September 19, 2005
Sam Marie Engle
I just wanted to update [you] on the status of me and
my family. We’re fine. Although we’ve lost everything
(materialistically), we still have each other and our lives, so we
have very, very much to be thankful for... There is SO MUCH racial
tension right now, so much of what we see in our community building
projects, just on a grander, more overt and eerily fatal scale ...
Please, please just consider ... in what ways can community building
be applied to rebuilding constructive relationships in a city like
New Orleans when everything has been lost by everyone?
This message came by e-mail from Alicia Sanchez, one
2004 Kenneth Cole Fellows. Reading it, I felt sadness: thousands
of people were dying or had died in the worst natural disaster this
nation has seen in a century.
I felt pain—deep, stabbing, searing pain—from
the knowledge that every day in the United States, millions of people
live in squalor and filth.
Their children wake up dreading another day of sickness and violence and fear
and hunger and loss. We turn our backs on their decrepit housing; we refuse to
pay them a living wage even when we do employ them; we ignore their lack of transportation
and the fact that no transportation means no way to get to work or to school—or
to escape, should disaster strike.
I also felt tremendous pride in Alicia. Her message
pointed out what she had
learned from Emory’s Kenneth Cole Fellowship about equity and social justice,
about the power of collaboration to create positive change in the community,
about the need for honest dialogue.
Truly, though, we didn’t teach her all of that.
She, like many other Emory students, came well equipped with a passion
for justice, a desire to use her
gifts and her intellect to make a positive difference, both here in Atlanta and
there in her home of New Orleans. We simply taught her the language of collaboration,
the framework for building communities from the inside out. We gave her a beginner’s
set of tools with which she could connect with others and create the change we
all desperately want to see.
As I read Alicia’s plea for help, I thought of
how we had taught her and the other fellows that there is nothing
worse than doing
nothing. Feeling powerless
because I personally could not go to New Orleans and rescue people, I did the
only thing I could do: I volunteered
On Labor Day I worked for several hours at a Salvation
Army relief site in Marietta. There I saw the outpouring of generosity:
and piles of clothes for all
ages and shapes, food, toiletries, and housewares. Volunteers fell over one another,
so many and eager were they.
The evacuees told us stories about escaping, some just
before, others just after the storm, of driving for hours and hours
find somewhere to stay. Some
had come from war-torn countries only a few years ago to begin new lives in New
Orleans and Biloxi. Once again these people found themselves searching for safety
and shelter. Every one of them smiled optimistically, even though they had nothing
to which they could return once the waters subsided.
When we hugged goodbye—strangers made friends
in a few precious minutes—I
held tight, wanting them to know someone cared for and loved them.
When the families stopped streaming in, we moved to
the gym and set up cots for 100 evacuees. We put on each cot a pillow
blanket, sheets, towels
(all worn but clean) and a plastic container for storing meager possessions.
These beds were for the people who had fought the floodwaters, the ones rescued
from rooftops and from the fetid Superdome.
When we were finished, I stopped and looked around
at those 100 cots with no more than a chair-width between them. Could
I live here?
Could I sleep with strangers
surrounding me? Could I put up with no privacy, nowhere to go, nothing to do
except remember all I had that was gone? Could I accept this as my home for who
knows how long?
More importantly, should anyone accept this? Only now,
with houses destroyed, lives shattered, do we open our checkbooks
and our closets
and share what we
have. Why did it take so long? In the richest, most powerful nation, I have to
ask: Is this good enough?
Our leaders say, “We are doing the best we can.”
I wonder if we really are doing the best we can. In
the relief site, I saw on the face of every volunteer a desperate
No one complained
about the hard work. No one whined for a break. No one argued. Everyone did
whatever was necessary, and more.
Imagine if that happened every day. Imagine if we worked
for social justice without complaining or blaming or resenting.
As I watched the horror of the Gulf Coast, I thought
about my hometown, Atlanta, and the neighborhoods where the Office
In the neighborhoods where we work, nine miles from
Emory’s lush campus,
half of the 20,000 or so families do not own a vehicle. Sixty-two percent of
families and 70 percent of the children live in poverty. The median annual household
income would not cover even half of Emory’s annual tuition. One-third of
families pay more than 35 percent of that income to rent housing that violates
numerous housing codes. Forty-five percent of the adults never graduated from
high school. More than half have no job.
If disaster struck Atlanta, those people would meet
the same fate as the poorest of New Orleans. Thousands would be trapped,
no means of escape, and no money
for food or shelter should they be so lucky as to be evacuated. Their houses
would crumble, and everything they had—which wouldn’t be much—would
be washed away.
The OUCP works every day to help Atlantans escape the
disaster of poverty before it drowns both them and us. We investigate
of social welfare policy
and push for change. We train residents in self-advocacy. We teach students to
think critically about and act decisively against racism and classism. We mentor
children so they will see themselves as scholars, not discards. We train teachers
so they can partner with parents in support of middle school education excellence.
We do it for Alicia. We do it for all of Emory’s
students, because they deserve to know that they have an obligation
and an opportunity to change this
world for the good of all people. We do it for the mothers and fathers and children
we don’t even know because they are our neighbors, our co-workers, ourselves.
We do it because the waters are rising everywhere.