The link at the end of this post will send you to one of the best pieces I have read on the maturation of an activist. For me, this essay by New Orleans activist-writer John Clark is up there with Michael Harrington’s autobiography and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s memoir of her participation in the 1960s-1970s social movements, which includes her time spent around New Orleans. I’ll also add Diana di Prima’s second memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman and Sonia Johnson’s story of her excommunication from the Mormon Church for her feminist activism in From Housewife to Heretic.
John Clark is a legend among those of us organizing around direct action, liberation, and social ecology – and not just here in Louisiana. As a matter of fact, it was his name that made my acquaintance with the great Peter Berg and Judy Goldhaft in San Francisco in 2006. I had gone out there with a few Louisiana fishing families to gain them some new long term buyers of their products while our state was still in shock and its people mostly still evacuated. While out there, I contacted a few names in movement work working on place and equity, including Peter and Judy’s Planet Drum Foundation. Berg’s name was already known to me for his guerilla theater (a term he coined in l963) work in the 60s through his amazing Diggers and before that, with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but I knew nothing of his Planet Drum efforts until I read about it in one of Gary Snyder’s books. Once I investigated their site, it seemed a great fit for recalibrating my own post-disaster framework and so I sought them out. They immediately answered my email and invited me for lunch in the Mission District, taking me on a tour of community places, and then to lunch where they gave me gifts of wooden utensils and an envelope of Peter’s poems.
The pair asked after Clark, who I had only met once or twice, but of course, knew from events around town and through our shared workplace, Loyola University. That Clark connection led me into a deep conversation with Peter and Judy over a few hours where they listened to me describe the conditions we were facing in New Orleans. Peter finally said to me, “Well, it seems to me you just need to keep agitating, keep eyes on it, keep being there. Shout about it, cry about it but be there.”
The truth was, I was thinking about possibly bolting from New Orleans for a short time to recover my own equilibrium and peace. Their conversation and the reminder of Clark et al being back home doing revelatory work rekindled my desire to stay in New Orleans, in my little FEMA trailer on the bayou.
Additionally, John’s writings have helped me define my own world ethic and opened the door to knowledge a little wider, connecting me to writers that I would not have found on my own. As an autodidact, I rely on the informal and relational to find my education and so I was surprised as anyone to find a university professor as one of my wells of knowledge.
This piece is a reflection of his time agitating, shouting, crying and being there around the American Alligator region of Turtle Island.
Perhaps the most decisive turning point in the transformation of my perspective on radical change occurred in 2005, when I experienced the trauma of Hurricane Katrina, the devastation of much of New Orleans in the flooding, and the corporate capitalist and structurally racist re-engineering of the city in the post-Katrina period. I learned the most important lessons from participation in Post-Katrina grassroots recovery communities. I learned to appreciate more deeply the meaning of crisis and collapse. I learned about the role of trauma in personal and group transformation. I learned that another good criterion for assessing groups is the extent to which at crucial moments they put aside everything that is merely habitual and inessential and respond whole-heartedly to the greatest and most vital needs.
… I decided a few years ago that it was necessary to leave the university where I taught for decades, and to start working more directly, full-time, for the process of social and ecological regeneration. I started a project called La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, situated on what has now grown to 87 acres at Bayou La Terre, in addition to having programs in New Orleans, to help pursue this work. I have learned from the early stages of the project that it is urgently necessary to find a small community of similarly motivated people who can work together, in order to make this undertaking a success.
I have become preoccupied with the question of how, given the actual conditions in the world, we can break with, and then overcome, the capitalist, statist, patriarchal system of domination, and prevent global collapse, while at the same time creating a free, just, and caring society. I have learned that it is necessary to focus carefully on the question: “What is the decisive step?” or perhaps more accurately, “What is the decisive process?” A few years ago, in a book called The Impossible Community, a work that was very much a product of the Post-Katrina experience, I argued for the need to address at once all the primary spheres of social determination. These include the social institutional structure, the social ideology, the social imaginary, and the social ethos. I concluded that to achieve this goal the most urgent necessity is the creation of small communities of liberation and solidarity, of awakening and care.
….In the heart of the feminine nature of Seed Carriers lives the instinctual calling to be intentionally aware of the essence and influence of every thought and emotion, of each spoken word and action taken. Our personal and collective future – all that comes to be – grows out of our here and now choice-making.
So what do you want to be seeding…
…in your life?
…on the earth?
…for the generations to come?
Copyright © 2011 JoAnne Dodgson
A friend left us this week. True to her life, the news was quietly passed from friend to friend with everyone wishing they had seen her just once more and could smile at her, thereby passing joy back to her. We were flabbergasted that she was the one who was taken, as she was a healer with a very strong life force. But as she said recently in her gentle way:
We’re all going to get something.
I don’t have to be the impervious, always healthy Tai Chi teacher.
I am simply a human being.
That illness should not define her – even her passing – so I won’t focus on it except to say she handled it with courage and grace and love and used it to share her very personal but teachable moment to us all.
Marilyn Yank. That is her name. I always liked her name. It suited her: a bit formal yet graceful with a strong old-world finish.
I met Marilyn when she moved to New Orleans with her partner, Anna Maria Signorelli. Anna Maria was a New Orleanian and they moved here partly because all New Orleanians are unhappy when away from here and partly because Marilyn had taken over the care of her ailing father and the Signorelli family was here to depend on. And the weather was warm and sunny and moist most of the time and the two of them were deeply dedicated to farming the land. Maybe there were other reasons too that I am unaware of that mattered. They had come from Austin where Anna Maria had taken the helm of the Sustainable Food Center after its dynamic founder had moved to bigger work. Marilyn was working on the La Cochina Alegre project there; a team was born. I remember Marilyn told me they lived in a tent together while learning sustainable farming in Santa Cruz and once they made it through that, she knew they were partners for life.
Once back here, Anna Maria was immediately in her element. I assume that she was like that when they were in Austin too cuz she is a powerhouse especially (as Marilyn always observed) when she has a team around her. Marilyn took it slow, marveling as only she could about the intricacies of life here and her partner’s large Sicilian family’s wonderful togetherness. We met because a mutual friend, the thoughtful Max Elliot for those of you in urban agriculture here, in Austin or in Shreveport, helped them put together a small group of activists to talk about building a network for food and farming in New Orleans.
We had a few meetings in Marilyn and Anna Maria’s meditation center, AMMA, so named partly for their combined names and the word for nurse or spiritual mother. We sat cross-legged in a circle and talked about our visions and beliefs and then after a few meetings, a few of us got a little antsy and asked if we could meet in a more active space. I remember Marilyn being fascinated and bemused by the request. Her activism was rooted in her quietness and centeredness. Her idea of activism was also illustrated by a story she told me of the people in an Asian country who had firmly and publicly set the goal that they would become a society totally absent of violence – in 1000 years. So every tiny and personal step they made towards that goal now was meaningful, and to expect total success in one’s lifetime laughable.
I also remember when Marilyn asked me to coffee at the fair trade coffeehouse after those first few meetings and said to me with what I came to know was her very direct but gentle way of asking a question: ” I have been wondering about you since we met. Do you mind?”
I did not mind and we bonded. Turns out she was originally from Detroit. I thought I recognized the steel backbone of a fellow rust belter under her beloved Southeastern desert style. It didn’t really matter where she was from, as her presence came from her embrace and sharing of the small shared whatever right in front of her – moment, garden, food item, gesture, idea and linking it to the gigantic: her quiet assessment and acceptance of humanity’s and the natural world’s pace.
Her Little Sparrow urban farm was a turning point in the city, both in its description of the vision she had for it right there on the board on front and its urban market box program, the first of its kind around town. There was an open invitation for people to carefully pluck food from its constant profusion of well-tended food and beauty although she encouraged some wildness to flourish on its edges too. The tropical climate got the best of her at times as a farmer and she was justly impressed by her dear friend Macon’s skill in growing food in this brutal climate, constantly championing his patience and knowledge as a grower to anyone who would listen. Many growers directly owe their experience to her willingness to share hers as she would always credit her teachers like Macon’s willingness to share theirs.
With a group of around a dozen others (the aforementioned Max as the nucleus), she and Anna Maria built a lasting network of food and farming leaders, myself and Macon included. The work to grow this network of activists took years and could take pages here to recount my personal observations of her and Anna Maria’s resolve to see it happen. Sooner or later, just about everyone else involved in the founding either gave up or moved on to other work, except for Marilyn. She stayed in it as long as she was needed and as long as she thought she had something to offer. In some form, that entire group owes most of its interconnectedness to Marilyn directly. Most of those founders are still honored colleagues of mine and some are also close friends, but all of us certainly remain fellow travelers who gladly remember those days when we meet up again. I’d like to thank her again for her dedication to the group and the idea.
Even after I moved away from assisting directly with the work of the New Orleans Food and Farming Network that our little group had realized, she and I reconnected regularly and when we did, her stories were always of a lesson learned or a description of the path of a karmic connection that had been experienced since I had seen her last. Some were very personal and painful. I found that I easily shared more of my deepest thoughts and fears than I did with most others, maybe because of her reciprocity or because of her abilities to see without judgement, or at least to recognize the judgement and to self-correct. Or maybe because she expected kernels of truth and revelation as the unspoken agreement of friendship.
One of the best times I had with her and Anna Maria was recent: during the Louisiana floods of 2016, I wrote them because I knew they had moved to that farming area affected away from the city. She immediately wrote me back, telling me their house and property were indeed in the path of the rising water, so they were in the city until they heard. Would I have dinner with them? I did and we laughed and shared updates and drank glasses of wine and laughed some more. As we parted, the text came from their neighbors that the water had stopped rising only a few inches from the top step of their raised home so they were going to be okay. After sharing their relief, I thought about how they had been totally present and joyful all evening, never seeming to worry about their looming crisis.
As soon as I heard the news this week, I had a strong impulse to find a dandelion clock and blow its blossoms to the wind. It struck me as I explored that thought that the dandelion is a flower, but a tough little one at that. It has healing properties and is carried by the wind to the most unlikely places. Marilyn, you went far and wide and added much nourishment; carry on. I certainly will, using as much empathy and humor as I can muster in honor of Marilyn.
From Activist Cherri Foytlin:
Feeling a little low. If I’m to be honest with myself, it’s probably exhaustion mostly. But, I’m also worried about my insurance, and FEMA, and my community. And everyone is feeling the stress of being displaced in our own dwelling. We still have three rooms left to pull the carpet out. Water is STILL leaking from the walls. The rest of the floors may need to come up too. Furniture and a mattress had to be thrown away… Don’t get me wrong. I am proud that my six amazing kids, and an unofficial seventh – Logan, have been helping, each in their own capacity. And our neighbor Christine came over to help, and my nephew lil’ Dylan too. And I’m sure you know Karen has been incredible! I’m super glad that there has been no rain since this morning… It’s just that, I’ve worked really hard to provide for my kids, ya know? We all work SO hard. And ya, we’ll survive it, and for sure many others are a lot worse off… but, damn… #thestruggleisreal
Postscript: Do not send me money. If you would like to make a donation on me behalf to #AnotherGulf week of action, I’d appreciate that. All previously planned events are a go, and I think we need it now more than ever.
When wealthy recluse John McDonogh died in 1850, the residents of New Orleans and Baltimore were surprised to find themselves the beneficiaries of his considerable estate. His will specified that the money was to be used for the purpose of establishing public schools in the two cities for “education of the poor of all castes and races.” Over 30 public schools bearing John McDonogh’s name were constructed in New Orleans.
The mission of McDonogh 15 is to empower students with the academic skills and character traits they need to succeed in competitive high schools and colleges. According to Robichaux, 80 percent of graduates of other KIPP network schools have enrolled in college, compared with only 25 percent of public high school students in New Orleans.
Over the years, The Little Red School House suffered from neglect that left the school in disrepair, and, like many other New Orleans landmarks, endured additional structural damage during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Support from KONICA MINOLTA will allow the school to repair exterior cracks, damaged windows and deteriorating bathrooms, as well as upgrade and add playground equipment to a local park that serves as the only open green space for a school located in the middle of the French Quarter.
The money raised will go towards fixing the school’s ceiling, exterior and bathrooms, replacing windows, repainting, cleaning up the local park and purchasing new playground equipment. Beyond the structural improvements, KONICA MINOLTA will donate $20,000 worth of products for the students’ everyday use, including graphic application software, wide-format color printers and high-speed scanners.
McDonogh 15’s structural renovations serve as the entry point for longer-term initiatives KONICA MINOLTA has put into place. The company will continue to make bi-annual donations of notebooks, pens, pencils and other necessary school supplies. In addition, KONICA MINOLTA has committed to a $45,000 yearly investment to provide financial support to students who could not otherwise afford the costs of private education.
Each year, three $15,000 scholarships will be awarded to best-in-class students – one based on academic performance, one for achievement in the visual arts and another for proficiency in the musical arts. These scholarships will offer opportunities for graduating eighth grade students to attend top-rated New Orleans high schools that will provide them with the foundation to pursue higher education.
Details about the school’s visionary founding principal Lucianne Carmichael from her 2016 obituary:
The next year she was assigned to McDonogh 15, an empty elementary school in the French Quarter. With the help of dedicated staff, she breathed life into a dead building and an innovative school was born. The extensive research for her various proposals, articles and workshops had introduced Lucianne to the British Infant School. In 1973 she raised funds to send four teachers and herself to England to observe. That was so successful that she arranged for a group of McDonogh 15 teachers to go to England in 1976. In 1981 she became the first Visiting Practitioner to the Principals’ Center, Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 1985, after 20 years in public education, Lucianne retired.
Once again, the New Orleans region serves another purpose for the middle 2/3 of the United States: to manage the water flowing through the lower part of the Mississippi River, so it does not exceed 1.25 million cubic feet per second in New Orleans, allowing the port to remain active, the population to stay in place and reduces the potential for the loss of property.
The opening was praised during a 10 a.m. news conference by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu for its role in keeping the city and neighboring areas safe. “What we’re witnessing right now is really an engineering miracle,” Landrieu said. “So many of us for so long wanted to make sure our homes and our lives were protected by creating a levee system. What you’re about to see is a levee system that is managed as a risk reduction (system), making sure we do what we’re supposed to do and when we’re supposed to do it, to protect lives and protect homes.”
The multilayered flood-control system is formally known as The Mississippi River & Tributaries Project. Administered and built by the Mississippi River Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the project was launched after the disastrous Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The project was authorized by Congress in 1928. Before the 1927 flood, levees were the only safeguards used to combat river flooding.
Bonnet Carré Spillway
Studies to determine the best location for a spillway along the lower river had identified one at the site of the 19th century Bonnet Carré Crevasse, about 33 river miles above New Orleans. Between 1849 and 1882, four major crevasses had occurred at this location. In fact, during the flood of 1849, a 7,000-foot-wide crevasse at Bonnet Carré flowed for more than six months .
The Bonnet Carré Spillway consists of two basic components: a control structure along the east bank of the Mississippi River and a floodway that transfers the diverted flood waters to the lake. The spillway was built in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that inundated much of the Mississippi River basin.
|Distance above New Orleans||32.8 river miles|
|Length of Weir Opening||7,000 feet|
|Number of Bays||350|
|Width of Bays||20 feet|
|Creosote Timbers||20 per bay|
|Floodway Design Capacity||250,000 cfs (cubic feet per second)|
|Width at River||7,700 feet|
|Width at Lake||12,400 feet|
|U.S. Lands||7,623 acres|
|Frequency of Operation (est.)||10 years|
|Year||Days||Bays Opened||(%) Opened||Ideal flow capacity|
|1937||48||285||81.4%||203,571 cu ft/s|
|1945||57||350||100%||250,000 cu ft/s|
|1950||38||350||100%||250,000 cu ft/s|
|1973||75||350||100%||250,000 cu ft/s|
|1975||13||225||64.3%||160,714 cu ft/s|
|1979||45||350||100%||250,000 cu ft/s|
|1983||35||350||100%||250,000 cu ft/s|
|1997||31||298||85.1%||212,857 cu ft/s|
|2008||31||160||45.7%||114,286 cu ft/s|
|2011||42||330||94.3%||235,714 cu ft/s|
Corps New Orleans District commander Col. Richard Hansen said Tuesday that he expects all 350 bays of the spillway’s weir to be opened. Each bay has 20 creosoted timber “needles” that must be pulled by cranes moving on a rail atop the weir.
There are two graveyards located in the spillway. The cemeteries containing the remains of both free and enslaved African-Americans are under several feet of sediment. According to investigative reporter Shonna Riggs, “The location of the gravesites was a mystery until the 1970’s when the US Corp of Engineers was attempting to excavate a ditch in the spillway. According to the Louisiana Historical Preservation Society, there are 14 graves located in the Kugler Cemetery and 144 in the Kenner Cemetery. The artifacts discovered during the 1986 study included coffin furniture, coffins, grave markers, cultural remains, and human remains.The cemeteries, named Kenner and Kugler, are black burial plots which appear to date from the early 1800s to 1929. The sites are located on former adjoining 19th- and early 20th-century sugar plantations in St. Charles Parish. According to oral histories, both cemeteries were dedicated burial plots on the back side of their respective plantations. When the Spillway gates are opened, the cemeteries are flooded with up to 30 feet of water diverted from the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain. The January opening marks the earliest that the 5.7-mile-long spillway connecting the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain has been opened, and its 11th opening, since it was completed in 1931.
The Morganza spillway stands between the Mississippi and the Morganza Floodway, which leads to the Atchafalaya Basin and the Atchafalaya River in south-central Louisiana. Its purpose is to divert water from the Mississippi River during major flood events by flooding the Atchafalaya Basin, including the Atchafalaya River and the Atchafalaya Swamp. In an extreme flood event, a major release of water from the Morganza Spillway into the Morganza Floodway and Atchafalaya Basin inundates not only the floodways themselves (between their levees), but extensive additional areas of southern Louisiana throughout the Atchafalaya Basin.
At risk in the Atchafalaya Basin are Morgan City (population 13,500), various smaller populated places, many farms, thousands of oil and gas wells, and considerable swampland. Inhabitants know that the region is a natural floodplain, and the Corps of Engineers issues written notices annually to all interests reminding them of the possibility that it might open the spillway and flood the area. Any decision to open the spillway must be carefully planned to give ample warning and protect life and property. Part of that planning process includes the Corps’ preparation of maps known as “inundation scenarios” so that interested parties can discuss how much water, if any, should be allowed through the spillway.
Here’s a link to a story about when highways are removed from inner cities:
This is an issue at the forefront in New Orleans because of the ramps to the Claiborne Expressway built in the 1960s, need to be repaired soon. “An option that’s been tossed around for awhile is to remove the overpass, restore a former tree-lined boulevard there and let traffic run along it and surrounding streets.”
It may be important to remember both the spur that was never built:
And the expressway that was:
And what Claiborne used to look like:
As long as we’re on this story again, I am always surprised by how many freethinkers still trot out the erroneous story of how the win to not build the Riverfront spur in the Quarter in the 1960s led to the Claiborne Expressway. Simply not true.
In any case, it’s time to focus on the positive benefits of taking down the Claiborne Expressway and make sure that more negative developments are not put in its place.