Magnolia Project leads to a life in the Big Easy

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When asked to write this, I hesitated because I wasn’t comfortable with the idea that I might be seen as an inspiration for volunteering in a disenfranchised community. I am rarely questioned by folks outside of progressive spaces about the glaring white privilege I have and what business I have in a community of color. I even meet folks in New Orleans that encourage my “generous” efforts. I am a white woman, a Cal graduate, currently serving in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. My service here and the beginning of unpacking my invisible knapsack of white privilege all began at Cal in the safe space of the Public Service Center.

In March 2011, I co-led an Alternative Breaks trip to the Big Easy. We were assigned to cut grass because the city of New Orleans fines homeowners who let their grass grow more than 18 inches. I soon learned grass grows incredibly quickly in this swampy tropical region and that many folks accumulate so many fines they are forced to turn over their properties to the city. Most have yet to return home, and the city continues to take control of the fined properties. Once, as 14 volunteers chopped through one jungle whose grass had grown taller than me, we uncovered a red toy fire truck, a few tires and even the frame of a beat-up automobile. I felt as if I were peering into someone’s previous life through the remnants of his belongings. I was no longer cutting grass; I was excavating someone’s past. This was a symbol of the government and public’s choice to ignore and oppress this family’s community. The L9W still lacks basic infrastructure, such as a police station, a hospital, a grocery store, a pharmacy and a fire station (which is currently being built). The city of New Orleans has clearly disinvested in this community.

After each trip, I left feeling unsettled and reflecting on the privileges I hold with my identity as a white woman attending a prestigious university. Through Magnolia Project, I continued to be involved while exploring volunteers’ roles in spaces such as the Deep South. I committed a part of each year to serving the Crescent City and to better understanding its history, politics and community organization. And through my work with Voice Of the Ex-Offender, I came to better understand what it means to act as and to aspire to be an ally to formerly incarcerated people and folks of color. I was blessed to work with revolutionary folks willing to give me feedback and have conversations with me about what freedom looks like.

Now I find myself in New Orleans again, working with a community center, the Lower 9th Ward Village, I previously had the privilege of serving through Alternative Breaks and Magnolia Project. I continue to feel conflicted with my decision to come back to New Orleans as a long-term volunteer and a part of the community because of the harmful impact gentrification has on the communities of color here. I know my mere presence contributes to this gentrification, as I’m another white transplant in this city.

I believe that I am doing meaningful work in the L9W and that I am being useful to the projects that are spearheaded and led by native New Orleanians. I have developed some tools through my work within the PSC and through the support of my mentors there to actively reflect on my work here and the potential (positive and negative) impacts that I may have on the community despite my good intentions. I am reflecting on the tension I am experiencing as a white woman working in a black community where the history of slavery persists in the layout of the neighborhood and has a significant impact on the sociogeography of this community. I think the tension I feel is rational and important to recognize, and thus, I am sitting with this tension and striving to be an ally working in solidarity with the folks of color in this community. As I continue to work in the social justice movement, I strive to practice cultural humility and consistently reflect on the privileges I hold. This isn’t a mere act of altruism; this is a struggle I truly believe in, and I strive to be in solidarity with the folks facing this struggle.

Rebecca Fisher-McGinty is a former UC Berkeley student and the former Magnolia Project communications and education director.

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