So I’ve spent the past two weekends volunteering to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy in various ways. The weekend before last, my roommate Debbie and I delivered supplies from places in our neighborhood that were taking donations to various dispatch centers in the Rockaways. This past weekend, we went (along with 15 of our friends, and 15 more who split off and went to another site) to a housing project in Coney Island assigned to us by Occupy Sandy, where members of our group spent the day sorting though donations, going on supply runs, making up bags of assorted food items, delivering meals and flashlights to those stuck in the cold, dark high rises, and generally helping the exhausted volunteers from the community, who said they’d had little government help thus far. We also hung out with some adorable children (pictured) and talked to people about what had been going on in their neighborhood.
Central to the effort was a woman named Ms. Carter, a pastor in her local church and matriarch of the Gravesend Houses. The minute we got there, she greeted us warmly and gave us a list of what needed to be done. She carries around a detailed map of the ever-changing situation in her head: which size diapers need to be rationed and which they have enough of, how to make a bunch of random cans and boxes of food into a tasty hot meal for 100 people, who has already taken their share of goods for the day, etc. Despite being in her 60s, she’s full of life and energy, and very prone to bursting into song. But she’s also tired from working overtime, for no wages, to help her community recover from a natural disaster that’s greatly exacerbated the already stark difference between New York’s rich and poor. Neither FEMA nor the National Guard nor The Red Cross has paid her housing project a visit thus far; it’s just been religious groups and Occupy.
Local people coming to collect food and clothes told us harrowing stories. The scary part was over, they said. The part where they didn’t know how high the water was going to rise. (Closer to the beach, the waterline was as high as my chest.) Now they just have to survive. But it’s not easy. FEMA, The Red Cross and the National Guard are trying, but there are areas they won’t go because they’ve deemed them “too dangerous.” And where there are supply distribution centers set up, some people can’t make use of them. The elderly have a tough time getting up and down flights of stairs, and many people are afraid to leave their homes due to fear of robbers. Try as it might, the government lacks the man power to help everyone. Doors in the pitch black high rises are being removed from their hinges. A little old lady showed up saying a man had hit her in the head and robbed her in her own building, and when my friend went to deliver her a meal later, it took several tries to get her to open the door. (I don’t blame her.) Closed schools are cramming their students into the already-crowded classrooms of open schools. And despite having no heat or hot water, residents of these housing projects still have to pay rent at the end of the month.
Despite volunteering a lot in high school and a little in college, I hadn’t been doing much of it lately. Like a lot of young people in New York, I was so concerned with working on my career and paying my expensive rent that I deemed myself “too busy” to do anything else. But as I’ve gotten more interested in things like Occupy Wall Street and radical politics, I’ve felt more and more compelled to do something to try to connect with others and make the world slightly less awful. When the hurricane hit, it felt personal. I spend my summer weekends at Rockaway Beach and Coney Island, and the idea that people who live half an hour away from my untouched apartment could be experiencing such dire circumstances compelled me, and a whole bunch of other people, to start organizing. The giant crowds of people outside the Occupy Sandy dispatch center on Sunday showed me I wasn’t alone.
Some of us call what we’re doing “mutual aid.” The term refers to people helping people on a human level, talking to each other, and figuring out what needs to be done in an egalitarian way. This manifests in various ways (free libraries, free community dinners and arts events, etc.) but now it’s largely focused on hurricane relief. The Occupy folks are in constant communication with people in the houses getting updates on what’s happening. They also train new volunteers on how not to be jerks by accident. This is different from “charity,” i.e. dropping a bunch of blankets with your name on them into a place and then leaving again. “Charity” implies that you’re above someone, and I don’t think that I am. You could just call it “good relief work” and “shitty relief work,” but you get the idea. I’d want someone to do it for me, so I’m doing it for others.
Like the Christian groups that come in, Occupy Sandy is not without ideology. It is, after all, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But unlike the Christian groups, ours has nothing to do with God or the afterlife. I can’t speak for the movement as a whole, but as a budding leftist, I will say that a lot of us do it because we’re optimistic about what humans can do of their own volition, working together for the common good, without any type of coercion. “I want to show that people can be good,” my boyfriend said to me sleepily when I asked him his motivations this morning.
A lot of people think leftists take a naively rosy view of human nature, but that’s a distortion. I know this because I know myself; I’m naturally kind of lazy and selfish, as well as wary of engaging with serious things because they freak me out. At 9am on any given Sunday, this body would rather catch up on sleep than stand outside in the cold digging through bags. But we also have the ability to decide how we want to be. I don’t want to be a lazy, selfish person, so I’ve stopped making excuses and started doing things that are not lazy or selfish. And I want to live in a society where that’s true of everyone.
For info on how to get involved, visit http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/.
Photo: Debbie Allen