Wednesday, April 18, 2007


This is a slideshow BU Law made about their work over spring break, it's really short but well done and effective!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Mississippi Center for Justice

“New Orleans had a flood. It was a man-made disaster caused by inadequate levees. We [Mississippi], on the other hand, suffered a hurricane…and the country failed to notice.”

--Mississippi resident whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina

I spent spring break volunteering with the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) in Biloxi. Specifically, five other volunteers and I helped residents of Gulfport and Biloxi complete applications for grant funding to rebuild or restore their homes which had been damaged or destroyed by the Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. The grants were distributed through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. MCJ sought to encourage and assist low- and moderate-income owners of small bungalow and shotgun-style houses to apply for these funds in addition to the owners of homes that tend to qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

My spring break experience was amazing because it allowed me the opportunity to drive all over the area, speak with people, and see first-hand the extraordinary destruction that remains a full nineteen months after the storm. Most of the people I met owned very little besides their homes. When these were damaged or destroyed—and FEMA, insurance, or other funding was insufficient to rebuild or, in most cases, completely absent—they truly had nothing left. I visited homes in which pieces of plywood covered gigantic holes in the bare floor, the walls had been stripped to sheetrock, a tarp served as a roof, and bare wires hung from the ceiling. And these are the ones that are “liveable.” Many folks are sharing the homes of friends and family or living in a tiny trailer placed beside their unlivable house.

Despite the dissatisfaction, cynicism, or even anger that seems to underlie the above quotation, the primary attitude I encountered was an overwhelming sense of loss combined with a commitment to rebuild and absolute gratefulness for the few hours I was able to assist. And pride—in what they owned, in what they had survived, and in what they had rebuilt.

At least, this was the attitude I experienced as a volunteer. Apparently, many Mississippi Gulf Coast residents now use the word FEMA in place of another four letter word beginning with F.
~Melanie C.

Molly, Melanie, Katie, Margaret Melanie and I spent our spring break week on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The 1st Gulfport United Methodist Church, whose members were kind enough to provide us with several meals and a great deal of southern hospitality, provided our housing. Without their generosity our trip may not have been possible.
While in the Gulfport and Biloxi regions we worked at the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ). The organization strives to provide legal services and help for low-income Mississippi residents. Since hurricane Katrina MCJ's workload has increased greatly. As volunteers in the Biloxi office we were assigned to a grant application project. We assisted low-income resident of Gulfport and Biloxi complete applications for grants that will help Mississippians restore their historic homes. The grants will be awarded to those people whose homes are historically significant to the community, the state or the country. Our work allowed us to meet families and individuals through home visits and phone conversations. Additionally we were able to see historic shotgun and bungalow homes. Family members have passed many of the homes down for generations. On our final day in town we were able to submit 52 applications to the historic preservation offices.
We are hopeful that our clients will receive grants so that they can preserve their homes and lives on the Gulf coast area. MCJ was incredible and they gave us a great deal of responsibility, hands on training, and lovely Easter gift bags. The people of the Gulf Coast were incredibly welcoming and eager to share their stories about the storm and life on the coast before the storm. Sadly the reconstruction effort has been slow and in most parts of both Gulfport and Biloxi it looks as if the storm hit two months ago rather than nearly a two years ago. While our grant project is complete, it is clear that MCJ and the Mississippi Gulf coast is in need of more volunteers and attention.

We worked for the Mississippi Center for Justice, helping put together grant applications for residents to get funding to repair some of the damage Hurricane Katrina had done tot their homes. It was an amazing experience. We got the chance to go out into the community and talk to its citizens about the true effects of the hurricane. Many of them were living in trailers, with friends, or in deplorable conditions. To me, it revealed the devastating effect of the storm on poorer areas of the community. Despite facing a mountain of challenges, I was amazed by the residents of Gulfport and Biloxi – their spirit, positive attitude, graciousness and concern for others. The conditions around the cities, even in the more affluent areas, were unbelievable. It seems as if the Mississippi coast has been all but forgotten in the relief effort. It was sad and a little eerie to walk down the deserted beaches, or through the ravaged downtown area of Gulfport that was obviously once vibrant and thriving. There were signs everywhere left over from restaurants or stores, but with only a pile of rubble underneath them. Houses were covered with blue tarps, as their roof still had not been fixed, or there was a FEMA trailer sitting next to a half-demolished structure. I hope that our efforts at the MCJ were at least a small step towards helping some people rebuild their shattered lives. Personally, I was profoundly affected by the experience. It helped me to put my life in perspective, and realize how truly lucky that I am. It also made me realize the great need for a continuing effort to help the people in the Gulf Coast rebuild. Although time and most of the country has moved on and seemingly forgotten Mississippi, I think I can speak for all six of us that went – we will carry the memories of our experience with us. I hope to go back next year.

Louisiana Justice Coalition

In the aftermath of Katrina, the racial and economic divide in New Orleans became increasingly apparent. Those who needed legal representation the most, unfortunately, were also the ones who were least likely to get it. This past Spring Break, I worked for the Louisiana Justice Coalition, an organization that advocates for our country’s long-standing commitment to “justice for all.” The Justice Coalition is similar to the University of Wisconsin in that it values community involvement and justice, and has many programs that provide legal aid. Like UW, the Coalition also has an Innocence Project that has freed many wrongfully accused residents. Having received a grant to publish a newsletter, the Justice Coalition will now be able to spread its message throughout Louisiana to groups, organizations, and individuals who would otherwise be precluded from what is constitutionally guaranteed to them.

In one week, my Wisconsin SHN colleagues and I were able to put together a list of over a thousand names and addresses. The three of us, along with one of the leaders of the Justice Coalition, were each responsible for researching an area of Louisiana and accumulating contact information for organizations that could possibly benefit from its services. In doing this research, I came to realize that there are plenty of organizations that either remain in Louisiana after Katrina, or that were formed later. However, the Justice Coalition was one of only a few organizations that offers legal aid, thus emphasizing its significance, and the importance of spreading the message of its existence and its mission. At the end of the week, I felt a sense of gratification because we were able to finish a product, whereas some projects in New Orleans are ongoing.

I fell in love with the city after my first visit over Winter Break, and will likely return in the future. New Orleans is as diverse as it is unique, and in a sense, has become America’s city. Thus, it’s important that we all help to rebuild it, and that we continue to bring law in action to New Orleans.

I worked with Charlie and Sophy Chuhn @ the Louisiana Justice Coalition which is located inside
the Justice Center in New Orleans. The center is so named, because it holds probably 5 different non-profit civil rights litigation
groups and thus is a nexus of righteous activity. Our organization could only afford one staff person--Heather Hall––
but the other people working with us really gave us a feeling of solidarity. The place was sparse, but it had
that positive energy that fighting the good fight should give you. The problems in Louisiana, particularly faced
by indigent criminal defendants are truly insane.

The lawyering here is on the edge as well. It's not trying to be "good." It's a necessity.
I was thinking about an admonition shared with the SHN students from Tracie Washington, a diligent NAACP
attorney from NOLA. Tracie said that when you're working in this type of advocacy, you always have to be vigilant.
The fight doesn't "end" and that makes a person really, really tired.

For example:
If you prevent "the man" once from demolishing low income housing in the name of renewal––housing that
poor residents need––and that isn't REALLY too blighted for people to live in; it doesn't mean
you won't have to do it 10 more times when the same forces coalesce to do the same thing using a different tack.
Louisiana corruption is overt and covert. The benefit of the attention Katrina drew to NOLA is that people are paying
attention now, and it turns out that "the forces that be" were so used to getting away with things that they didn't
cover their tracks so well; the sloppiness helps to stop the nonsense. It was wonderful to hear Ms. Washington
say that over the last 18 months, what they've really done is teach people how to fight.
People are less and less resigned to getting the absolute minimum and less afraid that they are " asking too much."

I'd go again in an instant, and again and again and again.

New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice

Nineteen months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and one year after my last visit to New Orleans, the city has changed. Where there were originally blocks of owner-occupied housing pre-Katrina, then miles of destruction post-Katrina, empty grassy fields now stand. Where there were originally large but oppressed communities of color pre-Katrina, then broken or largely absent communities of color post-Katrina, fierce and determined leaders of color now stand. But still, the city is missing half of its population, thousands of family homes are gone, and 150,000 people are still displaced. The question is: when will it change for the better?

I would like to think that in some way some of the work that we did through the Student Hurricane Network will contribute to continuing improvements. As a volunteer with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, I had the opportunity to participate in the Center's efforts to combat one of the many residual effects of the Hurricanes. I worked to compile and translate testimonies from H2B (guestworker) Visa-holders recruited and transported from Mexico by a private contractor. The workers were promised a number of things, which enticed them to leave their families, quit their jobs, sell some of their possessions, and take a leap of faith in hopes of a better future in the U.S. When they arrived, the contractor confiscated the workers' passports, threatened them in various ways, imposed costs and other debts upon them, reduced their wages, took them to a different city than promised, and ultimately denied work to most of them. As a result, most of the workers are now in situations much worse than they had before leaving their homes. We worked to translate testimonies and facilitate an investigation and meeting with special investigators from the Department of Labor, who are considering pursuing fraud and trafficking charges against the contractor.

It was another invaluable experience. It is always amazing to learn so much while knowing that you are contributing whatever skills you have to the advancement of justice where it might not otherwise exist. I will be back!

I am one of several students for whom the Student Hurricane Network Spring Break was a return trip. After spending a week in New Orleans in January of this year working with SHN, I felt compelled to go back as a result not only of the acute need for legal services in the area, but by the overall richness of my experience the first time, from the fierce passion of local residents and the legal community to restore justice and facilitate the return of the city’s residents to the bonds forged with fellow students interested in working to rebuild one of this country’s historical and cultural gems.

My experience this time on the Gulf Coast was decidedly different, but no less enriching than the first time. I spent my first few days in New Orleans, with the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice before being sent, along with organizers from the Center, to Lake Charles and Westlake, LA, about 25 miles from the Texas border in the far western part of the state. Along with one of my fellow students, I went to interpret for organizers and workers during an interview with investigators from the US Department of Labor. A group of H2B guestworkers who the Center represents were induced to come to the U.S. with promises of good jobs for good pay doing skilled labor in New Orleans. The workers left steady jobs in Mexico for the opportunity to come to the U.S. legally and work for much better money, only to discover that they had been deceived. Many were never given work, while others were offered jobs paying much less than they had been promised. None were taken to New Orleans, as promised, but instead to Westlake. The DOL is investigating the employer for possible fraud and the workers are hoping that the investigation results in their employer never being permitted to bring guestworkers in the future because of his abuses of the program. The workers have suffered greatly, from being denied the ability to send much needed money home to being threatened with deportation and other abuses. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to work with them in some small way, interpreting discussions between workers and transcribing the actual interview between the workers and the DOL investigators. I am also grateful for the opportunity to have met the six or seven workers with whom we spent substantial amounts of time during our two days in Lake Charles and Westlake. The way they have handled the situation they have been placed in and the interview itself was an inspiration.

Unfortunately, however, the situation of the workers in Westlake is not unique. Scores of other immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, have suffered abuses at the hands of employers and contractors. This does not even begin to consider the substantial challenges facing the former and current residents of the Gulf Coast. That is why the continued involvement of law students in a volunteer capacity, with the support of their law schools, as support for organizations doing positive work within the communities of the Gulf Coast, is an absolute necessity.

Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to work with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. The Workers’ Center had recently negotiated an agreement between a local Lowe’s and the day laborers that used the parking lot to look for work. The deal was struck in order to minimize interference with the store’s business, to optimize the day laborers’ potential for gaining employment and to help keep the peace between police and the day laborers. My mornings in New Orleans consisted of helping the day laborers and contractors keep within the terms of the deal negotiated with Lowe’s. Several of the day laborers shared their stories with me regarding their daily struggles, their histories and their perseverance to seek a decent and honest wage in New Orleans. Regardless of what they had been through and how many times they had been stepped on by contractors denying them pay or police harassing them while they are trying to seek work, they were all friendly, generous and welcoming. It was very telling of New Orleans. The people have been through so much and have numerous reasons to give up, but they continue on.

This past spring break I worked for the New Orleans Workers'
Center for Racial Justice. I helped organize day laborers, research
visa requirements and catalogue data for an unfair labor practice
Through my experience in New Orleans, I learned that Katrina
magnified the social, political and economic inequities that are
present across the United States. Although the conditions of many of
the areas in New Orleans were alarming, I remain optimistic that with
help from volunteer organizations like the UW Student Hurricane
Network, the people of New Orleans will rebound.

Over Spring Break I worked with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. The first couple of days I worked translating transcripts from Spanish to English. These were testimonies taken from Mexican nationals whom had been lured to New Orleans with promises of good jobs and adequate housing. Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, at their own expense, they found this not to be the case. These testimonies were to be used at hearings to recover damages on their reliance of gross misrepresentations. The next couple of days I worked on many other things, whether it was translating legal informational brochures from English to Spanish, to constructing business cards, to putting together a newsletter to highlight the occurrences of past meetings geared at mobilizing the surrounding community. Overall it was a very rewarding and fulfilling experience.

There is so much to be done on the Gulf Coast… it is both exciting and exhausting. This Spring Break, I went to New Orleans for the second time. I had never been there before the flood, but in the two weeks I’ve spent there this year, I’ve grown very fond of the city. Everything feels very raw there, and I believe it is. Like Winter Break, over Spring Break I worked with the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. Work through the Workers’ Center has been a phenomenal balance of “in the office” work—conducting research for building cases and writing up wage claims and being out “in the field.” Going out to the Loews and Home Depot parking lots where day laborers wait for work has been one of the strongest experiences of my life. Talking to laborers, whether about problems they’ve encountered with the police and contractors, or just shooting the breeze has been immensely rewarding. Interacting with the police in this context was definitely shocking to me in January and I watched the same reaction occur in my peers this time. It was eye-opening to see how the police also react to us, once it was clear we were working with the day laborers. While conditions with the police have improved quite a bit since January, the relationship is still hostile and very unfair. Through my work in New Orleans, I have met some inspirational people—from immigrant workers committed to getting a fair shake, to activists who have been working tirelessly since their days in SNCC, to residents who keep telling their stories and demanding their rights, to lawyers and organizers who fight the fight every day on the ground—and they have truly made the experience. There is a true sense I share with these people and other students in SHN that we are part of a movement-- it is not a new one and we didn’t start it, but there is a face of it being played out on a large stage in the Gulf. This is why I have gone back and why I will keep going back.

Alliance for Affordable Energy

Over spring break I worked with the Alliance for Affordable Energy in New Orleans. The Alliance is a non-profit, public interest, membership organization dedicated to creating fair, affordable, environmentally responsible, community-based energy policies for Louisiana and the nation. Post Hurricane Katrina, the Alliance has been committed to incorporating sustainable and affordable energy policies into the city's rebuilding efforts. I was able to assist in a number of tasks over the course of the week that I worked with the Alliance. I helped to take down and transport an exhibit on energy-efficient building techniques and technology that had been on display at a large home and garden show at the New Orleans Superdome; I helped to tear down storm-damaged plaster and insulation and build new wall partitions for a public resource room the Alliance is creating in their office building; and I helped to write articles for the organization's newsletter. By working with the Allian
ce, I gained an appreciation for the struggles small businesses and organizations still face in the wake of Hurricane's Katrina and Rita, and I gained an appreciation for the Alliance's commitment to rebuilding a more sustainable, energy-efficient New Orleans.