More than six years after Hurricane Katrina, volunteers are still coming to New Orleans from across the US. We appreciate the solidarity, but we also think it is important to be conscious of the limits of volunteerism. In that spirit, we believe it is useful to republish this 2007 letter, originally written by Bill Quigley.
We hope volunteers coming to New Orleans to support rebuilding justice for our city will read this letter, and think about it as they approach their volunteer efforts. The letter is reprinted in full below:
Letter to Katrina Volunteers and Partners 2007 Principles of Partnership, Collaboration, and the Struggle for Justice
An aboriginal activist said it best: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us struggle together."
Our community needs the solidarity, action and support of people and institutions from local, regional, national and international areas and all walks of life in our struggle for justice. New people and organizations can bring our community much needed new ideas, new resources, and new ways of looking at issues. Our justice struggles bind us together and we must proceed in ways that respect all of the participants.
Solidarity, action and support must be based on respect of the dignity and ongoing history of the people and work that has already occurred in our community. It is an unfortunate fact that there are numerous examples of people and organizations from outside the community who come to local justice efforts and, despite their very best intentions, make mistakes that actually harm the ongoing local justice work. Those who made the mistakes then leave the community and return to their own communities. The difficult work left behind, the work of reconstruction and reconciliation and dealing with unmet promises or unachievable expectations, adds to the ongoing work which must be done by local justice workers.
In order to minimize mistakes and missteps by volunteers, short-term workers, or newly arrived or newly engaged people and organizations, we ask each partner to respect the work that has already gone on and the history that has occurred. In order to respect this work and history, people must first learn it.
Practically, this respect means that for newcomers to the community, listening is more important than speaking, learning must be prized over teaching, and reflection with the community must precede action. Most importantly, people should not take actions or make verbal commitments or raise expectations in the community that are not achievable. Unmet promises and unfilled expectations seriously undermine and discourage local organizing and justice work.
We ask our partners to agree to struggle with us in a principled way. The principles that should guide our partnership include that every person and organization starts out with a presumption of respect. New people or organizations joining this work agree to learn the local people, the local history of our justice struggles, and the local community justice situation before taking independent action. People or organizations who join this work agree to engage in real dialogue on all issues before taking independent action.
Once new people and organizations have spent the time and energy to begin to learn about local issues and our community, real partnership then means mutual accountability with the other partners and mutual supervision and mutual discussion about plans, resources, people, and work before, during and after steps are taken.
We expect to learn from our new volunteers and partners. We expect our partners will learn from us. We hope these principles will guide us in creating mutual and meaningful partnerships which can help all of us join in advancing the struggles for justice in our community.
Photo above from blackboard in St Mary's School, Upper Ninth Ward.