Missionaries to the Gulf

Successful aid to others means respecting individual dignity and community authority within complex emergencies and disasters.  We’re so used to seeing the U.S. at the top of the world food chain that well-intended folks can take those ethical considerations for granted.  As someone who works in diverse communities with extreme inequalities domestically and internationally, this is a big topic of my profession — and something I write and think about often, particularly after living through the summer of 2005 and the experience of being in a community receiving aid.  The bottom line is that the arrogance and superiority of some well-intended folks can end up alienating and insulting the group they are trying to help.

AND… here is a perfect example.

“30 Oregonians with a wealth of compassion, community service experience and technical expertise, will show the nation what the Gulf Coast disaster looks like from inside the Gulf. We will shine a sustained light on what our neighbors need to survive and what the environment needs to recover.”

Yes, a group of folks from Portland and it’s surrounding universe are headed to New Orleans! (No offense to beautiful Portland and our friends doing wonderful things out there, this just happens to be where this group is coming from.) In any case, these folks are coming here to do 6 days of visits to Gulf Coast communities which:

“…will culminate in the production of a graphic travelogue of what we saw, learned and felt. Our experiences will be represented through the arts of drawing, writing, filming and making music. The images and voices we capture will be engaging, powerful and influential. And, most importantly our final documentation will contain a roadmap for individual action to minimize a second occurrence of this type of catastrophe. The proceeds from the sale of our book, and any other money raised, will be contributed to Gulf Coast and national efforts to educate children about this catastrophe and how we can do the best possible job of cleaning up after ourselves, plus prevent this from ever happening again.

Also, they are trying to raise $60,000. You can donate on their website. But no, the money isn’t for the Gulf… it’s to finance their trip. So that they can come to the Gulf, visit as “caring neighbors arriving to help,” spend 6 days capturing images and voices, and then put them in their book.


I showed this to my graduate students earlier today in class. In the words of one of the students: “I’m not even from the Gulf Coast and this insults ME.”

Check out their website. What do you think?

Here are are some lessons that these undoubtedly very nice, wealthy-with-compassion-Oregonians should have considered:

  • The disaster is not about you! No, really. I’m not kidding.
  • Please travel to share technical expertise where you are invited to share technical expertise.
  • If you want to “show the nation” what is happening in the Gulf Coast, then work locally to build partnerships with Gulf Coast organizations, and find places within your communities to make those voices heard. There are plenty of organizations, plenty of stories, plenty experiences — all existing without your collection, reorganization, and authority.
  • We also have artists. Many artists. Who have and can continue to creatively express the experiences of this region in a multitude of forms. We even have spaces to support them. They are very much able to “shine the light” on these communities, and would probably be interested in collaboration and partnership on projects.
  • Taking other people’s stories to publish in your book takes advantage of people who are suffering in a very unique and powerful catastrophe. Particularly when mischievously veiled within the scope of a “local gathering to break bread.”
  • Six days to “experience” the Gulf is tourism. You’re tourists. Good news — this is a fantastic place to be a tourist. Enjoy the area, tell your loved ones, friends, your contacts on your social networking sites about your experiences visiting this area. Just please don’t position yourself in a place of authority based on 6 days of tours.
  • If you want to contribute to Gulf Coast communities through service, then contact organizations and let them find ways to use your skills.

These folks are coming here with an agenda that is their own, focused on their own needs, their own desires. This does not help a situation, it only makes it more difficult.

(Hat tip to local bloggers, who found and shared the website.)

7 thoughts on “Missionaries to the Gulf

  1. Reminds me of people that came after Katrina…and some of the “charities” that were “spawned” that purported to help New Orleans. Why does disaster bring out some of the worst in people? Truly great post!

  2. Some astute observations… You bring up a wonderful idea: collaborate and partner with a group, or individiuals, already here!!!

    At ARNO (Animal Rescue New Orleans) we would love to collaborate or partner with rescue groups and friends in Portland! The oil spill has created a demand on our shelter for those effected and their companion animals… wouldn’t it be nice if a partner in Portland would help supply us with flea and heartworm meds, or vaccines, for these people’s pets?

    We have some great friends in Portland who come to volunteer on an annual basis, but it is mostly to see ‘where we are at’ and respond accordingly. They do not come as tourists, but as work horses to help at our shelter. Usually their point is to give a ‘local’ a day off, but if you are from New Orleans and work as a volunteer for a nonprofit or mission-driven organization, you rarely take ‘off’ unless you are sick!

    Some great ideas displayed in your response to this art group… yeah, and I could write three books about Katrina, but as of yet don’t care to relive what I saw and had to do as a first responder after Katrina.

    thanks for the wise words!


  3. i’d like to think these oregonians are raising 60,000 to come here and spend 60,000 eating local gulf seafood, buying local art and chartering fishing trips. code pink (based in providence)did wonderful work with and for local women post katrina and have now picked the pace back up fighting for the coast, post oil spill. perhaps the lack of sunlight in the pacific northwest and subsequent lack of vitamin D has infiltrated the Oregon 30? either way, they can only victimize us if we let them. either way, a barrage of advertising and local links should be sent their way for a good (gulf coast local) use of $60,000.

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