Shakoor Aljuwani is the director of co-op development for the Common Ground Collective, a local, community-initiated organization offering support to New Orleans communities that have been historically neglected and underserved. Common Ground Collective is working to create sustainable communities though innovative community building strategies, participatory community planning, and locally owned, group-based business development. Since Katrina, the Common Ground Collective has grown to include a staff of more than 80 organizers and 8,000 volunteers.
Aljuwani has been a community organizer for more than 35 years. He is the former director of United Neighborhoods, a unique community building initiative that works toward systemic and permanent change in the neighborhoods of Buffalo and Erie County. He has been the catalyst in the formation of hundreds of community-based organizations such as technology centers, block clubs, tenant councils, credit unions, food co-ops, fuel co-ops, and more. He is currently completing a master’s degree in community economic development at Southern New Hampshire University.
Aljuwani is also the past president of Cooperative Life, a federation of cooperatives operating in the Northeast. He is the father of three young adults with seven grandchildren.
For more information on the collective, visit www.commongroundcollective.org.
— the editors
Rethinking Schools: Why did you decide to go to New Orleans after Katrina?
Shakoor Aljuwani: Like many, I was glued to CNN watching the images of Katrina, and I sincerely felt that only part of the story was being told. They were talking looting, but not talking of any heroism, and that didn’t make sense to me, so I had to go and see for myself.
RS: Does the fact that you were willing to do this have anything to do with things you’ve done in your past?
Aljuwani: I’ve been in many different situations where communities were under attack, and so I was familiar with what to expect and how to respond. I felt I could handle any situation I would face down there. Living in Buffalo, I helped to organize a response in blizzard situations, and I’ve been in up to category 2 hurricane events in Florida. And I’ve been in more than a few riot/rebellion situations.
RS: What affected you the most when you arrived in New Orleans?
Aljuwani: Two things: The incredible devastation of the storm and the flood, and the callous response of the military and law enforcement. It became obvious to me they were not there on a rescue mission; they were there on a mission to repress what they thought to be civil unrest.
RS: A lot has been written about the horrors Katrina unleashed. What were some of the things that gave you hope?
Aljuwani: As I expected, there were countless instances of people stepping up and doing incredibly heroic things: creating flotation devices made of tires or refrigerators with the doors torn off, commandeering boats and buses, doing everything they could to save people, in spite of the bureaucratic obstacles that various law enforcement and civil agencies and others threw in front of them.
RS: The government is clearly mismanaging the situation and taking its time. And it seems to be blocking the return of some communities. How have you witnessed people taking matters into their own hands?
Aljuwani: I witnessed incredible acts of creativity and determination. For example, 300 volunteers and more than 150 teachers and parents stood up to police arrests and opened up Martin Luther King Middle School in the 9th Ward. And people came together to create free health clinics in areas where there was no health care provided. And people worked together to feed and clothe those evacuees attempting to come back to work on their homes. I’ve seen people building solar showers and creating satellite-run communication centers in areas where no power and no services were being provided.
RS: What has life been like for young people since Katrina?
Aljuwani: It’s hard to put in words what the young people have seen. There’s no one in New Orleans who has not been touched by death and the bungled response. Every day they see three-dimensional messages that the country does not care, that they’re not serious about providing the basic things other parts of the country take for granted: running water, electric lights, and a school system that functions, and hospitals you can go to when you’re sick. We had a Tupac Shakur summer camp, a place where they could play that wasn’t infected with toxic floodwaters and all kinds of other lethal chemicals. And now they’re caught in a vicious struggle in many neighborhoods where shootings and gunfire are a way of life. The trauma continues.
RS: Can you describe some of the Common Ground programs specifically directed toward young people?
Aljuwani: We have a breakfast program where we feed 40 young people every morning. We have a summer camp and an after-school tutorial program. One of the most popular programs is a cooperative bike shop. Young people help us build bicycles and we give away free bikes; we’ve given away close to a thousand bicycles. The kids have been involved in learning bicycle repair and how to keep up their own bikes.
RS: Can you describe the struggle to open Martin Luther King Middle School?
Aljuwani: The company that’s running the school system had set a quota on the cost of repairs. If any school cost more than that quota, that particular school would be closed and not reopened. Many of the parents and teachers felt Martin Luther King school was a fairly new school; it only had first-floor damage, so they felt it should be saved. By the community and Common Ground coming together and producing so many volunteer hours, we were able to save enough dollars so that that school could be kept open. It’s on the list of the handful of schools that will open before the end of this year.
The school had been padlocked and had police guards because they heard we were going to open up the school. We had to cut the chain and locks and risk arrest; they were threatening for a whole day to arrest anyone who trespassed in the school. But we were able to get enough community support and media attention that they backed down and didn’t arrest anyone.
RS: Were young people involved in that action?
Aljuwani: The volunteers were made up of more than 1,000 college students from around the country from 200 or more colleges; it was spring break. There were also parents and their kids from the community.
RS: What lessons can we learn from Katrina that are relevant to young people around the country?
Aljuwani: The importance of being organized as a community to support the most vulnerable. Given the current policies of our government, we can no longer expect it to provide the safety net. While we continue to fight for those policies, we have to be prepared to protect and defend our communities.
RS: How can students around the country help the ongoing struggle for justice in New Orleans?
Aljuwani: They can stand up and fight for justice wherever they are, because there are Katrina-like and New Orleans-like issues of race and class in many cities throughout this country. Also, they can do as thousands of others have done and bring their skills and talents and energy to the Gulf Coast. They can help rebuild a just New Orleans.
RS: What happened in New Orleans must have had a huge psychological effect. A research project found 50 percent of the kids they interviewed a year later were still having serious trauma. What can be done to support these kids?
Aljuwani: Just being open to the difficulty they’ve faced. There are evacuees spread throughout this country, in 49 states, and they’re being victimized. Many of us fear any support and empathy is quickly eroding. So keep in mind what the evacuees have gone through, and fight for supportive services that can assist them, just as we would if they were in Kosovo or some other part of the world.