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Grassroots organising: Anti-racism and surviving Katrina

April 7th, 2009 · post by isy · Make a comment

In February I was able to attend a 2 day workshop held in Plymouth called ‘Undoing Racism’ – held by members of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an anti-racist educational initiative based in the US.

What follows is an interview with Bay Love (yes, that’s his real name), a community organiser and trainer with the Institute, who is also involved with the Common Ground Health Clinic in New Orleans which was set up by grassroots activists in response to the dire healthcare situation in the city after Hurricane Katrina.

Bay with his niece Thea<<Bay with his niece Thea

LH: How long have you been involved with the People’s Institute and how would you sum up what it does?

Bay: I first got involved with the People’s Institute 3 years ago, just by attending one of the workshops through the organisation I was working with and found it incredibly helpful with the things that I had been thinking about and struggling with.

The People’s Institute was founded by Ron Chisom and James Norman Dunne. They were both community organisers, Ron was mostly organising around housing. Jim Dunne had an organisation called HUMAN – Help Us Make a Nation – because there was so much protesting and activism around the Vietnam War and the injustices that were being done abroad, Help Us Make a Nation was about looking at the injustices being done here at home. He was also a professor at Antioch College in Ohio. And there were a bunch of other organisations too. Anyway Ron and Jim went to Chicago to study with Saul Alinsky, who was sort of a grandfather of community organising, the man to go to about organising at the time. So they went through all these trainings about community organising and found they were getting a lot of skills and tools. But when they tried to go back to their communities to apply them, they found they weren’t working in the same way. So they started looking at the things that were missing – about understanding history, understanding culture, and understanding race and racism. So, together they founded this organisation called the People’s Institute, the idea being to bring the analysis of history, culture and race to community organising. So it was founded 28 years ago, primarily as a training institute to work with community organisers and organisations and those involved in justice work, to help them be more effective.


People are not poor because they lack programs and services; people are poor because they lack power

LH: It’s become quite widespread, and there are trainings all across the US and even overseas; what kinds of groups or campaigns have the Institute been working with?

Bay: It’s mostly been a lot of grassroots community organisations, non profit organisations, different social service and government agencies that work in poor communities and communities of colour. We haven’t prioritised a lot of work with corporations, because we don’t believe that corporations are ready for or are necessarily committed to our message. The People’s Institute has offices in a whole bunch of different places, New York, Seattle, Oakland, New Orleans, Yellow Springs Ohio, Minnesota, Puerto Rico, and we have done trainings in South Africa, England, Japan, Puerto Rico, all over.

LH: What happens in the workshops?

Bay: Basically the main training the People’s Institute does is the 2 and a half day workshop ‘Undoing Racism’. The workshop is designed through a facilitated group process, to identify and understand what is racism, how does it really work, and what can we as community organisers effectively do against it. The basic idea being, that you can put 40 people in a room, who all say they want to do work against racism or believe that racism is a problem, but when we go round and ask each person what is racism, oftentimes you’ll get a different answer from every person. If we’re going to be effective at undoing racism, we first have to be the same page about what racism is, and understand how it works.

Also, in the United States, and I’d argue that it’s here as well, race is so closely interlinked with class, that you really can’t have a conversation about race in America without talking about class. It’s also the other way round, you can’t talk about class without talking about race. So the workshop also looks at some basic questions like why are people poor, how we identify and define institutions and systems that keep people poor, what role do we play in those systems, and what is effective community organising.

LH: Then there’s also the kids’ programme with camps, can you tell me more about them? How long have they been going? I have a weird mental image of a camp from American movies…

Bay: That’s part of the People’s Institute Youth Agenda, who run a Freedom School, which is like a 6 week summer camp basically modelled after the Freedom Schools that SNCC and other organisations organised in the 60s, during the civil rights movement, with the idea of providing students with the skills to engage civically and to do social justice work and have a say in their own communities. It’s a 6 week curriculum, and it’s basically the Undoing Racism workshop broken down, so each week the kids get a certain part of the analysis, with exercises, songs and chants and activities that they can do to really get into it.

LH:
That sounds pretty amazing. But you also do, I suppose, all the normal camp things like go hiking.

Bay: Yes exactly, and there’s a field trip every week. In fact the last two years the People’s Institute Freedom School is coupled with the CDF, a national programme that funds Freedom Schools across the country. The CDF programme is mostly based around literacy and maths skills, and kids building self confidence. So now the curriculum is sort of half reading writing and math, which is stuff the kids aren’t getting in schools enough, and half community organising. There’s pluses and minuses to that.

LH: So you came to the People’s Institute via the Common Ground Health Clinic – can you tell me about that, and your involvement in it?

Bay: Basically, Hurricane Katrina happened, at the beginning of September 2005, and there was a local community activist, Malik Rahim, a Black Panther with a lot of history doing community work in New Orleans. He put out a call to people all over the country saying we need help down here. The health clinic was set up within a week to provide basic first aid and services for the people who had stayed through the storm and then shortly thereafter for the workers who were coming down to help with the rebuilding, and then later also people who were starting to come back to the city. So a friend of mine had come down and hooked up with them, and she called me and said I think you should come down and help out. So I went in October. By the time I got there it was amazing, there were doctors, nurses, herbalists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, physical therapists from all over the country who had come down and with totally donated supplies, donated space, were seeing a hundred patients a day. It was just remarkable.

LH: What had happened with the mainstream hospitals and the like at that time? Were they not really functional or what was happening?

Bay: In September, because the flooding was so bad, all the other health clinics across New Orleans has been shut down. There was like a provisional emergency room that had been set up, but it was way overloaded. So we were seeing hundreds of people and for most people it was the only place that was available to them. By about November, December, we found out that the City had no plans to reopen the charity hospital, which was the main public hospital system for most people in New Orleans who are also uninsured or underinsured where they went to get their healthcare. So we decided, well, let’s see if we can keep our clinic open because if we don’t, all these people will be left with nowhere to go.

Outside the clinic<< Outside the clinic

We felt that there was an intentional dynamic happening where poor people were being pushed out of the city, and discouraged from coming back in, for example by shutting down the entire healthcare system. We thought by providing healthcare we could provide mutual aid and solidarity for those exercising their right to return.

So we decided to open long term but the way we got involved with the Institute was that by October, because of racism, it was mostly young white people who had answered Malik’s call and volunteered in the Health Clinic. So here you had about 30-50 volunteers at any one time at the clinic, of mostly white, mostly young people in the middle of a historically African-American community and city that was struggling to rebuild itself. So it was very clear that if we didn’t understand racism, and how it was playing out in our organisation, that we weren’t going to be effective in doing what we wanted to do, which is supporting these people to move back to the city. We started to hear a lot about the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which was an organisation based in New Orleans, and people had great things to say about them. In January 2006, we were able to raise enough money and get people to agree to take 2 days off to actually go and do the Undoing Racism workshop. So everyone involved, all the volunteers, some patients, some local people, mostly people from out of town, went. That was the first time I had been to the workshop, but it just made a lot of sense to me. It explained a lot of things that I had been trying to figure out on my own. Then I was part of a group that formed called the Antiracism working group, to really struggle with the question – how do we take the principles of antiracist organising that we learned in the workshop and apply them to our organisation, everyday? One of the things that we do in the group was just to continue to organise the workshops so that new volunteers and later staff and everyone involved could have this analysis of racism.

LH: What other practical implications did this have on the way you were working?

Bay: It pushed us a lot to look at the root causes of why people are sick. That it’s not just that people lack healthcare services. People are ill because of poverty, because the education system’s terrible, because they’ve been harassed by the justice system, across the board there are all these reasons. So, in the clinic we have an analysis that we can’t just improve the health status of a community by providing good healthcare services, but that we have to figure out how to work in solidarity with people to transform their own communities. I’m not sure how that’s changed practically how we provide healthcare on a day to day basis but it sort of creates a new context. When the providers are seeing a patient, understanding that the patient they are seeing is dealing with all these different issues, and providing healthcare to the patient in a way that doesn’t see them as non-compliant, dumb, lazy, but as someone who is legitimately struggling to rebuild their city, rebuild their community. It’s changed the context in which we operate in, and also just among co-workers, it’s allowed for a lot more authenticity and honesty in our relationships with each other. We are also well respected for the work we do in the city, and part of that is from prioritising the antiracist work.

We’ve also been really successful at having patients involved in the organisation at all levels. That’s part of what we strive for.

LH: How does that work?

Bay: One thing is that we have been able to hire staff, who are from the patient community, whose mothers or grandmothers or aunts or uncles actually use the clinic. So there’s a more direct relationship between the staff and the patient community. We also have events, we have programmes, in all of them we are trying to consistently create opportunities for patients to be involved. So we might have workdays for example we just started having a volunteer healthcare resource guide printing day, where people will come in and print the guides together. We also have different volunteers who will work on the front desk, there’s always been different volunteer positions available and we look to find patients who might be interested. We actively build the relationships that allow us to work in solidarity with the community  as opposed to being a charity. We’re trying to get more patients on our board at the moment, it’s about half people from New Orleans.

anne-in-action1LH: Now that you’ve been there for a good few years, working in the area and doing the workshops, how has it affected you on a personal level? What’s changed for you? What were you doing before?

Bay: Before, I had just graduated from college. In that summer, I was thinking about going to medical school, and wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to enter a healthcare establishment or get more of a political grounding beforehand. So I deferred school then moved to New Orleans. I came with the intention of seeing if healthcare was really something I wanted to do, and learning more about community organising and understanding racism so working in the Common Ground Health Clinic was really the perfect thing. And one of the main things I have learnt is that building social movements is really what my life is about. I love what I do, I get a real sense of hope doing it. A lot of people say that the clinic or the Undoing Racism workshop has changed their lives, and that is such a privilege and honour to be a part of. That work has become my life.

And being here has been a really good experience, doing the workshop, visiting family I have here, hanging out in Brighton, it has made me look at things on a more global scale and realise how much we do have to learn from each other. Even though there were places where the workshop didn’t line up, I was blown away by how much great feedback we got from the kids and the organisers, how helpful it was for them. It made me really proud to be part of an organisation that can provide that for people. And made me feel connected, in the understanding that we’re dealing with such similar challenges and opportunites.

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond
www.pisab.org

Common Ground Health Clinic, New Orleans
www.cghc.org

Common Ground Health ClinicCommon Ground Health Clinic

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