell what synapses need to be triggered to transform a person from a spectator to an activist. Wilson knew that Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, and other musicians lost their homes in the Lower 9th. She felt that government agencies had been slow to aggressively support rebuilding there. She had witnessed New Orleans musicians play their hearts out in spite of the pain of being displaced. She vowed to make some music of her own.
Wilson and a core of music lovers created "Help ReBuild New Orleans" to raise awareness and money for the rebuilding effort in the Crescent City. They’re soliciting donations and selling tickets to a music event slated for October 5. Two bands playing a variety of Louisiana based music - blues, New Orleans funk and zydeco - and a great dance floor are all in place. Now they need to fill the hall and raise the money.
Wilson and her cohorts have been bitten by the grass roots bug. They hand out flyers and talk it up with every dancer, band member, club owner and just about anyone else they encounter. Good promotion is the only way they'll reach their goal of raising $10,000.
After research, they decided to send the proceeds to the spunky Common Ground Relief organization whose office is situated on Deslondes Street, in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, a few hundred yards from the levee that was breached in 2005.
Seven days after Katrina devastated New Orleans, four activists launched the Common Ground Relief Collective. It was a grass roots effort and has stayed true to its mission. Short term, the goal is to rebuild. Long term, the goal is to address social and political inequities that the organizers believe have plagued the area long before Katrina put it on the national map.
The ambitious outfit is entirely staffed by volunteers. Rebuilding homes and repopulating the neighborhood with its former occupants is just one part of its mission. Its initiatives are a gumbo of socially progressive programs, including toxin removal, legal assistance, and restoration of the wetlands that have historically protected Louisiana. It’s also one of the 10 organizations in Lower Ninth Ward Community Coalition with the “Make It Right” Foundation begun by Brad Pitt.
Wilson visited Common Ground Relief’s headquarters in August. She talked with Operations Director Thom Pepper, who arrived from Miami to help with the relief operation in 2006. He’s watched the focus change from relief work to rebuilding.
Their assortment of muddy rooms filled with cardboard filing boxes, folding chairs and scrounged desks, has been supplanted by a modest two story building in the heart of the 9th ward near the Industrial Canal. The compact structure contains small rooms for meeting and planning, computers wired to the internet, space for a few office staff volunteers, a shower, and cots for the weary.
“At the end of 2007 spring break, we were having 500 volunteers a week coming here gutting houses and we were cooking 11,000 meals every week on propane stoves in a tent,” Pepper said. Volunteers distributed food and water, set up a legal clinic, a power tool lending library, a clothing center, tested soil and did massive amounts of house gutting.
“We partnered with a licensed general contractor here in Louisiana to build houses. We’ve begun a job-training program, hiring local people and training them in construction skills, and they will be hired to build and do interior finish work here,” Pepper said. Volunteer professional plumbers, electricians, and carpenters help in the training program.
If Pepper can hire and train 60 to 80 local people this year, he estimates that Common Ground Relief could build a house every three months. In spite of a sense of urgency, obstacles exist. City Hall is open weekdays 9am to 4pm, not convenient for working people. Pepper has lobbied for satellite offices with longer hours to make it easier for people to pull building permits. It hasn’t happened.
Pepper emphasized that this is a long-term project. “Eighty percent of New Orleans was in six feet or more of water. This house we use as our office was under 18 feet of water for three weeks, as was most of the Lower 9th,” Pepper said. “To put this in perspective, it took Miami 10 to 15 years to recover from Hurricane Andrew.”
Common Ground has benefited from the help of 20,000 volunteers since 2005. At the time Wilson visited this summer, Pepper said there were 30 volunteers, a half dozen of them long term, who get room and board for their efforts.
“We don’t accept federal, state, or United Way money. All our funding is from foundations and individuals,” Pepper said. "The money allows us to go out to the wetlands and plant trees and grass, do soil testing and bio remediation, and allows us to keep people from having their homes foreclosed. It allowed us to put an 80 year old woman back in her house a hundred yards from here."
Common Ground Relief has agreed to use money raised by Help ReBuild New Orleans exclusively for rebuilding homes. Every penny from Wilson’s Help ReBuild New Orleans fundraiser will be spent on lumber, sheetrock, roofing and the like.
Wilson’s planning group loves the potent culture of music and dance that makes New Orleans vital and irreplaceable. By the time their fundraiser is held at Spring Step in Medford on October 5, they intend that a few hundred New Englanders will become honorary Louisianians for a day.
“I want to capture the joy New Orleans generates and to remind people that this unique city is still suffering. New Orleans needs a rebirth. Pull out your wallets and put on your dancing shoes. This is an opportunity for all of us to help with the baptism,” she says with a smile.