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 “New Orleans”

Classless Bureaucrats

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

Sign says: We Cut Tall Grass

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

After all these people have been through, you would think the local government would be happy to cut their grass for them, seeking any way to help them return to their homes.

It defies the imagination how these bureaucrats can have the audacity to actually fine displaced people, their own 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 settled.The sign hangs on the outside of the community center so that no one will forget.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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).

Back to New Orleans

I arrived in the US in 2005, 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 in San Francisco. 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 ripped apart. “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 all the black people trapped?” my son had asked. “Why aren’t we doing anything about it? 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 as I work with Jewish students that gives me more satisfaction than recruiting and taking them to New Orleans to volunteer to help rebuild the city and the community. This will be my 6th trip and it never gets old. 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, an obligation, of Judaism – I want my students to experience the responsibility.

On Sunday, I will take 20 students, who will give up their spring 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. Some of these will be posts from past years 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. Seven years have passed, but the struggle of New Orleans goes on, and it is the struggle of American society’s claim to be one nation.

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, by each of us doing something, we can change the world – one person at a time.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist 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).

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).

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).

Proud to be Jewish and not Jewish

This January, I took a group of students to New Orleans for a week. We volunteered with the Jewish Funds for Social Justice which is affiliated with the American Jewish World Services.

This is an amazing relief organization. If you don’t believe me, ask these guys. They are celebrities, and some of them are even Jewish. (BEWARE: some of their endorsements are rather irreverent).

But it sure makes you proud to be Jewish … even when you’re not!
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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

Remembering Blair Peach

I was fifteen years old when he died. I don’t think I had even met him, but I might have. We had participated in the same demonstrations. We had shared the same political agenda. Yet I took his death hard and it left its mark on me to this day.

Blair Peach and many other Englishmen and women were demonstrating against the unthinkable. Not even four decades had passed before Hitler’s Nazi army were massing on the Normandy shores to invade Britain, not forty years since six million of my people, a third of all the Jews on earth, had been murdered in the Holocaust.

And now the British National Party (might have still been called the National Front) was making alarming gains in local elections. As they marched through immigrant neighborhoods, many of us swelled the ranks of the Anti-Nazi League.

I had been brought up to trust the police. “If you get lost,” my mother drilled into me, “find a policeman. He’ll help you.” The neighborhood bobby was still a British value.

And yet, as I stood in the demonstration, preventing the Nazis from marching, the police charged us. I will never forget the one who punched me in the face. I had learned early to duck and weave. My school wasn’t in the nicest neighborhood and I was Jewish, with friends who were black, Asian and Irish. I just never expected a policeman to pop one at me without cause and then look on with no apology. To this day, I fear the uniform.

But Blair Peach, a man who had dedicated himself to teaching kids in a public school for children with special needs was not so lucky.  On April 2nd, 1979, he was pulled from the demonstration by members of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group, and beaten unconscious. He  never woke and died 24 hours later. The  next day, over 10,000 of us took to the streets. Disband the SPG (Special Patrol Group) became our mantra. A huge cover up ensued. SPG members shaved their hair, mustaches and every uniform was laundered the next day before any evidence could be found. Many SPG officers, however, were members of the Nazi Party and used unauthorized weapons such as baseball bats, crowbars, and sledgehammers. No apology was ever given, no one brought to trial for police brutality.


I share this as the police patrol the streets of Cairo. I vividly remember an US army officer, flown in to take charge of the army in New Orleans after Katrina, yelling at his troops to put their weapons down. “We don’t turn them on our own citizens,” he barked.

A police officer, a soldier, like any one else has the right to defend him/herself when their safety is threatened. There is no other justification to use violence on anybody.

Blair Peach should be thinking of retirement right now, at the end of a distinguished career, giving four decades of himself to his students. They were denied him, his family were denied him and the police brutality that killed him is still being denied.

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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

 

72 Hours

Every year when I am volunteering in New Orleans, I vow to prepare my family for a disaster scenario. Living in California, we are threatened by earthquakes, and now superstorms.

72hours.org is a no nonsense guide to prepare your family in the eventuality of a natural disaster. I don’t really have much to add other than … well, read it now because we might not have the Internet after it happens.

Are you prepared for the big one?

Or for those aliens from outer space?


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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/

 

 

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/

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

 

 

 

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