Thursday, July 12, 2007

Road Blocks - New York Times

There was a really interesting article on those stranded away from New Orleans in the New York Times today.

Road to New Life After Katrina Is Closed to Many

CONVENT, La. — This was not how Cindy Cole pictured her life at 26: living in a mobile home park called Sugar Hill, wedged amid the refineries and cane fields of tiny St. James Parish, 18 miles from the nearest supermarket. Sustaining three small children on nothing but food stamps, with no playground, no security guards and nowhere to go.

No, Ms. Cole was supposed to be paying $275 a month for a two-bedroom house in the Lower Ninth Ward — next door to her mother, across the street from her aunt, with a child care network that extended the length and breadth of her large New Orleans family. With her house destroyed and no job or savings, however, her chances of recreating that old reality are slim.

For thousands of evacuees like Ms. Cole, going home to New Orleans has become a vague and receding dream. Living in bleak circumstances, they cannot afford to go back, or have nothing to go back to. Over the two years since Hurricane Katrina hit, the shock of evacuation has hardened into the grim limbo of exile.

“We in storage,” said Ann Picard, 49, cocking her arm toward the blind white cracker box of a house she shares with Ms. Cole, her niece, and Ms. Cole’s three children. “We just in storage.”

Source: New York Times (Full Article, No Registration Required)

Submitted by Nader Mohyuddin

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Crossing Cultures (Poorly) -- Randy Chen

I suppose I learned today that being American doesn't always matter. But I learned other stuff too.

I was finishing my day at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, sitting on the steps where the kids board their buses to go home. I appreciated the moment of repose—it was a long day trekking from museum to museum in the French Quarter trying to keep an eye on all 25 children who were all clearly exhilarated to be out of the classroom.

And then I saw a boy, about ten, teasing a smaller boy, about seven, heckling him and shoving him around. The larger boy stood up tall to maximize the height difference, puffed out his chest, and pulled his backpack up his back by the straps with his elbows out, and jutted his bottom lip out in one impressive picture of intimidation and to all this, the smaller boy slunk away.

Feeling the wisdom of the twenty one years in me rise up, I decided to address this. I barked at the older boy who was smirking and proudly relishing his newly acquired power wrought from pushing down someone weaker. I chastised his inconsideration of feelings and admonished him for bullying someone smaller than him.

And to all this he stared at me, considering me for a minute before replying with nothing but a sneer and a quip: “You Chinese,” delivered with the warped inflection of a mimicked accent. Oh, and, of course, he concluded with a requisite mock kung-fu pose with one open palm outstretched facing downward somewhat reminiscent (or so I’m told) of a crane.

Obviously, this is an unfortunate happenstance of cultural insensitivity. I should be angry about having the accent which my own parents speak in mocked with a sing-song tone of condescending derision, I should be livid that all I was to this kid was some misconceived extension that he had gleaned from kung-fu movies and that anything I had to say was null, void, and silly in light of this ancestral caricature of presumed heritage.

So I opened my mouth to say something in response and that’s when words failed me. What could I say? A harsh retort would only make him more hostile. A firm explanation of why what he said was wrong would only make him more resentful (and he only had a few minutes before he caught his bus—hardly the time to bring up a conversation about racism, especially with a ten year old). Understanding, it seemed, couldn’t possibly be squeezed into today’s agenda.

I ended up saying something vague around the lines of, “You can’t say those things,” to which the kid just stared at me indignantly and turned around to board his bus. Clearly, I didn’t get through.

It’s funny when situations in life rise up and you know exactly, at that instant, what the right thing to do is, but within the context of the strict contract between morals and their execution, the closest action to being right is simply nothing.

And it’s frustrating to no end.

Take a Wish- Alicia Zelek

I love fountains. As a child I vividly remember begging my parents for quarters and tossing them into the fountain while making a wish. Hearing the sound of the coin dropping in the water and watching where it lands was a thrilling experience. I would put a lot of effort into making the perfect wish and whenever I failed to come up with just the right one I would beg for another coin. Standing by them listening to the sound of the water falling and feeling the splashes is a comforting experience. I feel closer to nature and distanced from everything else around.

On my last week working with the children at Ben Franklin Elementary we took them on a field trip to the Wax Museum and the Cabildo. While walking around the French Quarter through Jackson Square, the kids noticed a fountain and of course stopped to play in it. While I was immersed in my own thoughts, I failed to notice 8 of the younger kids were practically throwing themselves in the water. They were not throwing coins in but rather were reaching in to fetch the coins out of the water. They were collecting them in their hands and holding onto them. Some threw them back into the fountain while others I’m sure kept them. The other teacher I work with, a humorous Southern respected lady, yelled “Demons put those back, you do not want to have bad luck for the rest of your life.” However, the kids did not pay a bit of attention either because they did not understand English or pretended not to. It took us about 15 minutes to get all the kids out of the water. The teacher later told me she had never seen a sight such as this and I had to agree with her. Neither had I.

This experience struck me for several reasons. Working with underprivileged minorities in New Orleans made me realize the obvious, there are many things I often take for granted. However, it also demonstrated to me the mentality with which many of these underprivileged children in NOLA are raised. At our meeting on Sunday Sister Beth likened post-Katrina New Orleans to the California Gold Rush. People come to make as much money as possible and then get out. Many of the families I work with, especially those of Hispanic descent, recently came to the New Orleans for economic reasons because of the increase in job openings after the hurricane. Many of them have moved to NOLA temporarily and have indefinite plans to move elsewhere. Their children are raised with the guiding notion they need to do everything in their power to survive and they go about doing so whichever way they can.

Now as I pass by fountains, particularly the one in Jackson Square, I cannot help but imagine 16 arms dangling in the water and 16 feet dangling out taking wishes from all circumferences of the fountain. My image of fountains has changed but my outlook on life has bettered. While I have no regrets that my childhood was guided by the Disney fairytale notion of making a wish, I am open to this new alternative; I hope one of them took my wish.

Mom, Dad, and Sam Know Best- Jenny Heffernan

A very wise man (or woman) once remarked on the beauty of a child’s innocence. A presumably equally wise person commented on the importance of experience. My mom and dad, perhaps the wisest of all, have told me to forget what other people have said, and figure it out on my own.
And… figure it out I did. At the very least, I am attempting the task, using an interesting combination of intuition, deduction, and random valuation skills picked up along my academic career at our beloved Duke. Revealing the oft-mentioned “nerd within” that is said to dwell in each Duke student, my confusion surrounding the merit of naiveté has taken the form of an internal cost-benefit analysis, known to us Public Policy majors by the ever cool abbreviation, CBA. With each experience in Nola, my own personal innocence is made strikingly obvious, and I resultantly alter my CBA to reflect my observations.

At work, for example, I have found my lack of experience somewhat hindering. Upon arrival at the NOHD, I anticipated a summer of changing the world- or, at the very least, New Orleans. Taking in the busy office, I envisioned myself re-opening the multiple health clinics still closed due to Katrina, single-handedly. I was going to be able to practically run this office come August. Then, however, came reality, aka my first staff meeting. There, I became painfully aware of the foolishness of my thinking. Did I really think I could simply just re-open a clinic? Clearly, there are political, financial, and logistical barriers to that which I thought manageable. Why had I thought that I, an undergraduate student with relatively no experience, would be able to accomplish that which the bevy of degreed professionals in the Health Department had not? An entry for the “costs” category was made.

Taking the form of a counter-argument strong enough to get any academic’s heart racing, the benefits of innocence have been equally convincing. On the 4th of July, this benefit took the shape of Sam, a precocious 11 year-old reveler at the St. Bernard Parish festival. Speaking candidly with me about the storm, Sam remarked, “Things were really messed up. But they’re better now. They’re great. I’m always going to live in New Orleans; who’d want to miss out on this?” Ignoring, or perhaps simply unaware, of all of the issues plaguing the adults regarding Nola’s future, Sam maintained an unshakeable optimism for, and love of, his home. His attitude, while perhaps ignorant of important issues, provides him, and those like him, the ability to continue into the future; while it may contain things unknown, Sam knows it contains great things. Mark one of the benefits.

While my tally is still developing, I find myself leaning towards Sam’s point of view. Realism may be handy in tackling technical issues, but nothing can be accomplished without some sort of faith that the goal is actually achievable. For now, therefore, my rose-tinted glasses will stay put, for, as a wise man (or boy) once said, “who’d want to miss out on this?”

Chickens and The Wild West - Nader Mohyuddin

Balloon Festival in Albuquerque; French Quarter, New Orleans

Sometimes you don't really know a place until you leave it.

And leave New Orleans I did.

I spent my 4th of July "weekend" in what seems a virtual opposite of New Orleans today, despite sharing a variety of similarities. Albuquerque--my destination--and New Orleans are both cities with deep roots in history, with a well-preserved Old Town and French Quarter, respectively, keeping the traditions rich, colorful, and alive. Catholicism plays a role in both cities, though far moreso in New Orleans. Both are diverse cities with traditional race relations turning a new page with growing immigrant communities. Both are ridiculously hot in July.

But for every gutted house and FEMA trailer in New Orleans, there is a brand new, trendy housing development or office building going up in Albuquerque. While New Orleans' death rate skyrockets, Albuquerque's quality of life gets accolades from publications. Just this past year, Forbes ranked the city as the best in the country for business, with good scores across the board and the lowest cost of business in the country. High tech companies like Intel, and smaller boutique firms doing everything from genetics work to the first mainstream production of electric cars, to private jet design.

Even the landscapes are vastly different: where New Orleans is hugged by a mighty river, Albuquerque is built in the foothills of a gigantic mountain. And sometimes, it's the smallest of touches that make all the difference: where New Orleans roads are full of gigantic pot holes, complex mazes of one way streets, and parked cars on every curb, the usually boring-but-efficient interstate in Albuquerque has Native American artwork lining rocky median (there's not much grass around), stone lane dividers painted in an adobe and blue scheme to mimic the desert and the sky, and roads smooth as fresh butter.

Moonrise over Albuquerque and Sandia Mountain

I say this not to make New Orleans sound bad. It isn't. But it does highlight the tremendous challenges that lay ahead of this city, and what it needs to revitalize. Housing is certainly a big part of the puzzle. But in order to catalyze the renewal of New Orleans, better efforts must be made to attract business. Not many companies were attracted to the city before Katrina. It had little competitive advantage over other cities, and a variety of negatives (including a struggling public school system) that put it behind the rest of the pack.

But with the influx of federal money being pumped into this area (albeit mired in federal, state, and local bureaucracy), there is certainly money that can be spent on economic revitalization. Many local businesses, boutiques, and restaurants have re-opened, which is a beautiful sight to both a native New Orleanian and a free-market capitalist alike. But New Orleans could certainly take a page from Albuquerque's book to attract big businesses, which could give jobs to many, attract thousands to return home to New Orleans, and pump millions of dollars into the local economy. Tax holidays, fee and permit waivers, incentive programs, and selective land-grants could all work together to make New Orleans better than ever.

Like ABQ (an abbreviation people of all ages use, unlike ATL), New Orleans is a city without a tremendous amount of endemic resources that would attract business. Combine that with the disastrous effects of Katrina, and the comparisons to a developing country/economy are all the more apt. And just as post-colonial Latin America reacted to its export pessimism with the development of ISI strategy, so too could New Orleans help develop its "domestic" (local) economy through its specific policies. While this temporarily limits free-trade, it ultimately generates far more income mobility (if not equality), and an overall stronger economy with more jobs.

Central Business District during Katrina Flooding

A big hurdle to this is poultry. But instead of a chicken and an egg and an existential quandary regarding their temporal relation, theres about a thousand chickens and a thousand eggs, no one knows who came first, no one knows which egg belongs to whom (perhaps the other way around), and the resources with which to figure out this dilemma are available, but hoarded by a fat, slow farmer with whom everyone is frustrated, even the normally docile, mute eggs who have no means with which to even feel frustrated, but are frustrated no less.

Housing. Jobs. Schools. Infrastructure. City government. Environmental issues. Planning for the next hurricane. Crime. Clean up. Restoration. Revitalization.

You get the idea. But what comes first?

Developing affordable housing for New Orleans.

Despite my desire to use economics and the marketplace to restore New Orleans, I'm glad I'm doing housing development. Sure, it's part of the same puzzle, a feather on the chicken. But given all that coming home means to the people of this city--the people of any city--it's perhaps one of the most important steps in the whole process. Homes, porches, and evening conversations in the sunset wake all mean a lot to this place. Getting back to work and putting kids through school are no doubt hugely important, but having four walls and a roof make all the rest much easier.

Jackson Square and Saint Louis Cathedral, New Orleans

I thought I knew New Orleans pretty well in my month here. And I was amazed at the progress the city itself had made. Granted, Gentilly and Lakeview are still in shambles, and some areas of the Ninth Ward are in complete ruin. Those are enormous issues. But the flavor of the city, the jambalya mix of sweat, sin, and jazz that dances in the thick bayou air like smoke from a late-night cigarette, is already filling the lungs of New Orleanians throughout the city. I thought I had caught a whiff of it in my time here.

And maybe I did.

But leaving the city and seeing the progress other areas have made, and are still making, really throws into sharp relief the challenges facing New Orleans, the challenges everyone talks about but perhaps few actually have a real feel for, let alone solutions.

It is my hope, however, that come August, when we're moving out of our rooms and trekking back to our comfortable homes throughout the country and the world, that we'll leave with more answers than questions, with more solutions than problems, and with more conviction than hope.

Took My Chances on a Big Jet Plane - Michael Koler

The Dilemma

IN the scatter storm that was spring semester 2007, I found myself, along with the vast majority of the junior class, precariously balancing an exhaustive internship search along with the normal academic workload. The Public Policy Studies degree (my major) actually requires an internship to be filled in the government or non-profit sector. I was (fortunately) disqualified from any financial or business-related internship – the i-banking/consulting recruiting blitzkrieg that storms Duke in late January is a beast all of its own... At any rate, I had a relatively specific sector to which my internship search would be targeted. This, in essence, meant that I was carpet-bombing my résumé into the office of every think tank, government office, and 501(c) in Washington. Because I’m on financial aid, non-paid internships were out of the question. I would find a paid internship!

Not surprisingly, K Street disagreed. I received decline after decline. By mid March, prospects were grim.

Eventually, by way of a rerouted e-mail, I learned about the DukeEngage New Orleans program at just about the same time I cheated and applied to a for-profit, private corporation that had managed to fall under the PPS internship umbrella, as a “government sector” job. The corporation? The military contractor, Raytheon International. While lacking the notoriety of a DynCorp or the shadow-factor of the Carlyle Group, Raytheon certainly does its fair share of arms dealing.

Telling people I was interviewing with a defense contractor typically drew two different responses: trigger-happy gung ho praise, especially from Halo obsessed slackers and most of my male friends; and mildly veiled disappointment from some of my more idealistically attuned peers who thought that at the tender age of twenty-one I was already selling out to help make war machines. As finals approached, I had narrowed my options down to DukeEngage NOLA and Raytheon.

It actually turned out to be quite an ironic choice dilemma, given that my summer options could essentially be delineated as 1. sell missiles; or 2. help people. (It would probably be fair to say that Raytheon was also paying, as well.) Of course, nothing is quite as black and white as 1 and 2, and so for a two week period I debating the pros and cons of both choices. I made it through the 2nd round at Raytheon and had my final interview scheduled a few days after my last exam. Amid research papers and final presentations, I debated what I had slowly managed to construe as one of the most important choices of my young life (Destroy or create! Profit or non-profit!) I started to add unnecessary weight and meaning to the decision. And so with oh so serious alacrity, I set about seeking advice from my family and friends.

I asked my roommate what he thought. “Financial security, Michael. Don’t think that you have a guaranteed job out of college. Don’t think that 30k in loans will be a cute little capuchin monkey on your back. It’ll be a fat and pissy half ton gorilla.”

I asked another one of my friends. “Spending a summer picking up trash so you can feel good about yourself is pretty odd, Mike. What difference are you going to make, anyway? But you still got to ask yourself: you trying to get yours first?

My sister disagreed. “If any place needs people, it’s New Orleans. Don’t you want to have an edifying summer experience helping people? Do you think you’ll get that in Duke in DC?

I asked my father. “Never been to New Orleans. Sounds pretty neat. Although I’ve been doing a little research Raytheon. That’s the kind of company you’d want to find a job at after you graduate.”

My mother, as usual, made a concerted effort to hide her real opinion and suggested I do whatever sounded best. I finally turned to my brother, to whom in times of crisis I typically genuflect and ask. He had originally been very much in favor of Raytheon, but he called me later during finals week to express his ultimate opinion.

In a few words, he swung a red state blue.

“Mike, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in an office. Don’t be in such a rush to put on a suit. I’m sure you’ll be in DC sometime in the future. But I’m not so sure you’ll ever get a chance to be in New Orleans.”

It made a lot of sense. My brother took the business route after college, bouncing between Chicago, Boston, and Connecticut along a path to “financial security.” Perhaps he is jaded on the suit and tie culture, but I grant him the wisdom of a brother five years my senior. And I’m not bull-headed enough to ignore that.

I call Raytheon the next day and cancel my interview.


And so for a summer, I say no to the private sector; no to a suit; no to the imagined prestige I associate with big corporations and government. I pull an about-face and say hello to an ill-planned and oddly placed trading post on the Mississippi River.

Let’s take our chances with that jet plane over there, with the fleur-di-lis emblazoned on the wing. I think Dulles can wait.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bringing Light to St. Bernard - Clark Daniel

Pretty noble sounding title, right? I like to joke around with myself and imagine that my job is much more grand than it actually is. When I arrived down the way in St. Bernard Parish I had no idea or expectations about what I would be doing. You probably have not heard of Chalmette, Arabi, or Meraux in the news following the aftermath of Katrina- but you should have. You would be surprised at how accurate and corroborating each individual’s account of the extent of destruction is. My guess is that it is not hard to be accurate when only 3 buildings in the entire parish were habitable following Katrina. Now, why haven’t you heard these small towns in eastern New Orleans mentioned on the nightly news when the destruction there far exceeded that of even the 9th Ward? I don’t feel the need to politicize this blog, but if you can’t tell - sometimes I lean to the right.

The title does hold some relevance to my job, however. No, I’m not speaking of political light or even bringing the light of God down here to the parish (believe me, they have that here in spades); I am speaking of literal light. My job is to oversee the repair and installation of streetlight poles destroyed by the Hurricane. But I don’t ever have any physical contact with these broken streetlight poles- we have contractors who do that, and I don’t even have to supervise the repairs- we have monitors to make sure the repairs are being done according to the contract. My job is made possible by the wonderful government entity known as FEMA. I have to prove to FEMA that all the damage recorded on my endless list of destroyed light poles is not only accurate, but also that it was caused by Katrina and not by some other infinite list of possibilities. Not to pat my own back, but this process had already failed three times before I came on the job so to have FEMA finally approve and sign off on the validation gave me a pretty big sense of accomplishment. Of course it wasn’t until today that they tell me I have to show precedence for how new items are added to the expanding list and also give evidence stating how broken streetlights were repaired before the storm. Arghhh….

But now I reach the point where I will be met with some (and by some, I mean a lot) of contention from residents of New Orleans. I believe that many of the speed bumps that are slowing down the rebuilding of the city are not only purposeful but also completely necessary. I can already hear the hate mail rolling in! Let me be the first to say that I have not enjoyed working with FEMA. Their people have been simply miserable to deal with, are sticklers to every single point in their Bible (the Public Assistance rulebook), and are often apt to ignore simple rules of logic. But their incompetence has a silver lining. In my limited time here in “Da Parish,” I have witnessed and heard of more than a few crooked contractors. These individuals see FEMA as a sign screaming “Hey look, I’m handing out free money in New Orleans!” There are several outright thieves down here and many more who think they can get away with doing a poor job since it is “just government work.” By religiously following every rule set out before them, FEMA minimizes the chance of handing out money to these dishonest contractors. Even if I have to show them another damaged streetlight because the spec sheet says the one we are examining should have a completely missing housing while only the light is actually gone I think that in the long run it is worth it. There is definitely a balance to be struck between forward progress and spending money, but the series of checks and balances imposed by FEMA does serve a purpose. Its not like we have a choice otherwise- their money, their rules, right?

Comments, hatred, libel gladly accepted below or in email form.

- Clark Daniel

Gone Fishin' -- Cart Weiland

Mosquitoes be warned, I thought; we had come prepared. I drenched myself in Off, grabbed the cooler, and hiked up the levee that stood before us. I wasn’t really sure where we were or what small waterway we had found, but I really didn’t care. It was a beautiful, balmy night in the Crescent City, and we had decided we needed to be outside. We set out driving with Billy Joel blaring from the car speakers and soon stumbled across a small channel of water somewhere not far from Lake Pontchartrain.

As I sat in the long grass on top of the levee and gulped down my Turbodog, I watched one in our legion assemble a fishing pole that he had brought along. He baited his hook with some shrimp he had just purchased at the local tackle shop (also known as Whole Foods Market) and then wandered down the levee to the edge of the water. This night was about fishing, New Orleans style.

As I finished my Turbodog and switched to Haze, I gazed out over the moonlit marshy water, and I suddenly realized that this night—this fishing and this levee—perfectly symbolized my summer in New Orleans. Now, let me explain:

In less than four weeks, I will return home from New Orleans with a million unanswered questions on my mind. Graduation is less than a year away, and I am constantly being asked what I plan on doing afterwards. The plain truth is that I simply don’t know yet. I think part of the reason I have enjoyed New Orleans so much is because I sense a lot of the city’s growing pains inside myself. Post-Katrina, the city is trying desperately to figure itself out and fix its flaws. I, like New Orleans, am worried about preserving a past and paving the road towards a successful future. In other words, I see myself in the city’s transitions and the city’s transitions in me.

I may be leaving New Orleans in August, but I think I’ll just sit on the top of that levee—the barrier between college and the rest of my life—for awhile longer. And even after I make those difficult decisions that loom before me, I’ll come back to the water. I am certain that I will think about this summer often. While here, I have cast a line. My lure will remain in New Orleans, and I will forever reel her in.

Gut Instinct- Dana Stefanczyk

I sit and work in an office all day. As much faith as I have that what I am doing is helping the city of New Orleans in some way, I don’t always have concrete evidence of my accomplishments or any real instant gratification I find myself craving. So when Reid asked if anyone would be interested in some construction work the coming Saturday, I volunteered to help, thinking I would enjoy getting my hands dirty. Gutting, he told us, is what we would be doing.

I realized, after committing, that I really didn’t know what gutting is. So, I did what any resourceful Duke student would do and googled it: Wikipedia does not even have a page. I had some vague ideas about it, of course, hearing the word flung around whenever the subjects of Katrina, housing, and weekend plans came up. I knew it involved tools and hard physical labor, and I knew that people cringed when they heard it, as if the name Voldemort had been spoken. My mom did not like the idea. “Dana, are you sure? I’m worried you’ll get hurt.” I had expected praise for my efforts, for working hard to help rebuild, and instead found fear and caution. What was I getting myself into?

We arrived at Catholic Charities early Saturday morning. Still fazed by drowsiness, I sat quietly while we were briefed. Then we got in cars and drove the short ride to the house we would be gutting. I watched as someone in charge walked into what remained of a house and spoke to a woman I assumed to be the owner. After a few minutes the owner left and went into her trailer on the side of the house. I wondered what she did for the rest of the day. Did she go about her business, numbed by months of waiting, simply wanting to get this done? Or did she watch us as we took crowbars and hammers to the casket of her memories?

I removed nails, tore down ceilings, took a sledgehammer to a railing, and in doing so sweated out anything I could feel. Need to relieve some stress? Try smashing a wall.

After a day of sweat, fiberglass, and exhaustion, Wikipedia, maybe I can now help you out. Gutting: stripping a house down to its bare stud walls and floors. Destroying and removing the heart and soul and traces of life, leaving a skeleton. I understand why it is called gutting.

Later that night (after a shower and nap, of course) a group of us went to a place called the Howlin’ Wolf to hear Trombone Shorty play. Though nothing spectacular on the outside, walking in I immediately felt alive. The animated notes from the trombone and saxophone begged me for a dance, and once again I found myself face to face with that spirit of NOLA that everyone knows about but no one can seem to define. With the next song, everyone was invited up on stage. I stood next to a girl I had just met, the music consuming us. “Now this is the heart and soul of New Orleans,” she remarked. And no matter how much gutting is done, I don’t think that can ever be stripped away.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Back to the Future - Andy Winslow

“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

-Marty McFly in “Back to the Future”

As I sit trying to reflect upon another week in New Orleans, trying to bring together in a cogent way any sort of themes or build upon morals and values I have learned during the first four weeks here, the only thing that has come to mind since I began writing with “Back to the Future” on in the background is that New Orleans could use a flux capacitor. In fact, most things in life would be simplified with the ability to go back to reconsider alternative ways and approaches to situations or decisions, a theme not particularly unique to New Orleans and hurricane Katrina. One thing, however, I should credit to Dr. Brown and Marty McFly is a look back in time to my thoughts and opinions of DukeEngage in NOLA at the start of the experience.

At a reflection session held last week, I took in the thoughts and voices of my fellow DukeEngagees and heard an idea that really struck me. The idea pertained to the very enthusiasm and desire to produce change in NOLA all of us had the moment we stepped off the planes and out of our cars. A healthy level of this enthusiasm is a necessary component, I would argue, in many of the volunteers who are down here for the summer. Two problems, however, can arise when this level of enthusiasm becomes overbearing: it sets unrealistic expectations about the experience for the volunteer, and the citizens may themselves be less receptive to help from volunteers as was originally thought. I will first address the latter of the two problems, something that I have no firsthand experience with.

I can only imagine the types of emotions that go through the heads of families and individuals that have lost the homes, businesses, possessions, and sometimes loved ones that comprise their lives. A disaster of this scope is enough to cause any person to lose a fair amount of faith, helping explain a suicide rate that has almost tripled in New Orleans since the disaster and the myriad of cases of Katrina-related post-traumatic stress disorder in the two years following. For those that have escaped either of these two phenomena, it would be an understatement to say that they are still affected in some sort of way. Perhaps they know friends who lost everything, perhaps they have horrifying mental imagery left over of looting and violence in the weeks and months that followed the disaster, or perhaps they just had to find a new place of work. Whatever the case, it is a very reasonable thing for many of the people tied to Katrina in any of these fashions to be less receptive to the help volunteers are providing.

Try this example. Imagine a crew of ten workers with whom you have no previous engagements coming into your decrepit house—still painfully full with memories you and your family left behind—to tear away the very investment you have worked your entire life to earn. Imagine the crew, many of whom are seeking instruction for the first time, swinging with all of their might to knock down a ceiling or tear apart a floorboard to which they have no personal attachment. Being on the other end of a charitable donation or volunteer work, for many of these citizens, is an understandably difficult type of step to take. Although everyone I have talked to from New Orleans seems genuinely grateful of the work that is being done, some of the very and direct acts of charity might bring out vastly different opinions. Simply considering that the sentiment is not universal, or rather that there such a strong personal tie to a great deal of volunteer work, is an idea that volunteers hyped on enthusiasm might not necessarily carry with them when they trek down to New Orleans or out to other volunteer endeavors across the world.

Secondly, coming in with a gung-ho, change-all attitude is problematic in that the expectation for this type of revolutionary opportunity would be crushed in many cases as this opportunity is not allotted by the workplace. As I have not actively partaken in volunteering and civic engagement prior to coming to NOLA, my enthusiasm for the experience, I felt, was especially pronounced. What I may have been expecting was to walk into New Orleans and be told by my boss, “Andy, we brought you in to make a difference. Go at it.” I was to walk in and be embraced by the open-armed citizens of New Orleans, and to be immediately placed in a position to fix the city during my sojourn. And as I left New Orleans, I could take home a wealth of visual pictures accounting for the change I have directly caused.

In reality, much of the work I have done so far doesn’t provide me the tangible, visual evidence I expected that I have made a difference. It wasn’t until yesterday, in fact, that I actually got my hands dirty (I worked with a bunch of other DukeEngagees and a Catholic charity in New Orleans in gutting a house) and saw the impact of my work in the houses or on the streets of New Orleans. Due to these expectations of mine, it took a little time for me to come to terms with the fact that my work, as indirect, and in some cases unrelated to the hurricane as it is, still offers the city of New Orleans a service it is grateful for. Co-workers of mine and citizens of New Orleans have done, for the most part, a great job at providing me this type of validation I had longed for via a passing comment about the help I am doing or even a “Thank you.” But there is only so much that can be said about getting the most out of an experience by actively seeking or passively receiving approval and validation from officemates or passersby. At a certain point, the validation has to come from within. It took me time, but achieving this humble realization has allowed me to maximize my experience thus far in New Orleans.

So, all in all, when I look back in time, I could have come into New Orleans with slightly adjusted expectation and with a more open and empathetic approach. Maybe the best thing I can do is to apply these values to future situations. Or perhaps I shall spend the brunt of my final week in New Orleans working to generate 1.21 jigawatts of electricity to run the flux capacitor and go back in time to re-engineer the levees. We’ll just have to see.