Thursday, March 19, 2009

NY2NO: Solidarity Not Charity

Over February break I was down in New Orleans with a group called the New York to New Orleans Coalition. As a student activist and a true believer in the strength of youth, it was the most inspiring experience of my life.

A little background on the organization: after Hurricane Katrina, Beacon High School brought group of students to New Orleans to work on reconstruction. After a year or so, Beacon stopped organizing these trips, but a few kids knew there was still work to do. So they started their own non-profit and began taking kids down themselves on every school vacation and every week of the summer. More than 100 students applied to go on their trip next month. Half had to be turned away because they could not be accommodated.

NY2NO is a completely student-led organization, started by kids who are now seniors at Beacon. Their vision is “to create a network of young people who are interested in organizing and mobilizing across New York City. NY2NO works in solidarity with those most affected by the social, racial, and economic inequalities in both New York and New Orleans. Through this, the youth breaks down barriers and works together to combat racism and classism and move towards an egalitarian society.” Despite the idealistic connotation of the word “egalitarian,” the organizers of NY2NO are practical, forward-thinking, active, thoughtful, and above all passionate.

NY2NO’s work in New Orleans is unique in a couple of ways. They go to rebuild, and to be part of a larger movement against racism. The week begins with a levee tour, where I learned that the levees of the Lower Ninth Ward are like ant hills compared to those of the French Quarter. The rest of the week is spent doing work in the Lower Ninth Ward, which still bears wounds from the storm. Mornings are spent on physical work, like gutting houses (yes, three years later, houses still need gutting) and working on community gardens (there is one supermarket, which is more of a deli, in the whole Lower Ninth). Afternoons are spent going door-to-door asking people about what they need, what their community needs, and just generally talking to the residents. Many people find themselves in two-hour conversations that end in tears on both sides.

Forget New Orleans’ stereotyped reputation: NY2NO trips are not about a bunch of teenagers hitting up the music and clubs on Bourbon St. My group spent every night talking about the best ways to combat racism, the idea of “solidarity not charity”, the emotions that were coming up from the day’s work, and the dynamics of our group as a reflection of society. We talked about how NY2NO could be more effective as an organization, how the environmental and education problems of New Orleans were present in New York City, and a million more things. Our trip quote was “If you have come to help me then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” We kept this idea at the heart of all the work we did and conversations we had. After the occasional tears and frustration, I always felt a renewed faith in my generation, as did everyone else I talked to.

The trip brings out the best in everyone: We built real friendships, relationships that challenged our intellects and made us consider how de facto segregation is enforced our society. A month later, I’m still getting a new Facebook message every few minutes from someone on the trip. NY2NO was a life-changing and unforgettable experience. If any readers are in high or school or have children in high school, I give this trip my highest recommendation.