Monday, February 26, 2007

Spring Break Volunteerism

Students from around the country are heading for New Orleans or elsewhere in the Gulf Coast for spring break in March. What many will find in NOLA is a city that's running out of structurally-sound houses to gut and many neighborhoods already been cleared of debris.

I like to remind people when I give presentations about New Orleans: "The government is going to gut your house." The many tens of thousands of houses gutted around the city with private resources, volunteerism, and neighbor helping neighbor is a great story that deserves more celebration than what it gets.

Anyway, it looks to me like the Age of Gutting has passed its peak. I think instead we're entering an Age of Materials. Lots of debris was taken out of the city. Now there's a growing need to bring in lots more tools and materials for rebuilding.

In the rebuilding, we're also entering an Age of Training and Knowledge. There's a growing need for skilled labor (lots of it!) to perform the physical rebuilding, as well as the organizational skills to manage rebuilding at the most local level. There's also a growing need for volunteers who can help connect tangible rebuilding to the intangible. Like someone who can talk in plain language about the design of a house or the mortgage/insurance issues of a house, in addition to the actual physical rebuilding of a house.

I see a growing need for teachable people, even it's only on a temporary basis, because they're so much work to do and such a variety of skills required.

I see a need for novices who have limited experience with construction and manual labor, but know how to listen, read, learn by doing, ask questions, and generally be resourceful in finding the people and information they need to get the job done.

Or people who can take their general knowledge of standard computer software (e.g., Word, Excel) and apply them to enhance the group efforts of volunteers.

Or people who are comfortable setting up and/or using new technology-driven devices and services that didn't exist 10 years ago.

For New Orleans, the arrival of students is happening at just the right time.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

No, I Wasn't at Mardi Gras

Yes, I have poor timing. If I'm going to spend over 5 weeks altogether in New Orleans - from 6 or 7 trips - within the past 3 months, you'd think that I'd be there for the culmination of Mardi Gras on Tuesday.

Well, I did talk briefly that morning with Gwen Hawkins, the president of the Gentilly Heights Vascoville neighborhood in Gentilly. We are exploring how to take mapping to the next level in a way that's even more impact to neighborhoods and puts additional power and information in the hands of residents. I may be back in New Hampshire (for now), but a portion of my spirit's still in Nawlins : )

Today as I write, there's a group of over two dozen people from a United Unitarian volunteer group mapping the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward. Jo is managing the mapping and data entry of the volunteers from the NENA office on St. Claude Avenue.

There's more stuff building up - the conference, potential project collaborations with NYU and UNC Chapel Hill, and another extended visit to New Orleans in March. I'll leave more of that for future blogs...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lower Ninth Ward: Over Half Way There

Over 50% of the Lower Ninth Ward is now color coded. How it happened was pretty unexpected.

Jeffrey Robinson and I start mapping with Patricia Jones, executive director of NANA (Lower 9th Neighborhood Network Empowerment Association), and two volunteers staying at Common Ground Relief named Rashida and Nick. Unfortunately, the census-block codes given to us for the street addresses aren't really census blocks. Our mapping assignments are consequently pretty cumbersome to use, and mapping is limited. I'm feeling disappointed.

When J.R. takes his scheduled flight home later in the day, I'm pulling back significantly on my expectations for the weekend. After talking it over with J.R, I knew I'd have to significantly rework the address lists we had. So why not wait until Spring Break in March? There would be plenty of visiting students around then. Why push it if we weren't ready yet.

I begin to anticipate a weekend where I might get to lounge around, catch up on projects with a less hurried pace, get more sleep, and perhaps enjoy the city's entertainment without the mapping responsibilities hanging over me for the next day. However, as J.R. would put it later, God had other plans for me this weekend.

I arrive at NANA at 10am (a half hour late) for what I think will be a casual meeting with John, one of the staff members. But in addition to John, three volunteers are waiting for me: Jo, Nicole, and Renee.

I suddenly find myself explaining the significance of mapping and reorganizing the address lists on the spot with Excel. Shortly after 11am, we hit the streets to try out a new mapping assignment system. We are joined by two volunteers from the 7th Ward - Ato and Kendall. Five minutes into the mapping, I am color coding the house of Fats Domino (the classic R&B and Rock & Roll musician who was falsely rumored dead after the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward where he lived).

Jo goes out to look for lunch for the group, while I prepare additional assignments for 5-6 expected volunteers from Common Ground Relief.

The Lower Ninth Ward is composed of 7 census tracts, and we complete one by the end of the day. I get a brief nap in on Saturday night, but get only 2.5 hours of sleep. I'm up preparing new mapping assignments for a Sunday morning start. I try to finish all the mapping assignments for the Lower Ninth Ward, but discover that I'm missing addresses for the Holy Cross section of the distict. So I can prepare assignments for all but 2 census tracts.

I hope to get at least one census tract done. It all depends really on who shows up to volunteer. Sunday's haven't usually good days to map. Too many competing activities happening with residents, e.g., their (and/or my) attending religious services and football. And the Superbowl was today.

This morning we have 10 volunteers. Jo becomes a field coordinator, developing more detailed assignments for the afternoon and staying behind at today's base (a community-kitchen camp) to meet arriving volunteers and be a source of communication for walkers in the field.

Some volunteers can only map in the morning and leave. We gain a couple volunteers midday. Then a wave of 6 new volunteers arrive in the early afternoon. So today, we finish 3 census tracts rather than 1 that I was hoping for. Four of the seven tracts are done. Of the three remaining, Jo has prepared detailed assignments for the one remaining tract we have addresses for.

It's Sunday night, and I'm staying up late (again) so that I can prepare the address lists that we are missing from the Holy Cross area. This afternoon I brainstormed with James, a volunteer from Minnesota who just arrived in New Orleans yesterday while riding his bike around the country. I was talking about the lack of address lists for one area while James and I were mapping together. He had some ideas and convinced me that indeed I could generate the address lists we need overnight. However, I have a flight out on Monday morning...and won't be back until next weekend.

Fortunately, Jo has stepped up to help manage the mapping process in my absence. There are lots of issues to figure out, but she knows what to do. Particularly after her experiences today. I succeeded in preparing the address lists for the Holy Cross area tonight, so we are positioned to finish the Lower Ninth Ward.

We've already crossed 50%, and I'll be in town next weekend to help finish if I'm needed.

Color Codes - Meaning

For those who have emailed/posted to ask. We are documenting rebuilding of each street address/property by one of the following colors:

RED - blighted
YELLOW - gutted
GREEN - demolished, vacant lot
BLUE - significant renovation, or occupation

So when you view the Gentilly Map, this is what the colors mean.

Friday, February 02, 2007

"Oh, you're back..."

After I arrived in New Orleans and stepped into the hotel yesterday, the woman behind the front desk casually looked up at me and said: "Oh, you're back..."

The blog has been silent, but I've been up to a bit. In addition to fighting a lingering cold.

Jeffrey Robinson and I coincided our trips down to New Orleans, and he is helping me kick off mapping in the Lower Ninth Ward this morning. About a week ago, his research assistants at New York University (Ndidi, Mike, and Rich) went to work preparing the mapping assignments that we will use this weekend.

Back at Dartmouth on Wednesday night, we had a data entry party for the Gentilly mapping. We finished inputting several more neighborhoods. Lots of the graduate student crew from December was there: Sarah, Abbey, Nick, Owyn, Zsuzsa, Harsha, and Nate.

I saw Amanda Soprano sing at Dominic's last night. She has a new band. They're UNO students. It was a good time.

Now, Jeff and I are off to breakfast and mapping.