Last night I went to the weekly Hare Krishna dinner for the first time in almost a year. I went mostly because I was walking around the neighborhood right around the time they started serving and I had no food in the kitchen and very little money to buy anything else. Then I remembered that every Sunday evening since way before I moved to this neighborhood, the Hare Krishnas have been cooking pretty amazing dinners for anybody who wants to come by. It’s nice to give a donation but they don’t turn anyone away. Before the flood, there’d be months when I would go every single Sunday, and I always cherished it as a time for folks from all over the neighborhood (and beyond) to come together and share food and the long slow evening time in their flowery courtyard. Like many of my memories of how things were before the flood, I now think of those bygone Sunday dinners as idyllic: children running in and out of thick curtains of jasmine; multigenerational groups of neighbors laughing in plastic patio chairs, their smiles glittering across the yard in the day’s last moments of light.
Right after the flood I remember those gatherings as smaller, younger, and whiter, but at least at first, everyone who went was, if not from the neighborhood, at least from New Orleans. I remember going through a few months where many of us, for reasons that were likely both petty and noble, pledged to each other that we weren’t going to let anyone from Common Ground know about these dinners. I think at that point so many of us were still so fragile, still trying so desperately to carve out some carefree community space that we didn’t have to define or defend or interpret or explain, or maybe even just share, with people from out of town.
A year later, the secret’s out. This reality, like many feared eventualities, is both much more and much less cataclysmic to me now than I imagined it would be a year ago.
Last night, I heard the sounds of the gathering about a block before I actually made it to the yard surrounding the temple. Crowds of mostly young white folks were packed into a line that snaked through the garden and out the front gate. More people were gathered outside, talking on cell phones or unfolding large maps of the city. One girl was doing both; “take a right on Esplanahhd,” she said to the person on the other line. I didn’t see anyone I knew. At one point a tired-looking South Asian woman in a sari pushed her way through the line. “No smoking, please don’t smoke here,” she was repeating, never breaking her stride. I watched some people stamp out their cigarette butts in the footpath in the garden. After she passed by, the boy behind me lit up again. Finally I saw my roommate from across the crowd. I ran over to where he was, practically jumping over hedges to get to a familiar face. “It’s so weird here,” he said. “I haven’t been here in months.”
In the end, though, it was all right. We ate and the food was delicious; we ran into some people we knew; we got invited to someone’s party. I made friends with a ridiculously beautiful six-year-old with Down syndrome who kept leaping out of her father’s arms to give me wild joyous hugs. But it was crowded and loud and I just couldn’t stop staring at all those strangers.
Outside, I watched people talk, and I felt extremely aware of all the emotions happening inside me. On one hand, it’s still so draining for me to hear what’s now been hundreds of earnest mostly white people, mostly in town for a couple of weeks, saying things like, “Oh my God, this place is so INTENSE!”
On the other hand, though, I feel like I’m starting to get to a place in my heart where I can really appreciate, and not just on an intellectual level, that masses of young people, from multiple political orientations, have been profoundly transformed by their experiences of doing work in this city. And I really think that’s totally beautiful! At its best, this large-scale transformation has the potential to widely shape massive political movements against racism and injustice across this country. And, of course, for that to happen in a legitimate way, there’s lots more conscious, strategic work we all need to be doing.
On my walk home the streets seemed dark and lonely: stray cats scuttling beneath cars, the air still too thin for that heady springtime jasmine rush that’ll come later. I kept passing by groups of neighbors talking quietly on porches and thinking, “back in the day, we might’ve been sitting at a table together.” Somehow seeing all my neighbors out, but at their separate houses and not all together at a place where we used to all feel comfortable going, made this entire community feel much more disconnected than I think it actually is.
I felt a deep sense of loss for all the community spaces across this city that have been either destroyed or profoundly altered since the flood. Like everything, the impact of this loss is so much deeper in our low-income communities of color, where neighborhood centers for the arts and for community gatherings have been flooded out, evicted to make room for higher-paying mostly white tenants, or closed altogether. (See an awesome article by Jordan Flaherty for more detailed information and insight on the effects this is having throughout the community.)
White volunteers from out of town are not the cause of the fracturing I felt in my community that day; that comes from the racism, economic injustice and gender exploitation that have allowed the flood and its aftermath to put us in this situation in the first place. However, white people from out of town, especially those who are here in the name of promoting social justice, are also not exempt from taking responsibility for their impact on the larger community, whether this means respecting the physical places in which they find themselves, working in accountable connection with local communities, or honoring and learning about the long and vibrant history of social movements coming out of New Orleans, all of which will continue to exist and struggle in this city long after they leave.
Of course, ultimately this isn’t the point. After almost 2 years of engaging with how my own role in the struggle for justice has evolved since the flood, the predominant emotion I felt on my lonely walk home that night was not my annoyance at the behavior of those out-of-town people; and not my reintensified desire to minutely police all well-intentioned white people or non-local people in this movement who sometimes (like me and everyone else I know!) make less-than perfect decisions in the struggles we all share; and not my anger and grief over the loss of a beloved community institution, no matter how small; and not even my deeper and more profound sense of unresolvable loss when I am faced with concrete reminders of how my society has been irreversibly broken. Oh, no; not even that last one, which breaks my heart every day, even now; which I am finally beginning to understand I will never get over; which still causes me to well up in uncontrollable torrents of sadness when I listen to a sad song on community radio or drive by my neighbors’ still-empty houses, their molded chairs still perched on stoops, waiting.
No, it wasn’t any of those emotions that carried me home that night, not even that raw well of grief: it was a sense of commitment, deeper than anything I’d felt in a long time, to rededicate myself toward working for concrete, meaningful changes that will lead us all more closely to liberation. For this work we need everyone, and I have never felt more grateful than I do now to count myself among every single member of these multitudes of eager committed passionate imperfect people. For this work we have so much growing and work before us, and we need so much heart and strength to carry it forth. For this work I need to believe in every one of us.