Over the past month and a half, thousands of students from across the US have come to volunteer in the New Orleans area. With so many extra hands at Made with Love Cafe, some long-time members of our tribe got the chance to take much needed vacations, and others organized projects for students to work off site in the community gutting a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, a Masonic lodge, and private homes.
Dozens of students joined me to clear tons of debris and blaze a nature trail through a 15 acre historic sugar plantation owned by Jim and Alberta Louis, who eat with us daily at the dome and are much like our Grand Ma and Grand Pa. The Sebastopol Plantation house, built in 1830, is a classic picture of the old south, with a large front porch, sturdy storm shutters, and raised off the ground several feet, because people back then built knowing the nature of where they lived-- below sea level. Many of the houses that are damaged beyond repair in the flood were built on concrete slabs in the past 40 years. Jim and Albert's house was only flooded with 18 inches of water, and much of their large collection of antiques were saved. Each group of students that volunteered at the plantation got a tour of the house, which helped them to understand the heritage of St. Bernard Parish, and why residents feel such a strong desire to stay and rebuild.
Before Katrina, Alberta's dream was to develop the back part of their property, 13 acres of untouched forest, into a nature sanctuary and plant identification walk featuring medicinal herbs. This long narrow strip of land is 200 feet wide, boarded by a trailer park, a high school and an old irrigation canal. Tons of trash had accumulated on the land from many years of people in the trailer park throwing junk over the fence: TV's, bikes, ...you name it! The flood floated in tons more: coolers, gas cans, two fridges...! Jim and Alberta never thought they'd see the day it would be all cleaned up. They refer to the volunteers that have helped as angels.
Behind the Plantation house, Leah has set up a Tepee (made by Andy of Rogue Dwellings), and plans to work on the plant walk with Alberta. At the other end of the trail, I've begun building a bamboo tree house 30ft off the forest floor. Eventually, many sections of the trail will be an Ewok-style raised bamboo walkway due to the swampy nature of the forest in the rainy season. Marler Spence, owner of the Louisiana Bamboo Gardens, donated the poles for the tree house, which await in a pile at the base of the tree. The long ladder up is complete, and main beams are in place. I should have the floor and railings finished by next week.
The experience of living in this "emergency community" and serving the people of St. Bernard Parish through the Made with Love Cafe is everything I've dreamed the past five years. It is truly a revolutionary community building model that mixes the best of underground culture with the main stream. It has given numerous nomadic wanders a place to freely apply their skills and find a family of brothers and sister who care. It is unlike any disaster relief effort in US History.
Last weekend we had a fashion show fund raiser at gay bar on Bourbon Street featuring clothes we made out of distro finds. I added a side panels to a pair of leopard print corduroy paints that were too small and made the zip fly into a beaded leather tie-up. I added a cream frilly collar to a leather shirt, sewed black silk on the inside of the back, then with a sewing machine spelled out "Folk Fashion" over both and cut out the letters to expose the silk. The weekend before that we had a "less is more" dance party at a castle in the swank part of town.
Our all-volunteer organization has an egalitarian governance based on everyone sitting in a circle twice a week to make known their powers, visions, and concerns. Each morning there are point person meetings to connect on daily duties, a board to look after finances, and a security council, but all of these are open meetings where anyone is welcome. The ladies have been having sister's circles since the early days of the New Waveland Cafe. Last night was only our second brother's circle. None of us had experienced a brother circle before that.
The energy of these circles is empowering. It is a significant sacred event to expressed yourself fully without interruption and be truly listened too. The person who holds the feather has the floor to speak. Everyone must wait their turn as it is passed in a circle. The feather continues to be passed until it goes around the complete circle in silence. I dream that every neighborhood in every town and city would use this simple system of organization to get connected, informed and activated.
I said to Sparky, the serving line man, "It's not what you know... it is who you know." "I'll do you one better," he returned. "It's not who you know... it's who knows you."
My action hero role is now Cor, the Space Creator. I maintain the geodesic domes Jeff Taylor very kindly loaned, and will dismantle them in June when our cafe closes in time for Hurricane season. The Relaxation Station tree house hammock and bamboo tower is another regular duty. I keep it safe and comfortable, and outfit it with blankets, pillows and candle lanterns when wind and rain allows. A couple times I hosted an open mike show called "What's da word?" ...for spoken word and song. I renovated our shower last week. For months it was a couple tarps over a tub in a wood frame. It was too low to stand up straight, and too dark to shave. I created a pitched roof, a window, large mirror, and boarded it all over with scrap wood and added tree branches for style. Someone else then took it upon themselves to paint it inside and out.
I'm point person on smoothies, offering blended blessing of fresh fruit and iced coffee to those working the kitchen, dish pit and and smoke pit in afternoon heat. Yesterday it was mixtures of chocolate soy milk, coffee, banana and strawberries. Sunday's special blend was Bamboo shoots, fresh ginger and ginger snaps.
Everyday my work is different. Saturday, I gathered a crew and spent the morning pulling nails from studs and ceiling beams in the Masonic lodge. We wore respirators to protect from the mold, dust and fiberglass insulation, but who knows what the effect of all this will be on us in the long term. People who know... say the air quality in St. Bernard Parish is very bad. We know. We are living in the shadow of a massive oil refinery. The smell was strong this morning. My nose is often stuffy, so I can't smell so well and tend not think about it. There is always lots to do... picking up trash or washing dishes, when not on a mission or taking pictures/ loading them to http://actionhero.smugmug.com
The community center we've created for the people of St. Bernard is something they couldn't do for themselves, nor could the federal Government. St. Bernard Fireman, Captain Andrew Vigueira Jr., who helped put the skin on the dome, said to me, "People talk about governments and money... but it's all about people. The real power of this story is people. It's not going to be Flour or Haliburton saves the world. If people just got together and helped each other...."
After the parking lot has cleared and the most noticeable remains are patches in the grass where our tents and pallet walkways had been, the most lasting effect will be in the hearts and minds of those that gathered in this place. Connections were made, relationships formed, we worked hard day after day and we learned what it is to live community. From now on, with this awareness, we will go on our ways, some alone and others together, I'm sure with a strong yearning to create this feeling of unity and purposeful living once again. I am happy to know that so many have had this experience and will be out in the world sharing what was learned. I also see the need for holding a space to maintain these connections, develop resources and refine skills together as a tribe of action heroes.
There is a 24 acre plot of land across the lake from New Orleans. It is 200 ft above sea level, in a rural setting. The window of opportunity to buy this land is narrow. We need $15,000 to hold the land for 60 days, or $50,000 to make a down payment. The land comes with a solid business that will allow us to pay it off in several years. This land will be held in common by our non-profit as gathering space for the purpose of skill development, education and spreading resources. Donations of any size will be helpful, but the best way to see this happening fast is to find 100 people who can contribute $500. We can't much about it until we have the $15,000 to hold the land.
April 28th I'll be at Cell Space in San Francisco, presenting images and video to share what I've witnessed here on the Gulf Coast over the past 7 months. The presentation will only be a half hour, from 9pm to 9:30pm. as it is an opening to a dance party that follows... as the official after-party of the New Living Expo. Tickets are $20, and funds raised go to the Action Hero Network.
For more info: http://www.pmagevents.com/flyer.html
Reserve tickets at: http://www.pmagevents.com/tickets.html
I'm seeking other spaces to do presentations, and will inform you of these when they are confirmed. If you have suggestions, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Action Hero Network is a project of IHCenter