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 tag “Hurricane Katrina”

What is a year of your life worth? Priceless

One of the haunting experiences that I had during my annual week of service on the Gulf Coast with students, did not come from victims of Hurricanes’ Katrina or Rita, or their consequences. It came form meeting two men who had served over 20 years each in jail for crimes that neither had committed. One had been on death row. These two men were exonerated because of the use of DNA testing in post-conviction criminal cases. DNA testing has helped exonerate more than 250 innocent people. These innocent men and women sat in prison for an average of 13 years.

It is hard to imagine. My eyes filled with tears when one told us of the son or daughter that he had never held. He was now in the process of getting to know his now grown up child. How can a person be compensated for this? Any aspiration he once had for a good education and career have long disappeared.

Exonerees who sat on Death Row

I read an interesting article by Tina Trenkner called Paying For Lost Time. Ms. Trenker reviews what financial compensation is available which seems to be build upon how much they might have earned.

“Depending on the state, the wrongfully convicted could get social services and up to $80,000 per year–or get nothing at all. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide compensation and/or services, but many states have provisions that could make an exoneree ineligible for such damages, including having a prior felony conviction or submitting a guilty plea when not guilty. Twenty-three states have no provisions, but the exonerated could sue or request compensation through a private bill, requiring a legislator to sponsor it–both options are difficult to pursue.”

Ms. Trenker then introduced (for me at least) an organization called The Innocence Project, which is an advocacy group who would like every state to have an exoneree compensation law that reflects the guidelines set out on a federal level. Current federal guidelines: Provide the wrongly incarcerated up to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, and $100,000 per year served on death row. “The beauty of a compensation statute is that it provides a formula that treats everyone equally,” says Rebecca Brown, policy advocate for The Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project

I believe it is important to financially compensate exonerees and ensure that they can live out the rest of their lives with dignity and meaning. There is an important place for an advocacy group such The Innocence Project.

But I can’t loose the image of the man in New Orleans, who never got to hold his child and now must pick up the pieces with his adult child. There are some things that you cannot put a price on.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Cut Your Grass Or Lose Your House

The first time I volunteered in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, I never understood why I saw this sign was on every street corner amidst the devastation and tragedy.

We Cut Tall Grass

Didn’t these people have enough to contend with without worrying about the state of their lawns? Hear what Mack, the visionary of the Lower 9th Ward Village, has to tell you about this:

http://youtu.be/4VQp_Y5eRYA

After all these people have been through, you would think the local government would be cutting their grass for them, seeking every way to help them return to their homes. It defies the imagination how they can have the audacity to actually fine displaced people, their people, people who paid their taxes their whole life under the illusion that their government was there to help them when they needed it.

Mack tracks where his neighbors are living. The sign is on the outside of the building so no one will forget.

If you didn’t have time on Friday, please consider joining me in giving a small gift to help fund the completion of the community center and the summer camps. You can donate by clicking here.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Remembering Your Neighbor

On the outside of the Lower 9th Ward Village, where my friend Ward “Mack” McLendon, is struggling to provide a hub for the people who have returned to reclaim their homes and community, there is a colorful mural to track the people who lived here before Hurricane Katrina.

Here is a beautiful 7-minute video of Mac explaining what the mural symbolizes and why he has it in full view for anyone who enters the center or just passes by.

I want to help Mack realize his dream of a thriving community center to help the residents of the Lower 9th. I support his frank assumption that if we do not provide something stable for the children and keep them in a safe environment, then they are vulnerable to a tough street reality. A summer camp will keep these children off the streets and give them a positive and exciting experience.

This is the second of three posts (a link to the first post) about Mack and his vision. If you can possibly help, please click here. Every dollar brings the community center closer to making the dream a reality. Thank you for considering a gift to the Lower 9th Ward Village.

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

A Man Who Won’t Give Up

Every year since Hurricane Katrina I have taken students to New Orleans to help rebuild the community smashed by a natural disaster, exacerbated by human negligence, and compounded by government disorganization (you can just tell that this is an objective post!). I have blogged about this a few times, but since returning this year, I have not done so.

This January, I met an amazing man. Ward “Mack” McLendon lost his house and his antique cars that he renovated in the Lower Ninth Ward. While he fought to keep his property in an outrageous bureaucratic battle (Mac has still not moved back into his house), Mac put a down payment in 2006 on a hangar-like building on Charbonnet Street. His plan was to have a place to revive his hobby with the antique cars. But Mac soon had another vision, one that involved using the building to bring the community together.

Mac addressing SF Hillel students outside the center 01/11

“When I got the keys in my hand and stepped inside the building, I started thinking about a community center that I came up in (in the Upper 9th Ward). A little voice came to me and said, ‘You didn’t lose your life, you didn’t lose your immediate family, you lost things. You can replace things.’ That was the beginning of me finding my purpose.” Source

When our SF Hillel student group arrived, there were beautiful murals around the building, but the main area was full of junk and garbage, Mac had no problem motivating us to empty the area, filling our ears with his dream of a summer camp so that children will find protection from the rough street environment. In a day and a half, we had emptied the hanger, and helped shlap planks to a group of volunteer carpenters.  While we were ready to congratulate us, Mac sent us out to the neighborhood. “Knock on doors and ask what people need,” he said. “We gotta help everyone.”

One of the inspiring murals.

Today, Mac’s building is a community center called The Lower 9th Ward Village. Neighbors are invited to use the computers, children have a nurturing environment to do homework and a safe space in a tough neighborhood.  There are plans for a recording studio as many young people are imbued with the music culture of the Crescent City. There is also a lending library, basketball hoops and now a stage.

Courtney Miller and Erin Pellebon, who live next door to each other in a shotgun double across the street, said their kids throw their backpacks on the porch when they get home from school and run to the center to play basketball and get help with their homework. “There’s nothing really around here for the children to do,” Pellebon said. “I really appreciate those volunteers.” Source

When Mac talks about his vision, he is simply inspiring. You truly feel in the presence of a spiritual man. When he started the Lower 9th Ward Village, “the most beautiful light in the world popped on,” he said. “It never felt like a job. It can’t be a job, because I don’t get a paycheck.” He believes most people die without ever finding their purpose in life. “I guarantee you, if you find a purpose, it will be serving people some kind of way,” he said. Source

Every day when we finished our work, Mac has us sit together and ‘invites’ everyone to share a reflection. You can’t refuse Mac, and even the shyest find their tongues. Mac says: “This place is like magic.” Source

That is because this is a man who is passionate, humble, appreciative and willing to dream in the face of adversary. He is the epitome of why people lie myself can’t help but return year after year.  When New Orleans gets under your skin, it is not just the beauty or the music, it is the magical people like Mac.

In August/September 2005 we failed the people of New Orleans. They are rebuilding their community. We cannot fail them again. America will be forever stained until New Orleans is rebuilt, until people like Mac have their houses back and until their communities are again thriving.

Please consider joining me in giving a small gift to help the completion of the community center and the summer camps. You can donate by clicking here.

The Community Center logo

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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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Potential Natural Disaster in California

More than a hundred scientists joined their research together to bring us the news that California might be facing the threat of a massive “superstorm” that could destroy one-quarter of the state’s housing. Now I wouldn’t usually pay this much attention, except that when I heard about it, I was in New Orleans helping to rebuild a community center in the Lower Ninth Ward, the parish that had been particularly damaged by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the ineffective levees.

It makes you think.

When we are volunteering on the Gulf, every year someone asks why would these people want to move back after what happened to them might happen again? I reflect on who are we to talk – coming from the land of the earthquake and now the super flood! As the video below show – it has happened before.

A second reason why I feel a need to bring it to your attention are the amazing photos of similar such storms.

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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 http://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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

From New Orleans to San Francisco

I am currently concluding a week of volunteering in New Orleans with students from our San Francisco Hillel. A lot has changed: my first time here we gutted as many houses as we could to allow the residents to received their insurance and begin the long rebuilding process. In my second year, we helped build drywall and roofs to those who could only afford the materials but not the labor. This year we have been helping to establish a community garden in the Lower 9th Ward, the hardest hit area. Whereas in the past we were helping to rebuild the physical, this year it felt like we were helping to heal a community.

One surprising aspect this time is that we keep meeting people living in New Orleans who were linked to the San Francisco Bay Area. I feel there is an indefinable link between two cities that just don’t comply with the American norm.

The piece below is from Unwanted Heroes. I wrote it after my first trip here.


Chapter 2: The Fog Rolls In

I love San Francisco. Yeah, I grew up in London with fog on the Thames, but I don’t recall locals stopping to admire it.

Other cities share similar traits to San Francisco; Rome has hills, London has immigrants and culture, and Paris the artistic mystique. But San Francisco has all of this and it’s not thrown in your face. It just is.

I lean over the rails on the Embarcadero and stare out at the looming Bay Bridge, gray and partially veiled by early morning fog. Next to me stands a metal woman, eighteen feet high, a creation welded from hundreds of recycled pieces of junk. She holds hands with a child about six or eight feet tall, and together they stare out to sea.

The metal woman lacks the elegance of the Statue of Liberty. That’s what makes San Francisco special; it works without pretentiousness. I’m told that the metal mother and her child stand at the Burning Man festival in the desert. Fire courses through her body and out of her hand into the child.

We could do with the fire right now. I shiver as I watch wisps of fog on the water.  It’s very early and I must open the coffee shop. Despite the cold, I love this hour of the day; the city slumbers, but is not asleep. It’s simply preparing itself for the onslaught.  In two hours, tens of thousands of people will spew out of the BART and MUNI public transport tunnels. Others will stubbornly drive in, searching for elusive and pricey parking spaces. The more enlightened drivers have recruited two passengers from the casual car pool pickup points scattered around the bay, thereby avoiding the bridge tolls and utilizing the carpool lanes. The passengers, for their part, get a free ride into town.

Walking down Mission Street, I see Clarence, a huge African-American, dressed in a shiny black suit. I can’t tell if he’s awake behind those big black sunglasses until he raises his saxophone to salute me. The shiny instrument gleams, even in our fog-filled streets, and Clarence lets rip a short riff to announce: The barista has arrived!

Clarence stakes his position very early in the morning. There are more street musicians than ever these days and, with only a limited number of prime spots, Clarence must claim his territory. But at this moment, he plays only for me and I feel like a king. Clarence knows I don’t have money to throw in his open sax case; perhaps he’d feel insulted if I did.

But later, around 9.30 when the herd is safely corralled into their office cubicles and Clarence’s muscles are aching, he’ll come and rest in The Daily Grind. When I think Mr. Tzu, isn’t looking, I leave a cup of coffee on Clarence’s table. I used to mutter under my breath that some jerk had changed his order after I’d already poured his cup and there’s no use in waste. After about the fortieth time, I figured Clarence had picked up on my ruse and I just put the steaming cup on his table.

No thanks, but I know the gesture is appreciated, just as I appreciate Clarence playing for me as I pass in the early morning. He’ll sit for an hour or so and then slowly move off. I know little of Clarence, but he’s part of my life; another strand that weaves this urban tapestry called San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, some students entered The Daily Grind, their clothes covered with ‘New Orleans’ insignia. They were excited and boisterous as they passed Clarence at his regular table. From the way Clarence eyed them, I thought that their intrusion annoyed him. But I was wrong.

“Hey! What’s with th’ shirts? Whatca y’all doing with New Orleans?”

A young woman, blonde, thin and tanned, excitedly explained how they’d just come back from a week helping to rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “You should’ve seen the damage that hurricane did,” she concluded.

“Ain’t no hurricane that did that gal,” Clarence growled. “Weren’t no nat’ral disaster. Don’t let ’em bull ya’. The hurricane would’ve done some damage, but if those levees had held, if those bastards had built ’em like they should, well, ain’t no one have died there. My grandma’s house waz swept away, broke her it did. Such a proud w’man.”

Clarence rose and moved heavily to the door, but then turned. We all watched him. He spoke now in a softer tone. “But I thank y’all for going down there t’ help. It’s import’nt y’all show ya’ care, that some’n shows they care.”

We saw the tears as he turned and left leaving behind a heavy wake of silence. I couldn’t stop myself. I nodded to Tabitha to cover for me and followed him out of the café.

He stood on the corner of Mission and Spear caressing his saxophone and let rip the most beautiful, soulful jazz I have ever heard. He wasn’t playing for me that time; he wasn’t even playing for San Francisco. I could almost see his tune rolling out of the bay along with the fog and making its way to the Gulf.

When he finished I approached, not knowing what to say. We stared at each other.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I-I’m so sorry.”

I spoke with Mr. Tzu, the coffee shop owner, later that day. I had an idea and from that week, every Friday at lunchtime, Clarence would play in The Daily Grind to a packed audience. Big jars were scattered around the tables with labels: All Proceeds to New Orleans Relief Projects.

And as the music touched our customer’s souls, the jars filled: because San Francisco has a heart, and that heart was bleeding for a sister on the Gulf Coast.


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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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