Leah Varsano is from Northampton, MA, studied Religion and Asian Studies at Vassar College. As the Assistant Neighborhood Coordinator at Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative, Leah works closely with local residents to identify and implement programs to revitalize their community. Jericho Road supports affordable housing for neighborhood residents by building new construction homes and rehabilitating existing structures.
As a group, Corps members visit each others’ work sites as part of AVODAH programming. They learn about the work of each organization and its role in the broader anti-poverty movement. Here, Corps members write about these site visit experiences.
Picture a map of your hometown. No, better yet, open up a new tab in your browser, and enter your address into Google Maps.
Ready? Now mentally draw the boundaries of your neighborhood. Do you need clarification? Sorry, I’m asking the questions.
Okay, now you’ve done that, tell me what your neighborhood’s name is. No, I can’t clarify that either. What is your neighborhood called?
These questions are among those I pose to residents in the neighborhood where I work, as part of a door-to-door survey. There are a few very famous neighborhoods in New Orleans – the Garden District, the French Quarter, the Lower Ninth Ward, the Treme. But in the neighborhood where I work, many of those I ask are stumped by the question, and anything I say might affect the outcome of the survey. Based on the answers I receive, you’d never know where I work: Uptown, Central City, Faubourg Delassize, Garden District, Third Ward, Eleventh Ward, Seventeenth Ward. How can I organize with people who are living next door to each other, but aren’t living in the same place?
I work as a community organizer for Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative, and the focus of my work is neighborhood revitalization. When Jericho Road introduced its organizing program, it was because they realized simply providing low-income home ownership opportunities was not enough if the neighborhood itself was not improving, and shiny new houses would not do that alone. Being part of a neighborhood brings people together. It gives people an identity in common with all their neighbors, and that is a powerful tool when it comes to organizing. If residents know their neighbors and feel they have a stake and a voice in their neighborhood, then collaboration and change are right around the corner.
Some of us can identify our neighborhood in our sleep. But for others, this is a baffling question. If we’ve never been forced to think about where we live using the model of “neighborhood,” the question can pull us up short. Since I ask residents to tackle this issue every day, I felt it would only be fair to pose these questions to the Avodahniks during my site visit, when they all came to visit my workplace for a few hours and get a taste of my organization.
My housemates and I had varying experiences with the neighborhood activity. Some had instant and easy answers. They knew what their neighborhood was called, and they knew exactly which streets composed its periphery. Even then, some expressed that this distinction was rather meaningless; it didn’t seem to change anything or act as a catalyst for collaboration. Others, including myself, struggled a bit more. How big was “neighborhood”? Should I include my elementary school, although it’s a mile away from the house I grew up in? Should I confine my neighborhood by the major roads, or draw the boundary at the spot where the value of the houses visibly increases?
Since you’ve still got that Google tab open – pull it back up if you don’t – let’s go back to it. Now that I, the pesky surveyor at your imaginary door, have bugged you until you answered the question as best you can, let’s look at what is actually in your neighborhood. Are there businesses that carry the necessities of life? Can you get to them without driving? Are there schools? Playgrounds? Parks and other sites of leisure and recreation? Is there any health care in your neighborhood?
In Faubourg Delassize, there are almost none of those things. Over the past decade there has been almost total disinvestment. Although Katrina itself didn’t do too much damage – the neighborhood sits on a rare piece of slightly higher land – the community living here was much more likely unable to return than other more affluent neighborhoods that actually sustained a lot of hurricane damage. Many of the buildings are blighted and vacant. There are no public or charter schools, no place to buy fresh food, and no playgrounds or parks. The only corner store in the neighborhood was just busted for stockpiling heroin and AK-47s.
It’s important for me as an organizer to have a strong vision of what this neighborhood could include. During my site visit, we read this passage where the rabbis discuss their requirements for an ideal community:
“It has been taught: [one should not reside in a community] where the following ten things are not found: (1) A court of justice that can impose flagellation and monetary penalties; (2) a charity fund, collected by two people and distributed by three [to ensure honesty and wise policies of distribution]; (3) a synagogue; (4) public baths; (5) toilet facilities; (6) a circumciser; (7) a surgeon; (8) a notary for writing official documents; (9) a slaughterer; and (10) a schoolmaster. Rabbi Akiba is quoted as including also several kinds of fresh fruit because they are beneficial for eyesight.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b)
What I love about this passage is that the rabbis have got it all covered: public health, sanitation, education, justice. And I find the last line most important of all – the recognition that we need to be preemptive in our approach, not just address the problems after they exist. My AVODAH housemates and I know very well that a good education decreases your chances of ending up in the school-to-prison pipeline, and increases your chances of a career. We know that a tighter community means less violence. We know that leisure and fun are integral parts of mental and physical well-being. We know that nutritious food decreases health problems down the road. While I might not be working to address flaws in the criminal justice system, or improve New Orleanians’ health, I see my work as being intimately connected to all of those issues.
Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative is named after a quote from Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The whole speech is amazing, please go and read it now, or at least open it up next to your Google map and read it later. Anyway, Dr. King’s point is that while we frequently praise the Good Samaritan (for helping the victim of a crime on the road to Jericho), in the end seeking to emulate him is just the tip of the iceberg.
“On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
I see this holistic approach to social justice as very critical, as something akin to the preemptive and comprehensive view of community the rabbis had, and also as being very tied to the way I look at my entire neighborhood, not just one element of it, and demand that it becomes better. Maybe all this seems a lot to call for – I want a school AND a park AND a grocery store? – but part of being a community organizer is dreaming big, while working small.