Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Building Our Dreams on Common Ground

It was getting dark. The babies were uncomfortable and so was I. The motel on the corner was obviously a house of prostitution. Several disheveled men in various stages of drunkenness had stumbled into the liquor store where we were waiting for people we'd never met.

Michele, the twins' mother, and I had ridden our bicycles hard that day, crossing through the swamps of southwestern Louisiana. We were already tired by the time we saw the sign on the Huey P Long Bridge over the Mississippi River just west of New Orleans. The sign said "bicycles prohibited." Under different circumstances we might have ignored it, but there was no temptation to fight heavy traffic for a place on that rough, narrow structure.

Our potential hosts were with an organization that several veterans from Crawford had referred us to. They were apparently very busy working on the recovery from Katrina, a cause we wanted to help. We hadn't intended to burden them when we called to learn an alternative route across the river. The response we had gotten was "Wait right there. We'll come get you."

I had explained that our bikes with their trailers were quite large, but the woman on the phone assured me they could deal with it. When I saw the pickup with the flatbed trailer that accompanied her van into the parking lot, I realized she spoke truth. The driver, a thin, dark man, was grinning as he jumped out and gave me a big hug. Suddenly I felt very welcome.

That marvelous moment was my introduction to Common Ground. Sharon and Dan greeted us warmly, loaded up our bicycles, and carried us to St. Mary's, where we met Malik Rahim and other members of the organization. They were very gracious hosts for the rest of the week, until we left to ride up the river to St. Louis. We saw them again in Washington, DC, where we celebrated the twins' second birthday encamped before Congress.

After the girls flew back to Oregon, I rode back to New Orleans, celebrating 10,000 miles of bicycling through 28 states. Here I've been for the last month, volunteering with Common Ground Relief in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I've come to realize the extent to which my own liberation struggle is entwined with the brave residents of this historic place.

This neighborhood, established by free African Americans in the mid 1700s, is still reeling from the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina. With the help of concerned progressives from all over, the residents have resisted gentrification and land grabs. They have worked together to help each other and to support thousands of volunteers who have cleaned out flood damaged houses and proven to government officials their intent to reclaim their neighborhood and make it better than ever.

Brad Pitt has provided a boon to their efforts by starting Make It Right. The city finally began to restore long needed infrastructure as thousands of tourists visited the Lower Ninth to see the art installation that preceded the building efforts. Architects have donated sustainable flood resistant home designs from which local land owners can choose. Returning residents will find counseling and legal services, as well as financial aid to bridge the gap needed to build new homes.

Common Ground is in transition from the initial phase, which began five days after Katrina struck, into a long term, stable organization able to provide job training to those interested in participating in the rebuilding of New Orleans. The vision of the founders remains intact. People from all walks of life can build community together by working together to solve their most pressing problems.

My brief time in New Orleans has given me more hope than ever for my country. We are jointly learning that we don't need to work for or buy into systems that exploit people. We are capable of building communities that will support each of our efforts to stay true to our highest ideals. Please come to New Orleans. There's plenty of work to do and the experience will make you a stronger member of your home community.

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