Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
When Marissa Davis ’08 first went to New Orleans a month after Hurricane Katrina, she had no idea that two and a half years later she would be preparing to take the New Orleans relief group that she had founded at Swarthmore to the national level. This past weekend, Davis and other members of NOLArize! decided to open the organization up to other likeminded groups throughout the country to create a national network of shared resources, ideas, and inspiration.
Davis has been involved in community revitalization work in New Orleans ever since Katrina, working first as the chair of the Katrina Direct Relief Committee, then returning to the city each semester to work, and eventually founding NOLArize! this past fall. Over the years her goals have shifted from the short term work of gutting houses to her present ambition of creating a national network of campus organizations dedicated to creating long-term connections with the people of New Orleans. The Gazette recently talked to Davis about her vision for the future of NOLArize!
Daily Gazette: When did the changeover to a national organization happen?
Marissa Davis: Well, it officially happened this past weekend. We–myself and the five other members on the steering committee–we went to New Orleans Wednesday evening. We were there for this national V-Day event and one of the organizers there–because it was hosted in New Orleans this year–was a local activist in New Orleans who we invited to come to Swarthmore last semester as part of our New Orleans week. She was so impressed by the work that we were doing here that something clicked in her head and she thought, “how appropriate to invite NOLArize to this event, to launch this national campaign.” We didn’t initially say, “yes, this is what we’re going to do”–actually it was over the course of a few months that I was speaking to her that we strongly looked into this whole national campaign idea.
DG: What will taking the campaign to the national level involve? From your website it looks like you’re asking people to join the movement from a grassroots level.
MD: This took some time for us to think about, because speaking to [Carol Bebelle]–she’s really been my adviser, more or less, the director of the Ashe cultural arts center in New Orleans, which is really the hub of the black community–in speaking to her and speaking to my team we realized that, because this is a fairly new thing–we established NOLArize! last year–we didn’t want to bring everything in at once, because we wanted to first attract people and gather people based on common interests that we could first build our relationship off of. So we decided, why not first go for this pitch of “become part of our network, get on the map and have your voice heard, or have your work counted as a part of the overall work that young people are trying to do in New Orleans.” So that is where we’re starting.
From gaining that interest we’re hoping to go to the next level, which is what an actual NOLArize! chapter will look like. We have a three-stage thing, because we know that people are coming from different levels of their work in New Orleans and why they want to do work in New Orleans. There’s one group of people who have already done work in New Orleans, who are an established group at their campus, and would prefer not to be called a NOLArize! chapter, because they have organized themselves [well enough] that they instead would just like to be an affiliate. The second group is those who have done work in New Orleans but have not necessarily been as organized, and would prefer to become an official NOLArize! chapter, taking on work that they’ve already done as well as work that we would potentially organize and give them depending on what interests they have. The final group is those who have heard about stuff going on in New Orleans and might not have been able to start any work but have expressed strong interest in initiating some kind of project in New Orleans.
What would make a NOLArize! chapter a NOLArize! chapter officially would be if they would decide to make a long-term connection with a community, because we understand that the success of our work has been determined not just by going down there for one week and doing our work for that week and leaving, but actually establishing a relationship with a specific community there. Second is to focus on New Orleans in at least one of your academic projects or papers during that school year.
We also say that you should organize a New Orleans week, something to the effect of what we did, because we understand the importance of not just addressing these issues through our direct work, but also to raise awareness, not just on a social level, but on a political and cultural level. We really see New Orleans week as a vehicle through which that type of raising awareness can be expressed.
Other than that, it’s really up to each chapter as to how they would like to shape their organization. If there is one group that is from a school of public health or something, and would prefer to address issues of public health in New Orleans, they are welcome to initiate community projects that go along those lines. If there’s another school that’s more environmentally conscious and would like to address the environmental situation there, they’re welcome to do that. Our focus has really been on the youth, with the library, and we’re currently working on creating a computer lab there at the same community center–we just purchased one computer already.
But we emphasize the importance of making this a long-term connection, because New Orleans isn’t going to go back to normal overnight. And the way I think we could tap into supporting this community is by making that long-term commitment.
DG: I’m interested in the request that people take courses on New Orleans. What is the intention behind making that a requirement to be a chapter?
MD: The reason behind that is because I’ve realized from experience, as well as from speaking to Carol, that people become more engaged with something if they are personally invested in it. Maybe just through direct aid some people might not be as fully connected to something as being educated about the whole picture. All that happened in New Orleans wasn’t just about Katrina–there are a lot of issues that were already there prior to Katrina. They only surfaced once Katrina and all of that came about.
DG: So you want people to realize that they’re doing more than just solving this one problem.
MD: Yes, and it’s not just A plus B equals C. There’s all this history that happened before, and you need to make yourself aware before you can fully come into a community and say you’re going to do something. I think the missing link, oftentimes, with non-profits, or just other people doing this whole service thing, is that they’ll go into these communities with their own agenda, not fully assessing the needs, or learning about what is actually going on in the community. We wish to not do that, but to make people confront that, and realize yes, your heart is there, and you want to help, but you have to know how to do it the right way.
We’re entering these communities respectfully. That is how I’ve approached it from the beginning, that is how my steering committee, we’ve really approached it. When we were in New Orleans I made sure we got there a day early so I could introduce them to some key people in the community there and understand why it is exactly that they’re doing what they’re doing and what this means for the community as a whole. And that is what we wish to do through this educational component, because once people engaged in that aspect I think they are more informed, and they also become more invested.
DG: Do you have a sense of how many groups there are doing things similar to what you have been doing here? Groups in that first tier you mentioned, that are established and have been doing work in the city.
From my knowledge there have actually been quite a number of campus organizations that have connected with communities in New Orleans. Some have even established internship programs where a few come during the summer to participate in projects. Some have also linked themselves with a community. But in terms of the other part of what NOLArize! is trying to do with this whole networking system, that is something that is unique, I think, to NOLArize!, because many people have been doing their individual things, but what NOLArize!, on the national level, wishes to do right now is not only continue in our efforts, like other groups, but to actually network all of these groups so that we can truly see what everyone is doing and link students, and really show that there is a whole student movement that is going on.
DG: What kind of feedback have you been getting from the people you’ve been working with in New Orleans about NOLArize! in general, but also about the change to this networked group?
MD: People have been extremely receptive. Prior to going to New Orleans this past weekend I pitched the idea–well, Carol and I were working on this and she was gung-ho about it from the beginning–but once I arrived there, we’d meet with different people, and each person we met I’d give them a NOLArize! t-shirt and took a picture with them and they were all like, “this is a really good idea,” because a lot of them were saying, we have stuff going on in our own communities right now, we have people ready to organize, all we need is some more support. That is where I’d really like to come in; if people have a plan, then do that. All I want to do is further that initiative: if you need more funds, if you need more hands–whatever.
DG: The neighborhood you work in is called the Cutoff, right?
MD: Yes, it’s in Lower Algiers, and the community center in the area is called the Cutoff Community Center.
DG: What are the sort of things that they need right now? What are your priorities when you go down there to work?
MD: The priority right now is just that computer lab; right now that’s the only thing in my head. They had a booster club pre-Katrina–like a fundraising club for local sports teams–but that whole thing dissolved post-Katrina, and there was also some corruption going on, people taking the money–unfortunate circumstances. With that, they are always in need of some basic things: even uniforms for basketball and baseball teams.
But what we’re trying to do, because we understand the importance of working with young people and doing more than just sports, but really trying to engage their intellectual minds. We’re trying to engage the educational inequity through small projects, so hopefully through this computer lab the kids will have access to educational software that they could take after school. I also purchased some computer literacy and financial things for the parents who might come in the afternoons looking for potential career changes, those things. I really see the computer lab as a way to connect with not just the young people, but with their parents. So that’s the basic initiative that we’re trying to support right now.
DG: What is it that you think is drawing people to NOLArize! and making them want to get involved, especially now two years after the hurricane, when the city and its problems have fallen out of the public eye?
MD: I think what has drawn people to it has been the personal connection and the people of New Orleans. I’m telling you, when I started my work with New Orleans, which was maybe a month after Katrina had happened I really did not envision myself doing this until the time I’m graduating…But every time I’ve gone back I’ve really connected with the people…There is a spirit within the people–it’s so hard to describe. They’re hopeful, they’re cheery, but they’re realistic. They know their situation but at the end of the day they’re just trying to keep it moving. Even the first few times, I was just gutting people’s homes–I was there in the whole mask, the Tyvek suit, the respirator, and just trying to salvage what I could out of these people’s homes and even then, when you could see the sadness on their faces, seeing pretty much their whole life just through nasty toxic stuff, they were still like, “Thank you so much”.
I just couldn’t leave just having done that, I just wasn’t satisfied, and I think there are many people around the US who have experienced just the same thing: they have gone to New Orleans, have done their work, had a really great experience because of the people and, after that week or so, said to themselves, I’m still not satisfied and I want to do so much more on my campus but I can’t, I don’t really know what to do. I think it’s oftentimes a very daunting task trying to figure out what can we actually do to organize people and have something sustainable on campus–that’s a very difficult thing to do. It was difficult when we first started NOLArize! but I think that’s why NOLArize! is so appealing: we’re trying to bring to people a manageable and feasible way to continue to make New Orleans an issue in their respective communities.
We aren’t trying to say you can solve all the problems in New Orleans just through one NOLArize! chapter, we aren’t saying that all–but what we are trying to focus on is strength in numbers. We are all small community groups trying to do our little part, but if everyone does their little part, imagine how much that would be. If NOLArize! Swarthmore creates a computer lab for the Cutoff Community Center, and there are five other schools that do the same at other community centers in New Orleans, you have five computer labs, and it just–domino effect.