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After a week spent volunteering in New Orleans, I left overcome with two feelings: one, of the converging influences of racism, classism and capitalism preventing a just rebuilding process; and two, of the way my college delicately skirts challenging these forms of oppression.

I journeyed to New Orleans from Selma, AL with 165 other students, many of whom were African-American and attended historically black colleges and some who attended historically white ones including Columbia and NYU. We constituted the week two participants in a month-long initiative organized by the group Katrina on the Ground to bring students together with survivors to assist in the rebuilding process.

In New Orleans, coordinators from the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund integrated us into the work they had been doing since Katrina hit to provide and advocate for a just relief and a just return for New Orleanians. We broke into five groups: gutting and cleaning of houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, surveying residents on the streets or at hotels about their needs and desires, conducting exit interviews with recently released prisoners of the Orleans Parish Prison, and helping reestablish a women’s health clinic and a community bookstore.

Each night, the majority of our group slept on cots between the pews of the historic St. Augustine’s Parish, the oldest black Catholic Church in the U.S. We arrived just days before the official closing of the parish by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, citing lack of funding, and joined the parishioners in their fight to keep their parish open and its many ministries, including a food pantry and clothing drive, operating. Father Jerome LeDoux, the African-American priest who has officiated at St. Augustine’s for the past fifteen years will be replaced by a white priest from the neighboring St. Peter Claver Church, whose church, unlike St. Augustine’s, was completely devastated by the hurricane.

At a community meeting held the night before the closing, a parishioner divulged that Archdiocesan officials were in negotiations with Barnes & Nobles to unleash a plan wherein the bookstore giant would “brand” the property of St. Augustine’s and the neighborhood of Treme with B&N signs and slogans. Apparently the two contracting agents could not reach an agreement and the deal fell through.

Another parishioner spoke of similar capitalist drives behind the plans for the Lower Ninth Ward. Quite bluntly, the resident said the reason that they, presumably city officials, do not want residents to return is because of the seventy-two trillion tons of oil purported to be beneath the family houses built there.

While the need for just and comprehensive passages of return for Katrina survivors is ever present, it appeared to me that city, state, and federal officials have placed more resources in the further displacement, disruption, and, in regards to New Orleans residents, disenfranchisement of Katrina survivors.

For instance, prior to Hurricane Katrina, Blacks, Latinos and a small Vietnamese population inhabited Village Square, a small neighborhood in the overwhelmingly white parish of St. Bernard’s. Lynn Dean, a white St. Bernard Parish resident of over fifty years and member of his parish’s governing council, is the sole vocal opponent of his councils’ decision to demolish Village Square. According to Dean, his councils’ contention that the Square is prone to flooding is unjustifiable. In a map indicating flood-prone areas in the parish, Village Square is the least likely of places to flood in the whole of the parish.

Dean said that the council of seven, plans to build condominiums and possibly a golf course in Village Square. Debris removal, demolition and other projects in the parish have come to a standstill, Dean explained, as FEMA will not give the council any more funding until it can account for $30 million, $10 million of which, the council cannot produce receipts. 

Another instance of a continual slapping in the face of the city’s residents is the situation with public housing. We passed – on our way to Tulane University to shower – a development of two-story brick buildings, collectively known as The Projects, whose doors and windows had been sealed shut with steel plates. A barbed wire fence had been constructed around the buildings blocking access to returning residents.

As I said at the start of this piece, I returned home to Harlem with my senses sharpened to the endemic, injurious and enduring way oppression continues to perform in people’s lives. My thoughts drifted to Amherst and the colorful catalogues, diversity orientations, special diversity weekends and other diversity initiatives common on campus. I asked myself, was Amherst really working to reenergize its efforts to take on the various forms of oppression that serve as stumbling blocks to any true progress or, was the school, like others, operating behind a facade?

Instead of circumventing the pioneering work needed to eradicate institutionalized forms of oppression, college administration, faculty and students must confront the systems of power and privilege that we as individuals and together as an institution foster. In doing so, we will leave these colleges better equipped to deal with the world’s inability to eradicate, let alone, dialogue about race, sex, class etc.

I believe educational institutions have a certain responsibility to taking up this cause in a more than half-hearted way because of their self-imposed charge to prepare their students for the world. What I would suggest as one way for Amherst to reintegrate itself into the politics of this country would be to institutionalize an anti-oppression curriculum, such as the in-service learning program that I participated in over Spring Break. As students we might leave, willing or, at least, able to, as our motto advises, give light to the world. 

Currently, the spotlight on hate crime restlessly waits on Duke and Columbia; must we wait in line for our turn to release short-lived fury at injustice? Of course not, let’s begin the long-term work now!

Nzingha Tyehemba can be reached by email at nntyehemba@amherst.edu.

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April 20, 2006
Issue 180

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