Emory Report
September 19, 2005
Volume 58, Number 4


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September 19, 2005
Washed away

BY 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 of Emory’s 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: piles 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 trying to 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 with pillowcase, 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 need to do something. 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 of University-Community Partnerships (OUCP) works.

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, with 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 the impacts 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.