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  Interactive Question Of The Week
Common Ground volunteers bridge racial divide
by April Capochino
Common Ground volunteer Amy Squires unpacks canned goods for distribution. She works six days a week helping Lower Ninth Ward residents rebuild their lives.
Common Ground volunteer Amy Squires unpacks canned goods for distribution. She works six days a week helping Lower Ninth Ward residents rebuild their lives.
Dressed in cuffed dirty jeans, a purple T-shirt and dusty flip-flops, Amy Squires unloads bottled gallons of water for New Orleans residents under a distribution tent on Pauline Street in the Ninth Ward.

The 21-year-old Boston native chats with residents about their day while restocking water and other food and supplies.

Squires came to New Orleans two months ago to work with Common Ground collective, an organization created after Hurricane Katrina to provide short-term relief for hurricane victims and long-term rebuilding support. Of the nearly 5,000 volunteers in the organization, 98 percent are from outside Louisiana.

Squires sleeps in a tent behind the distribution center and will be here until May.

“I don’t like the heat,” she said, grinning. “We’ll see what life brings after that. I may have to get a real job.”

Squires is educated, open-minded, optimistic and ready to help rebuild New Orleans one gutted home at a time.

She’s a long way from her northeastern roots and even further from Colby College — her Maine alma mater where 89 percent of its nearly 2,000 students are white and the annual tuition tops $41,000.

She works 12-hour days, six days a week, helping residents in the predominantly African-American Ninth Ward rebuild their lives.

It’s her first time in New Orleans. Squires said she has embraced the warmth and kindness New Orleanians have offered.

“What a community. I mean, wow, what a community this is,” said Squires. “You just don’t see this up north. I get so many hugs each day.”

‘Bridging the gap’

Squires is one of thousands of young, white out-of-towners volunteering in the Ninth and Lower Ninth wards. It’s no coincidence they’re living and working in one of the city’s largest African-American communities.

How much “common ground” white college students share with poor, working class African-Americans from New Orleans is up for debate. That’s why Squires’ presence is so important, organizers say.

“A majority of our volunteers are white,” said Malik Rahim, co-founder of Common Ground collective, a veteran of the Black Panther Party in New Orleans and grandfather of 26. “They need to see that all blacks in the Ninth Ward are not criminals on crack. We put the whites in charge of operations in the Ninth Ward and blacks in charge of operations in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. We’re bridging the gap. We’re trying to put the unity back in community.”

The organization, now applying for nonprofit status, began Sept. 5 to help hurricane victims not receiving help from the government.

“Why help? Because no one else was helping them,” Rahim said. “They city wasn’t helping them. The state wasn’t helping them and the federal government sure wasn’t helping them.”

Common Ground has served 65,000 people since its inception in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Terrebonne parishes. Volunteers have gutted nearly 1,000 homes, Rahim said.

As word of the organization’s mission spread, its volunteer base grew from four people to now include about 5,000, Rahim said. Only 100 are from Louisiana.

Seventy percent have been students and 25 percent have degrees. Many volunteers have already committed to up to five years of service in New Orleans.

Amanda Salane, an 18-year-old from Scarsdale, N.Y., came to New Orleans nearly three weeks ago to volunteer.

“The first day I gutted a house and nine or 10 people flagged us down to thank us,” said Salane, who dropped out of high school and quit her job before arriving in New Orleans. “I wasn’t aware of (the amount of destruction). I spoke to my mom on the phone when I got down here and she said they should tear it down. I said, ‘Mom, these are people’s homes.’”

Common Ground provides free food, water, cleaning supplies, protective gear, diapers, health and hygiene goods, medical assistance, legal assistance, day care and tutoring as well as soil and water testing and Internet access. It produces a monthly newspaper with a circulation of about 25,000.

“If it wasn’t for Common Ground, there is so much that wouldn’t be able to take place,” said Dawn Robinson while picking up water, rags and other necessities at the Pauline Street distribution center. Robinson lost her home and lives in her car in her parents’ driveway. “They keep us going. It’s a resource for a lot of residents.”

Darren McKinney, born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, was forced from his apartment by the storm. Seven months later, he’s still haunted by the visions of rising water.

A vacant look was on his face as he sat on a pile of boxes underneath the Common Ground tent on a warm Tuesday afternoon. A bucket of food, toiletries, bandages and cleaning supplies sat at his feet.

“Nobody expected anything like this to happen,” said the 39-year-old who now lives outside Houston. He returns to the city with help from Common Ground volunteers to help family and friends gut their homes. “They doin’ good for us. Making sure people have necessary needs.”

Ruffled feathers

Common Ground has faced controversy. Its volunteers entered Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School on Caffin Street in the Lower Ninth Ward on March 22 to gut the school. New Orleans Public School officials tried to stop them, citing unsafe building conditions. They went in anyway to clean it out.

MLK is one of the state Board of Education’s recovery school districts. School officials were not happy Common Ground entered the school as it did, said Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, but the state and Common Ground have since forged a relationship.

“We basically said if you want to help us, we have things for you to do,” Casper said. “They’ve got the manpower and they’re going to have people here all summer.”

Rahim said there will be more bumps in the road but he’s committed to helping hurricane victims rebuild their lives.

“We’re a new organization and we’ve made some mistakes,” he said. “But we’re not arrogant about those mistakes. If we make a mistake and fall down, we dust off our behinds and get up and analyze the mistake to make sure that we learn from it.”•

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