Volunteering is a seemingly simple action, but fraught with real political consequences. How can the act of giving time or material goods not be implicated with issues of power, race, class, privilege? It can’t. When Hurricane Sandy decimated New York City and surrounding areas, New Yorkers were confronted by what it means to be living in the same city as communities with very different racial and economic backgrounds. Red Hook, for example, though it has experienced more and more gentrification throughout the past few years, is historically marginalized and cut off (physically by the highway) from the rest of the city. As a result, the geography of Red Hook has perpetuated problems with access and wealth inequality. It is communities like these which were hardest hit during the storm.
The New York Times published an article by Sarah Maslin Nir titled “Helping Hands Also Expose a New York Divide” which looks at Sandy volunteer efforts though a race/ class perspective.
…White gentrifiers who may not have thought much about the brick public housing complexes scattered around trendy neighborhoods like Red Hook, Brooklyn, suddenly found themselves inside them, trudging up pitch black stairwells to inquire about the well-being of the mostly poor black and Hispanic residents.
While our office was closed during that first week after the storm (and for the next few weeks), I volunteered in China Town and Red Hook. I was a white person going into communities which weren’t my own to help out (not unlike what I do for work). I went out with Red Hook Initiative, who was paired with Occupy Sandy, to deliver food, water, and materials such as flashlights and batteries to NYCHA tenants. Is this type of volunteerism an example of New Yorkers taking care of our community? Is it motivated by solidarity or paternalism? Guilt or curiosity? And how do these motivations play out in interactions between people?
Perhaps the most important question is how do volunteers make the impacted community feel? In the case of Sandy, there are mixed feelings. In the same NY Times article, Sarah Maslin Nir highlights one perspective from residents in the Rockaways:
Those coming to them for relief worry that their helpers are taking some voyeuristic interest in their plight, treating it as an exotic weekend outing, “like we’re in a zoo,” said one resident of a Rockaway project — echoing a complaint often heard in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina — as volunteers snapped iPhone photos of her as she waited in line for donated food and clothing.
One way to think about crisis response is through the notion of mutual aid, that we’re all in this together rather than simply giving through charity. Mutual aid (free exchange of ideas, goods, services in a mutually beneficial manner) stems from a more radical, political thought which is anti-capitalist and understands issues on the ground as part of problems from the larger structures. Since Occupy took root last September, the notion of mutual aid has been prominent. In “It’s Mutual Aid, Stupid” published on Huffington Post, Jeffery Lawrence writes:
The distinction between charity and mutual aid was often met with the usual sneers about the idealism of Occupy Wall Street. Yet the recent efforts of Occupy Sandy have demonstrated the practical and logistical value of mutual aid. While government agencies like FEMA have struggled to mobilize their bureaucratic machinery and large charitable organizations like the Red Cross have gotten stalled in attempts to funnel money, clothes, and food from donors to victims, Occupy Sandy has been successful in large part because it offers itself as a network of and for people and communities. The relief centers set up by Occupy Sandy have prioritized meetingpeople’s needs directly rather than telling them what to do and how to get help.
We want to see more mutual aid taking place on the ground as part of relief efforts, as well as in our communities! As tenant organizers, we believe that the more organized a community is, the more power it has, and the more control people will have over the homes, neighborhoods, and cities in which they live. Mutual Aid and Occupy can be tools in making that happen. Our neighborhoods must continue to build leadership, enhance communication, and stand strong in order to move beyond this crisis, while remaining empowered in the future.
For more information about how to plug into Occupy Sandy efforts, click here.