Eleven years after the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still working to rebuild the city. Entire neighborhoods bear the burden in attempting to restore and reclaim their identity while most often those who are making the decisions in the rebuilding process are outsiders.
At the New Orleans ABCs, Ten Years Later: A Neighbor-Driven Recommitment, we explored the role that neighborhoods and alternative break programs can play in the continued rebuilding of this city. The central question we looked at was this: what role do outsiders have in the decision-making of communities? To help inform our answer, we dug into understanding the rising rate of gentrification in New Orleans and the role of short-term volunteers.
It’s not news - communities across the country are being affected by gentrification in different ways. Ideally, rebuilding and development is a neighbor-driven process led by community members. Otherwise, the dangers of the volunteer industry may displace folks who consider the city home. The unfortunate reality is that in the last eleven years, thousands of volunteers changed the city of New Orleans, and for many folks who have been displaced as a result - the impact was negative.
Alternative breakers can only do so much as short-term visitors in unfamiliar communities. The fact of the matter is that, even when volunteers enter with the good hearts and intentions, sometimes unintended harm is a byproduct. The key for breakers entering into this community (and any) is to consider, critically, not just the service work, but the businesses they choose to support and the respect and humility they’re bringing to any unfamiliar place.
Rebuilding efforts require that alternative break programs work in collaborative and connected ways (such as compacts or regional work). Revitalization efforts require breakers to volunteer with and learn from members of the communities we’re entering into.
If you’re a program leader, ask yourself these questions: 1) do you have strong relationships with the Community Partners you’ll be working with on your trip? and 2) when planning your alternative break trip, is your priority considering the community that's welcoming you in?