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Dishing out hope with the hot food, and pondering the racial overtones of relief effort

– Moods shift at the Dome within a day, from day to day, and for individuals throughout the day. I have learned to enjoy food service, especially breakfast, because it is at the beginning of the day, when there is hope that this will be a better day, or such hope can be created. At the Dome I've learned from professional food service workers how to be efficient in a food line, and from other volunteer food workers how to serve up a little cheer. For the last two days I staffed food service for the elderly and disabled at the Dome with Santos, a local man working for a company that provides the food; with Jerry, a fellow Red Cross volunteer from Indiana; and with two walk-in volunteers from New Jersey, Bob and Marge. Not affiliated with any volunteer organization, Bob and Marge cashed in their frequent flyer miles for a ticket to Houston, rented a car, and found their way to the Dome. (There are oh so many such accounts of feeling compelled to come, with many, many people volunteering for the first time.) In the food service area this couple found the venue where they could do their best work, and work they did, twelve hours a day for three days straight. They were two of the most giving people I think I've ever met. I can still hear their cheerful mantras in their distinctively Joy-sy accents: "What'll it be today? I have grits, I have cereal, I have pigs in a blanket. And can I get you a donut too? And what about you, sir? Would you like something to drink? Water? Juice? Ma'am, try a Fanta strawberry? What about an apple to go with that meal?"

But these examples trivialize what they tried to offer Dome residents. I heard this Jersey couple comment, "We're not just giving people food; we're here to make them feel a little better." And as amazing as it seems, I saw them do it time after time, across the vast cultural, linguistic, socio-economic, and racial gaps that separated most of the volunteers from the Dome residents. Bob would clown, he would tell corny jokes, he would find excuses to carry on a conversation with whoever appeared. And you know what? I saw people look at him at first as if he were daft, but then I also saw those slow smiles appear, and gradually, and more often than not, I saw him make a simple connection, person to person. Jerry, the volunteer from Indiana, took every opportunity to do his juggling act to get a smile from a child who had requested or had been persuaded to receive an apple. "Do you want the orange on the left?" he'd ask, "or the orange on the right! Or the orange in the middle!" The kid would stand transfixed for a moment as the fruit flew through the air, captivated by a performance being put on just for him or for her. Indeed, most of the volunteers that I came in contact with seemed to care with a care that was more than care, to borrow from the old Poe poem. Once a Red Cross volunteer escorted to our food area a little girl and her mother, a very tall woman dressed in gold lame trousers, an attire strangely incongruous with our dungeon-like surroundings (Dome residents are at the mercy of other people's closets). We learned that she had learned the day before that her father, the child's grandfather, had been lost in the hurricane. As we looked at them sitting on a bench across from us, the Red Cross volunteer plying the child with first this food item and then that, the striking woman in gold lame staring vacantly and stone-faced, Jerry, the volunteer from Indiana, began to cry. "Seeing them just got to me," he explained without embarrassment. I've seen more tears on men's faces during my week's stay here than I have seen in my entire life. The immensity of the tragedy, and the toll on individuals' lives, "gets to" volunteers at unpredictable moments.

One of those moments for me came when I spoke with a group of Red Cross medic volunteers from Guadalajara, Mexico, as I saw them waiting at my hotel. I had seen these young men my very first day here, as I rode the light rail to the Dome. They were a group of six and wore their Red Cross vests on the train. I admired them from a distance, thinking how terrific it was that they were here, how magnanimous. I happened to be sitting next to an older woman on the train, a Latina, and as she got up for her stop, I saw her tug at the shirt of one of the young men. "Gracias," she said, nodding her head affirmatively as he turned to look at her. "De nada," he answered, smiling. During my hotel conversation with one of the group I learned that he and his unit were an elite force from a famous Red Cross chapter, where other Latin American countries send their volunteers to be trained. He told me they were deployed at St. Agnes Baptist Church in Houston, which is another big shelter, giving out water to folks in the long lines, assessing their conditions in the heat, attending to them medically if the need arises. "This is not what we thought we would be doing," he noted, but graciously added that they were nonetheless happy to be here and to be able to help out in any way possible. I assume that because they are an elite group of medics, rescue trained, they thought they would be going to the flood zones in New Orleans or the Gulf coast, and no doubt their technical know-how could have been best utilized there. As I thanked them for coming I felt my eyes well up, but I'm not exactly sure why this happened at that particular moment. And as I turned to go, the young medic had parting words for me that I keep mulling over. He said, "This will change your life! You won't be the same now after Katrina!" I wondered whether he was addressing me personally, or the U.S. in general, or maybe both. Will our lives in this country indeed be changed? Will this disaster set in motion a socio-political transformation, given feet not so much by the experiences of front-line volunteers as by the shock wave that was sent round the nation when those pictures of the African American poor, herded into the Superdome, made visible the legacies of racism and classism in this country for all the world for all to see?

It is an odd thing to look about the Astrodome and view a sea of black faces and then notice dotted among them a crew of Red Cross volunteers who are predominantly white. (It is true that there are a few white evacuees in the Dome, but very, very few, and fewer still Latinos, and no Asian American evacuees that I have seen. This is not, of course, to say that these groups were not affected by Katrina. But what I have learned in conversations with some of the Vietnamese and Latino evacuees who have come to the Dome seeking assistance is that they are staying with relatives in the area instead of at shelters. This means, unfortunately, that many have not had ready access to the resources that have been made available, however inefficiently, at shelters.) I've become friends with Clyde, a Red Cross volunteer from Sacramento, retired postal worker, former military man, and one of only a handful of African American volunteers here. I asked him what he thought that all these many African American evacuees thought about all the white folks who were attempting to minister to them. "Odd," he said, and added they probably also thought it was about time. We had had a staff meeting a few hours earlier, and Clyde said he had counted the African Americans volunteers present, and there were just three including him. I've also become friends with Barbara, an African American woman who is a nurse from Berkeley, having moved there from New York. We haven't had much time to talk even though we are roommates, because we are on different shifts and don't see each other for days on end. But a couple of nights ago I stayed up late trying to write my postings, so I was awake when she returned at 12 a.m., and we talked as long as I stayed awake, comparing our experiences, including our perceptions of racial dynamics. She said she knew that many evacuees sensed and appreciated the compassion of the white volunteers, but she also said she knew there was suspicion and distrust. Further, she had noticed that when she was walking with a group of white volunteers, African Americans invariably came up to her to ask their questions, "because I look like them," she simply put it, "and they are therefore more comfortable with me."

Barbara talked about the kind of advice she can provide as an African American that doesn't come as readily to white volunteers. One woman she had been caring for had been prescribed a mood enhancing drug, yet she would not take it because she was afraid that people would steal her things if she relaxed too much, especially at night. (Theft at night is common in the Dome, and single people with no family are especially vulnerable.) This woman had taken responsibility for looking after her whole family, including an adult son in his early 20's who had a young wife "with a baby in her belly," as Barbara put it. Barbara said she pointed out to the woman that as an African American woman herself, she knew the compulsion to be the primary care-taker. "But you also have to take care of yourself!" Barbara admonished her. And she turned to the woman's son and swept over his protests that he didn't know how to seek out resources, telling him to get off his ass and get out there and find the information on housing that his family needed. (This is definitely not the way I would have been able to say it!) She also appealed to the woman's religious faith, telling her to act on her belief that God would take care of her by stopping to take time to care for herself instead of everyone else. Barbara said she thought she had made a little headway with the woman, and she also saw the son headed over in the direction of the information center at the Dome.

Many people have asked me what they can do to help the residents of the Dome and other evacuees, given what I know firsthand. I can think of no more important way to help at home than to make it possible for African Americans to serve as volunteers-to be able to leave their families and jobs and spend time at shelters as disaster relief workers for the hurricane survivors.

All of this said, I must add that serving with the mostly white Red Cross volunteers, like Bob and Marge from Joy-sy and Jerry from Indiana, has made me experience a little bit of pride in white America. People have a lot of different motives for serving, but predominantly the story line is the same: I saw what was happening, I felt tethered to CNN, I had to DO something. California, by the way, has the most volunteers here of any state. Every other person I meet is from California – Sacramento, Berkeley, Modesto, LA, Santa Barbara, and little towns I have never heard of. Further, the racial dynamics are not simple and cannot be reduced with finality in any dichotomous way. One morning Jerry and I were late for food service, having been sequestered in a mandatory Red Cross briefing (which we thereafter elected not to attend), and two people who were employed by a company that provided various services in the Dome had been drafted to ladle the grits. This was an African American couple, and they seemed unhappy with the assignment. Maybe, as I look back, they were uncomfortable standing with foreign-sounding white folks who were trying to ladle good cheer. It is also likely that class issues entered here. The people who were stuck in the Super Dome were the African Americans in New Orleans who had the fewest resources, and those who remained at the Astrodome this week were the poorest of those poor and the recipients of our harshest legacies of discrimination. I did meet some African American evacuees who were middle class professionals, but they were not staying at the Dome. Judging by their dress and their employment, the African American couple who joined us in food service were also middle class professionals. In any case, I stood by the man and listened to him chastise people in what seemed to me an angry tone as they asked for extra food. ("Give me some more grits!" "Brother, don't you know that other people have got to eat too? Move on down....I told you to move on down! Now!").

As I watched, the mood in the breakfast line perceptibly changed and our regulars sent sullen looks our way, the contours of their faces remolding themselves in an instant. The man couldn't be persuaded to mend his tone, despite Jerry's efforts. He probably didn't realize that what he perceived as bad manners came at least in part from the fact that the people had not had a hot breakfast in the Dome for the last few days. The usual morning fare is donuts, cereal, and muffins. ("I see y'all still pushin' the sugar," noted one man just the day before, as he had sauntered by, declining to join the breakfast line.) There is also the possibility that he was deliberately administering some tough love, as Barbara had done with the woman's passive son; there are, after all, culturally patterned ways of showing care. But I personally could not endure what seemed too harsh a tone for people who had recently endured so much and what I knew was a downward change in the collective mood. I exercised the freedom of a volunteer, one of course unavailable to the evacuees and the paid employees too, threw my gloves in the trash, and left to find another assignment. Jerry later conspired to prevent the couple from working in food service again.

Last night I read a piece written by Cornel West and circulated on the Internet about the hurricane and its racially patterned impact. At the end of it he said we shouldn't confuse charity with justice, and I've been thinking a lot about that, wondering whether the food and shelter that the Red Cross traditionally provides is in the charity column, and whether there will be any real justice around issues of race and poverty in our lifetime. I believe that most of the volunteers here are able to dispense the basic necessities along with a positive level of compassion, advice, and practical help, and these assuage both the "clients'" needs (the Red Cross term for the evacuees) and the volunteers' need to do something to help. The clients and the volunteers are nonetheless at the mercy of the bureaucracy in which they serve or are being served, the inefficiency of which I have described in my earlier postings. We are all at the mercy of the larger political, socio-economic, and racial structuring of our country, and of course the vulnerable are impacted a lot more than are the rest. So, to return to the language of the Mexican Red Cross volunteer, is it at all possible that our society will be changed for the better by Katrina, changed in any lasting and far-reaching ways by this catastrophe and the relief effort, both of which reveal the racial and economic fracturing of our country?