Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “January, 2011”

Once We Get To Houston…

Today is my last day in New Orleans. I will begin my journey back to San Francisco. Last year it took me almost 24 hours as I was passed from airport to airport trying to get around the inclement weather that closed down much of the center of the country. I felt sorry for myself. I just wanted to get home to my dear family.

Only when I was back in the Bay Area and telling my stories from the week did I realize how absurd my feelings of moving from dry, clean airport, to dry clean airport. Those I had gone to help faced a much worse journey.

This is a beautiful song that accompanies a beautiful video. Mary Chapin Carpenter has done an amazing job using music and visual to make a statement that stays with you.

Thank you, Mary.

Many people will never forget that journey in September 2005. Some of them are still traveling, still trying to find somewhere to call home.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

Breach of Faith

There is so much surrounding Hurricane Katrina that is irrelevant and distracting. When you go into You Tube there is an absurd amount about President Bush, Kanye West, Mayor Nagin, and the natural phenomenon – the hurricane.

So I want to share a book that I feel gets to the core of the issues, primarily what happened after the hurricane hit, without sanding over who shared responsibility for the disaster. Breach of Faith is a straight forward observation from a man who cares and a man who cuts to the chase.

Not that Jed Horne allows President Bush, the Army Corps, or Global Warming a “Get out of jail free” card. But it is clear that his beloved state is more important than writing a bestseller.

Here is a brief overview of a few books on the topic from All Things Considered on National Public Radio.

Whatever you choose to read, to listen, to watch, it is important that we bear witness, that we understand what happened here and what our respective roles were.

It can never be allowed to happen again.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blair Grocery – Grassroots Revivial in the Lower 9th Ward

The Lower 9th Ward is probably the most devastated neighborhood in New Orleans. It is (was) a predominantly an African-American area with an unprecedented 90% home ownership. Today, the neighborhood is recovering very slowly. I have volunteered there over the past few years and there is no comparison with the level of devastation anywhere else. There is really no infrastructure and the residents face so many challenges to return to their homes.

The neighborhood was served for food by Blair Grocery, named after George Blair, an African American home and business owner. Today,  in order to buy fresh produce, one needs to take two buses across town. There is a 7-11, but the food there is extremely processed.

The Blair family generously allowed a young visionary teacher, Nat Turner, together with friends, to build a community garden and what might become an after school or even an independent school for the neighborhood. Volunteering to create the garden is a lesson in food justice and we returned from our week with them feeling very motivated to get involved with food activism.

Here is the vision as seen through the eyes of Turner.

The strength of the neighborhoods and parishes of New Orleans were built on the concept of community. Those who are returning to the Lower 9th face many obstacles. This community will only truly recover on the strength of its community, and community projects such as Blair Grocery will be a huge asset.


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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

No Natural Disaster

If you enter the search words: Hurricane Katrina + a natural disaster, you will assume from the first few sites that New Orleans suffered from a terrible natural catastrophe in the last days of August and beginning of September 2005. A mighty hurricane, an act of God, man-made defenses could not stand up to the forces of nature… It is perhaps understandable that people thought that then.

Here’s a word of advice. Don’t say that near anyone from New Orleans. In fact, after hearing their stories, after seeing the levees and the surrounding area, I don’t believe it either.

The levees were designed to withstand a hurricane the strength of Katrina, but they were not built the way they were designed. The bottom line is that the negligence in the construction of the walls was the reason why the city was devastated.

It’s like referring to the oil spill as a natural disaster. Wait, they did. The one article that stands out in the first ten on my google search is John McQuaid, who actually focuses in this post on whether we allow those culpable to subtly hide their shortcomings by blaming nature or God.

“Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off. Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faultyflood walls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.”

If we are failing to make the distinction between natural and man-made disasters because we are becoming numb to the series of catastrophes that seem to hit us, then this will become an increasing problem. If those who are taking the unnecessary risks, cutting the safety protocol corners to save money, are able to yield the nature/God car without impunity, that is darn right dangerous.

And unforgivable. Strong words? Ask the residents of the Gulf Coast. They’ve been hit twice in five years and, as people with a strong connection with the land, and many being God-fearing folk, they are not fooled by such doublespeak. They are just astounded that the rest of us are.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Last Year, Same Story

At this time last year, I shared with you a passage from the 2nd chapter of Unwanted Heroes. Twelve months later, I am back in New Orleans with a new group of students, and I continue to be astonished by the connection between San Francisco and New Orleans. It is not surprising that so many people gravitate between the two cities. Each have their own unique architecture, music, culture, food…

And yet when I talk with people here there is something familiar, something connecting. I wonder whether the wound on the urban psyche inflicted by the Hurricane on the Gulf Coast, and the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco has anything to do with it? The knowledge that while we build and rebuild, everything is fragile. New Orleans and San Francisco share the knowledge that everything we hold dear in our fair cities could be destroyed…again.

New Orleans will rebuild and regenerate. San Francisco will continue to help, sending groups like our students and other means of help. We do it because of who we are, because of all we share. We do it because of the counter culture, the passion and the mystique. We don’t do it because we think one day we might need the help reciprocated. We do it because while so much is different, what binds us is even stronger.

The Fog Rolls In – takes place in a coffee shop in the financial district of San Francisco. It is told by a young and empathetic barista.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

California Dreaming.

I’m here in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Every year a student asks: “Why would the residents return home under the threat that the Katrina episode could get repeated.

Last year, one of the staff (from the East Coast) responded by asking how can we live in San Francisco under threat of an earthquake. Fair point. But now we have more to worry about.

Superstorm predicted in California.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

When The Levees Broke

When I speak about my experiences helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast, whether formally or in conversations with friends, I am often asked for the best source to understand and make sense of what transpired.

The reality is that after coming to Louisiana for five years, after listening to the stories of so many people who lived through the ordeal, and are continuing to live through it, there is probably no way we can make sense of it.

But we should try, lest we forget, lest we desensitize, lest we excuse ourselves.

The documentary that I recommend to those who ask is When The Levees Broke, directed by Spike Lee. It is long, four hours I think, but it is divided into four parts and can be seen in parts or skipped to specific aspects.

It is not unbiased and makes no apologies as it exposes so many factors that contributed to the tragedy. What’s the point in declaring “mandatory evacuation” when there is no gas for those with cars, and no transportation for those who don’t?

For a breakdown of the four parts, please refer to the product description on the Amazon.com page. While you are there, the documentary is currently selling for less than half price ($9).

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Black And White

Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day, the birthday of a man who had a vision of a society where race and color would add to an exciting web of egalitarian diversity. We have achieved much since he took up the struggle, but we still have a long way to go.

When the waters rose above the dysfunctional levees of New Orleans, when the storm hit, nature did not differentiate between black and white, Christian and Jew. But the reality is that the areas which have a high percentage of African-Americans, were the worst hit.

When the survivors share their stories, race is almost always in the background and often in the forefront. Many of the travesties recounted by black people who got caught in the storm, when not relating to the wrath of Mother Nature, focus on how they were treated by what they perceive as the white authorities.

I am working in the Lower Ninth Ward. I have been here every year but once, when our group was sent to nearby St. Bernard’s Parish. The Lower Ninth Ward saw the worst destruction and may never recover despite the best intentions.

The Lower Ninth Ward, though mired in poverty, boasts 95% home ownership and has the highest density of African-American home ownership in the country. Those of us who return year after year to volunteer should come regardless of the victim’s skin color. But I would be lying if, as a white Jew, I did not admit to being aware of the race element, and how it strengthens my desire to return and help rebuild these communities.

Martin Luther King Jr had a dream. We all need to help build that vision. There is a Jewish saying: It is not for us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Here is my offering for Martin Luther King Jr’s Day. Thank you to Janis Ian for a timeless song.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com/

Back to New Orleans

I arrived in the US five-and-a-half years ago, just 103 days before Hurricane Katrina struck landfall. I left my family in the beautiful manicured suburbia of Ventura, California, and rode the greyhound north to seek my fame and fortune, I had 100 days to find a job that would support a family of four in the expensive Bay Area, and then find a house for us to live in.

I’m still waiting for the fame, but fortune shone on me that summer. While my job will never make me rich financially, it feeds my family and my soul. I have the good fortune to work with Jewish college students, helping them find their individual path in the world and enriching their Jewish campus experience.


Fortune did not shine on others during the summer of 2005, and as  I settled my family into our little apartment in Berkeley, we watched in horror as New Orleans was destroyed. “Where is this happening? Is this Africa? India?” my then 6-year-old son asked. “America,” I replied. He looked at me wide-eyed. “Our America?”


His America had so far been the beach, beautiful parks and elegantly manicured lawns. “Yes,” I replied and reached for a map to show him.

Another scene – this time of the New Orleans Superdome packed with people. “Daddy, why are they all black?” my son had asked. “Why aren’t we doing anything about it?” He asked. “Why aren’t we helping?”

I silently promised him and myself then that we would do something about it.

Why aren’t we doing anything about it? Those words haunted me as I began my new job as a Hillel director working on the San Francisco campuses.

There is nothing in my job working with Jewish students that gives me more satisfaction than recruiting students and taking them to New Orleans to volunteer to help rebuild the city and the community. We not only help physically, but we show we care and that we have not forgotten.

Most importantly perhaps, we bear witness. And maybe, seeds are sown in these students not to accept social apathy and irresponsibility. Social Justice is a central tenant of Judaism – I want my students to experience the responsibility.

Today, I will take another group across country to give a week of their winter break to help the crescent city. Over the next week, I  want to share some of the experiences of our group, of groups I have taken in past years, and of the people we meet. In truth, I am going to prepost blogs in case there is no time as this week can get so intense.

A couple of years ago when I went to pick up my son from school after just having returned from such a trip, the teacher stopped me. “He has been telling us all week of the work you do on the Gulf Coast. He is very proud of what you do.”


I thought back to August/September 2005 and the promise I had made to both of us. Five years have passed, but the struggle of New Orleans goes on, and it is the struggle of American society. I don’t want the next generation – the millennials – to make the same mistakes that we made. Or my sons, if I can help it. Maybe by being a role model we can change the world one person at a time.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

Amy Chua – A Great Response And A Serious Revelation

I can’t resist. I wrote earlier about Amy Chua and her  Here is a great response from a woman who is not a mother, possibly not an Ivy League lawyer, and definitely not an experienced podcaster. But it is very cute.

Here is possibly a more balanced reaction to Chua’s assertions. And there is one study which has startling revelations. I would love to hear your response to the study.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

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