Nearing the two-month anniversary of Winter Storm Uri, I sat down on Zoom with Andrew Barley and Ben Hirsch. They are two of the co-founders of West Street Recovery, a grassroots organizing group here in Houston that grew out of Hurricane Harvey and has since helped hundreds of people repair their homes and engage in long-term democratic conversations about political power and action. We talked about what natural disasters really do, and how we can begin to imagine and create a more just future of recovery by approaching social issues with a community-centered perspective.
At some points, Barley’s Zoom experienced a momentary loss of connection, which is denoted in the transcript by […].
Sarah S: My name is Sarah, I’m here on behalf of HRB today with Barley and Ben from West Street Recovery in Houston. Just so that everyone here knows who everyone is, would y’all mind just giving a quick introduction to yourselves, your connection with West Street, and anything about you or your home or community that you want to share?
Andrew Barley: Ben, do you want to go first, or should I?
Ben Hirsch: Sure. I’m Ben Hirsch, I’m a co-founder of West Street. At this point, Andrew Barley is the only person that’s been at West Street longer than me that’s still around. My job at West Street is mostly to do community organizing work, participatory research work, and to raise money. Before I was here, I was at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and my main sort of life-long or career-long interest is the intersection between poverty and the environment, and also alternative forms of governance, so institutional governance. Which sounds really boring but is actually very cool in my opinion.
AB: My name is Andrew Barley but I often just go by my last name, Barley. And I too am one of the co-founders of West Street Recovery. So WSR in general is a horizontally structured organization that does mutual aid, mostly focused on disaster recovery work in the Houston area. Our work came out of Harvey – literally came out of Harvey. During Harvey, a couple friends got together, decided to do initially water rescues, helping folks evacuate from their homes. That transitioned to all sorts of other things, from the dispensing of hot meals and clean clothes and cleaning supplies to muck and gut work with other mutual aid organizations in the Houston area, and at a certain point that work had to transition to us actually becoming a 501(c)3 in order to actually use the donations that our community members had brought to us. At West Street, the overall goal is to sort of not just do the work, but do the work with community in mind and community empowerment in mind. At the end of the day, I believe that most of us at West Street would say our goal is regardless of whether West Street is here tomorrow, that the community has the skillset to advance itself and be its own advocate in regards to disaster recovery efforts going on in its future; to be able to speak clearly and concisely about what’s going on in the neighborhoods, and why is it that they’re not receiving support that the federal, local, and state governments should be providing them. And you know, also to be able to get the skillset needed to make sure that their communities can survive and thrive throughout future disasters that will hit the city. Over the course of our work throughout these 3, almost 3 and a half years, we’ve seen our work evolve in a way. Initially what we did was a lot of the Harvey-related disaster work, but our work has shown us that there is so much intersectionality going on with our work and other works that are tied into it. I think Ben has spoke on the issue of poverty. So when you think about poverty, there are a lot of things that connect with poverty, with what puts someone in those positions. You think about the politics that allow people who are in working class neighborhoods to not have the resources they need to best protect themselves. You think about natural disasters, you think about global warming and the science behind why it is that […] the man-made issues that we are having right now due to global warming. You think about racial inequities when it comes to power. And sort of all of that ties into our work overall at West Street, and our mission has evolved. During the uprising in this past summer, during the protests in Houston, that to us at West Street is a disaster, you know, racial inequity is a disaster, so we tie it into other groups. While that’s not our primary work, we tie into other groups that are doing mutual aid work in regards to protest work here in the city of Houston, and we work on that effort. COVID, to us, is also a natural disaster that takes into account some of those things, so West Street has done things like provided financial assistance with our partners during COVID, provided cleaning supplies and just basic safety materials and training during that period as well. But our primary focus will always be storm and manmade-based environmental disasters and the disaster recovery process at work.
BH: Can I just add a few things to what he just said? Because – well first of all, thanks Barley, that was incredible. I think that there’s an increasing realization, kind of in the organizing community in the southeast – really across the US although I’m most familiar with what’s going on in Texas – that the crises are overlapping and compounding and that – just to your original question sort of like about what West Street does and what recovery is – maybe that was sort of a prep question that wasn’t in the recording here – but this idea of recovery is based on the idea that there is a crisis that happens at a moment in time, and then there is a recovery that happens over a fixed period of time. And when you really start talking to people about their lives and what stressors they have, the disasters – what we call disasters – they are not disjunctures. They are not cataclysmic events. They’re more like inflections in long histories of exploitation and suffering, resistance, rebuilding, mutual aid. So they’re incredibly important. They totally reshape what’s happening, but they’re not – it’s not like everything was going smoothly and then Harvey happened. It’s like, we’re in a period of disinvestment from these communities, we’re in a period of increasing climate chaos, we’re in a period of neoliberal welfare state rollback, we’re in a period of foreign direct investment as the main mode of development across the world, which is pulling money away from places like Houston. And that is really shaping the people’s lives we live with. And then you have a storm which is both caused by some of those things, like it’s caused by the lack of a functioning state, that’s why we don’t have flood mitigation that works; it’s caused by global warming, which is caused by deregulation, on some level, and on some level not; and then that same deregulation maybe means that the housing stock was not up to where it needs to be to be resilient in the face of a flood. And then when you attack – sorry, I shouldn’t say attack – when you try to build a recovery, which are those battles that you’re going to pick? And how are you going to build your strategy, your movement, your organizing to deliver a recovery that’s not just going to leave people in this state of precarity? At the same time, you have to realize – and we just put out this statement about this with some of our community groups – we don’t print money, we don’t have regulatory power, we aren’t legally allowed to enact violence upon people, we can’t grant certain omissions within building codes and stuff like that, so we don’t have the power that a state has. And I think also one of the things that’s been really mind-blowing to me – and I don’t know, Andrew Barley probably as an African American Black person this is not as mindblowing to you – but I think that I come from a pretty socialist background, where the idea really is that there is a functioning state that can enact justice. That is an idea in almost all socialist thought: “if it doesn’t exist now it could be formed.” And one of the things that this work has made me really call into question is, is that actually true? Or has the role of the state always been actually to legitimize patterns of inequality, to facilitate certain forms of exploitation? And not to be so wonky like head-in-the sky about it, it means when you have a community meeting, should you spend all your energy advocating for Harris County to do a bayou improvement, or should you spend time doing DIY mutual aid disaster prep? And there’s limited time, and there’s limited time for all the people, and there’s limited money. Like, we can only say “fuck ExxonMobil” so many times on Twitter before ExxonMobil stops letting us have money. And I don’t mean them directly, right, but that whole interface of Houston philanthropy that is really oil money. It’s oil consultants if it’s not directly extraction firms. So yeah, I don’t know. What Barley was saying about all the different crises we are trying to react to, in building a strategy I think there’s a lot of questions, and I think a lot of what we try to do is just really be democratic in terms of what does the community that we’re working with want to organize around. And I think a lot of us have actually come into moments where we’re like, “you really don’t think we want to try to get the General Land Office to do a good home repair program?” And they’re like “nah, we’d rather try to raise private money and repair the homes because we don’t have any trust in that system whatsoever.” And I think that also through that dialogue, I think community members we work with that aren’t in positions where they’re managing organizational budgets and stuff actually start to see the limitations that an NGO would come up against. They’re like “oh right – a million dollars seems like a lot of money, but actually that’s ten houses max that you guys can do. Oh right, the government can do a lot more than that, but also we still don’t trust the government to ever do it for us.” So it’s kind of like when you really involve people in those processes, those tensions – I don’t think they’re contradictions, I think they’re more like tensions – they come to the fore, and then that becomes this really exciting conversation where people from all different backgrounds are having that conversation trying to solve that puzzle together. And we often say there’s no good answer here. There’s also sort of no bad strategy, because we don’t really know what’s going to work. So, yeah. Sorry, that was probably a really chaotic opening to this conversation.
SS: No, that’s ok, I think that it’s a chaotic topic, as y’all both have broached very effectively. So that was great, thank you. Going off of what you just said, I think that one thing that makes West Street different not just from government aid and relief programs but also from some more corporate charities and mainstream nonprofits is precisely that you form connections with and organize with community members and involve them very directly in the process of recovery. Through your conversations with people, what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned about how recovery can function on a community level? And what are some of people’s frustrations do you think with mainstream charities and nonprofits and other avenues of relief that are clearly not working for people a lot of the time?
AB: I’ll answer both. Your first question is how does community work in disaster recovery efforts? The community is honestly more efficient than any nonprofit or government body can be. Your neighbor knows better than anyone else what your household is going through, your neighbor knows your ailments, your neighbor knows your general mood. So in the middle of a disaster, a lot of these folks in the communities we work in, they’ve been through more than one or two of these things, especially hurricanes here in Houston. They know what the government line is going to be. They know what the response time is going to be in their community. And they’re – rightfully so – somewhat jaded by what they’ve received in the past in regards to government assistance. So part of our work from day one required us not only forming a relationship with our community members, but including them in the process. Because so far, in the past, government in my experience does as much as it can to give you just what they need you to hear and not exactly what it is you want to hear from them. And that’s by design. So I would say one of the things you get first and foremost by including the community in any disaster recovery efforts is trust. Community as a whole often trusts itself. And you can build a larger disaster recovery apparatus that is community-based, because it’s easier for those individuals to go and talk to their neighbors,and get their neighbors involved, then it is for say a councilwoman or a mayor or a FEMA representative to go out into these communities and actually get to the root of these issues. So that first and foremost is, I would say, you get trust. But also you’ve got buy-in, a built-in buy-in process there. I want my community to be the best possible community it can be. I want the recovery efforts for my neighborhood to be the best possible recovery efforts I can get. So I’ve got an obvious selfish interest in making my community whole again, and I’m going to do everything I can to do so, so there’s that factor too. And I think finally it comes down to narrative. At the end of the day everyone has a narrative. It’s not just your individual narrative of who you are and who you present yourself to the world to be, but it’s also the narrative, of when government comes to people they present a narrative, but when people go and talk to the government, or when these communities talk to society at large, their narrative isn’t covered as much as I personally would like to see it be covered. You have nonprofits that will come in and do work in the community, but if say X national disaster recovery services come in, what they’ll often do is you know, you’ll see a story on CNN and it might introduce, say, Linda, and Linda got help from National Recovery Services, and there will be a blurb about Linda’s background and what put her in that position. But the majority, the bulk of that news segment will be about the nonprofit organization and not the people. And I think that’s a big issue in disaster recovery efforts. I often refer to it as sort of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” or the “nonprofit savior complex” where like, we do this for everybody, so we’re good guys. Well we all have inherent wealth and value, right? The community has an inherent wealth and value that isn’t being put at the forefront of the issues even though the issues involve them. So, and plus, in my opinion, hearing the narrative of a community member and why it’s important that a community continues to thrive is a far more important resource than just some agency or some government body telling me that this is what they’ll do for the community. So that is what I’d say on that front. The community provides an important narrative that needs to be heard; the community obviously has self interest involved, they have a desire to want to make their communities better, so that makes them go harder for the efforts; and – I’m blanking on my own words here, I’m sorry.
BH: Well I have a counterpoint for you though, Andrew, which I think is important.
AB: Go ahead.
BH: Which is that at the same time, there’s kind of this idea that the community has everything it needs to recover, or something. And I think that we’ve seen time and time again that through no fault of people in the community, that is not true. Mainly, they don’t have capital. Like, that’s the main thing. And like I sometimes have disagreements with some of my coworkers and former coworkers on this, but I basically think the idea of social capital is a lie. They’re called friendships, we shouldn’t pretend that they’re capital. Or it’s called knowledge. Human capital is called skilled labor, that’s what human capital is. It’s not a type of capital, it’s a type of labor. And social capital is a non-economic set of bonds. And those things can be very useful to you in recovery, but only if they’re paired with actual materials or capital. And that’s the one thing that people we see in Lakewood and Kashmir Gardiens don’t have is the money. When we’ve done these community research projects, you’ll have people that are like “I know exactly what I need to do, the problem is I can’t finance what I need to do.” And I think that – I totally agree with everything Andrew was saying about why centering the community is really important – but when you center the community, it’s not an excuse for this sort of neoliberal retrenchment, where like oh, we did this community thing, so now we don’t have to do fuck-all else. We need to actually match that community investment. It’s like community governance and redistributive funding: that’s what I think is the future of a just recovery, but also when we list all the factors, all the disasters we’re reacting to, I think the idea of recovery is not really accurate. It’s like we are trying to build a new way of living together and being together that places care, collective care, and democratic sharing of power – real sharing of power, sharing of resources – at the center of our vision for what a new world is. So not to be so in-the-clouds about it: people need their houses repaired. But also at the same time if you can incorporate people in employment opportunities; if you can incorporate people in advocacy for their own communities; if you can have the community organizing really be a place to build – I would almost call them cross-cultural skills, you know? The whole idea of code-switching is a really important idea, and power speaks in a certain way and operates in a certain way. And I think it’s like, can you bring all those things together? And one of the things that I think is really different – ok, we’re different from regular service-providing NGOs, I think all of our talking about capitalism and stuff should make that pretty clear. But we’re also different from traditional organising groups. We’re not a regular organizing group because we believe in matching material assistance, service provision, and meeting people’s basic human needs as part of building political power. We’re not just going to do Get Out the Vote work. In fact, we’re not really going to do any Get Out the Vote work. We’re more like, we’re going to show you that you have skills to take care of your own basic needs. I shouldn’t say show you – we’re going to help you meet your basic needs for food, housing, and shelter through being part of this democratic space and this democractic process. And then at the end when you have a home that we’ve helped you repair, you’re going to buy into this project that the world can be different because you’ve just experienced in a very direct way that ok, maybe BakerRipley will repair your home, maybe they won’t, but we’re going to engage you in this months-long dialogue while we repair your home about what you want, why do you think this is happening to you. And I will say it – there are organizations that are much better at building houses than we are. There are many organizations that are better at it. But i think that what we do is that collective care thing. It’s that building networks of people that are going to take care of each other. And that’s why what Andrew said is so true: communities kind of already have that – and actually I think they do already have that – but what we can do is bring some Michael Dell money there also so those two things are linked together. And we can have this skill and access thing, where we can get you your story in the New York Times, which is important.
AB: That last aspect I blanked out on earlier was trust. [laughs] But yeah. I agree with Ben.
SS: So, just to touch a little bit more on this idea of recovery and community-centered recovery and care that y’all have talked a lot about and I think is what makes y’all’s work really compelling and important, I want to talk now a little bit about the recent winter storm that y’all are still working on efforts to help Houston recover from. It presented a disaster that I think was pretty unprecedented in Houston, right, I mean particularly for y’all who were founded to recover from flood events, now we’re dealing with a freeze event which pretty much nobody heere knew what to do about. So firstly, I just wanted to ask, how would you say this disaster presented different challenges from ones that you all have experienced and responded to before, how did that mean your experience changed in terms of recovery and helping communities recover, and supporting Houstonians through that?
AB: Ben, do you want to go first?
BH: No, I’ve been loving you going first [laughs]
AB: Sure, ok. I would say that a lot of the work West Street did in regards to Winter Storm Uri – a lot of our recovery efforts was built off the back of recovery efforts and responses to everything else we’ve done so far. We’ve learned how to organize, and how to make quick contacts with our community members, and create a storm check-in network, because of the work we did through Harvey, because of […] COVID, so that really helped us. I would say that the one area where the storm provided a little bit of a difference is that it confirmed a lot of our biases about government – the ways that government works – and also just how all of these things are connected, right. So, you know, our government at the state level failed all of us. Because they are already warned before by the federal government that they needed to winterize the electrical grid. So that was a leadership failure that trickled down and affected everyone for sure. Regardless if you were rich or poor, we all spent a few days during that storm cold, right? But unfortunately, those who already had not just infrastructure failures but also lack of access to the capital that a lot of us in the middle class and upper echelons have, they had it even worse than that. I know a lot of my friends and a lot of my neighbors – I live in the East End – a lot of my neighbors, they had pipes that burst, but they were able to get their pipes fixed just like that. Whereas on the northeast side in Kashmir Gardens and the Lakewood neighborhoods, we’re probably going to be going through cases like this – and other organizations are probably going to be going through cases like this – with burst pipes for months because people don’t have access to capital, and there is no system put in place. The system that we have, the way FEMA works, it just won’t be the money there to make sure that everyone gets put back in the position they were prior to the storm. All of these things are compounding on each other. And if you’re working class, or a lot of our folks are retired, it’s hard to, in the midst of one recovery, prepare for the next recovery. And I think that’s the biggest problem that no one is addressing is that these things all chain into each other. If I haven’t recovered from Harvey, or if I just got over paying off the bills that I spent saving up my money just to get over Harvey, to just go right into COVID where my hours have being cut, trying to figure out a way to survive then, and then to go from that to like, well, I just spent four days in the cold with my family, I did everything I could to get warm, but now I’ve got a surprise bill from my electrical company from heating my house, to now I’ve got to figure out a way to pay for the plumbing of my house. Just the chaining effect is something that we […] at West Street, but the storm has showed us how this is going to continue to happen. And not only is it going to continue to happen, but our society as a whole is woefully unprepared to help out the working class in regards to how we get by from one thing to the next. We may have a hurricane this summer – and there are going to be people out there in Houston who don’t have the resources to prepare for that hurricane or tropical storm because they just got finished paying off the damage from replacing their whole plumbing system from Uri. I think that was really highlighted to me. But also, on the more positive aspect of things, a lot of our community members were able to connect with each other really fast during the storm. We had people checking in to make sure they had generators in our community groups, we had people checking in on folks to make sure they had hot meals, make sure they had water. There were community members who were providing some of us staff members at West Street with necessities during the storm because that’s just how close-knit we’ve all grown to each other. So I say from the community aspect, this storm has showed us that what we’re doing is working. But it has also shown us not only government’s failures, or what happens when government fails to act, but it’s also shown us this long-term is unsustainable. Folks can’t go from one event to the next event to the next and […] maintain their lifestyle. It’s just impossible.
BH: Your question is basically like, how is this storm different or the same, kind of? I think that one thing that’s just so important to say is just in terms of the long tale of the recovery – it’s the same people. It’s the same people in the same neighborhoods, and that just cannot be stressed enough. There is a group of people that are just so vulnerable to these disasters, and this idea that – oh, disasters are a great equalizer, there is so much sociological, economic, anthropological, historical evidence that that is not true at all. They amplify all the previous inequities to the max. So I think that that’s really important. I think another thing that’s really important is that after Harvey, the work that needed to be done was incredibly complicated. Repairing a whole home that’s had 5 feet of water in it is an incredibly technically difficult thing. And I don’t believe that unskilled labor is a thing. I’m fairly confident that you could get any theorist from the LBJ School where I went and ask them to hang a wall of drywall and they would have no idea what the hell they’re doing, and those skills are very undervalued. But like this storm for the most part impacted one system in a house. One system that if people were trained for two or three weeks, they would be able to repair it. The National Guard of Texas could be – I’m not saying that this is what I want to happen – but they could be out in Northeast Houston repairing everyone’s pipes right now. And it would be done. The City of Houston has plumbers on their payroll. They could be in Fifth Ward repairing pipes right now. Harris County has plumbers on their payroll. And handymen, and janitors that could all be trained up – the AFL CIO, the ironworkers, the pipefitters – there are many many people that are close to the skillset that it would take to do this work. It is not technically complicated in the way that repairing a whole house that’s destroyed is. Which is going to mean that the recovery time is shorter, but it also is much more angering to me. That there isn’t this just kind of short-term concerted effort to restore water access to people. I actually – It’s kind of this weird full circle thing, but when I was in graduate school, water economics was a major thing that I was studying, and I’m not an economist but I do talk about economics a lot. And one of the things about water is water access has huge positive externalities. We’re used to talking about negative externalities: like you pollute and then you just put the trash in someone else’s yard or whatever. But water access has huge positive externalities, like if I wash my hands, and bathe, and take care of myself, it benefits everything around me. That’s times ten in a pandemic. We’re in the middle of a frigging once in a century pandemic and we cannot put in basic access so that people can wash their hands. And those people are then not washing their hands and then they’re going to the supermarket. They’re going to the food line because they don’t have food; they’re going to the doctor’s office because they have to get Dialysis, they’re going all the places they normally go, and we’re not taking care of them. And because we’re not taking care of them, they’re putting everyone else at risk. And it’s insane. It is insane, it is insane the things that our society is invested in instead of doing that. It’s like, we’re going to land a rover on a 10 meter diameter spot on Mars, and we cannot connect Lavinia Jones to water for five weeks after this pretty minor event. It was 22 degrees. I grew up in Massachusetts, it’s 22 degrees all the frigging time. This was actually not that severe weather. It was severe for here because of climate chaos, but the infrastructure exists, the capacity to build the infrastructure exists. So that’s a big thing. And then the other thing is this idea of – you asked what’s the difference between West Street and a typical organization, and in meetings recently I have actually kind of freaked out and been like yes, because we have a human rights approach, and we believe water is a human right. And it’s like no, we haven’t collected the tax return yet to make sure that the person is poor. We’re pretty confident that you don’t live for five weeks without water if you can afford to do the water. You know what I mean? That is an absurd proposition. I would say this after Harvey too – no one pretends that their house was flooded to get a $9,000 check from FEMA. Like, you’re going to destroy your whole house for $9,000? It literally makes no sense. And we actually go to the houses or at least have in-depth phone calls maybe a video WhatsApp call with someone who’s applying for our services. So we understand like when someone is like “I haven’t taken a showner in four weeks,” it’s kind of a weird and callous move to be like, “ok, can you call your bank and get your pay stubs for the last two months so you can prove that you are poor.” And sometimes – we have a guy we work with, Mal, and he’s like, “I’m too poor to prove that I’m poor.” And I think he is exactly right. Like he doesn’t have a bank account, he doesn’t have all these letters and stuff. He’s like “I don’t have anything. Come to my house, i’ll show you that I am poor.” And also like fuck off, stop asking me if I’m poor, that’s so intrusive and rude. Like clearly, I wouldn’t be asking for help if i didn’t need help. So I think that’s a big thing. And then another thing is trust, it’s this trust thing. And I think one of the things is almost all the people we work on, they come from someone else that we’ve worked with before. So like instead of collecting your tax return, it’s like, Ms. Herndon who we’ve known for three years is like “can you please help my neighbor, she really needs help.” And I know Ms. Herndon, Ms. Herndon is like sending me congrats that I’m expecting a child and stuff on my personal phone at 9 at night. She’s my friend, she’s not lying to the organization to try to get her friend help. And she’s donating her time and stuff back. So I think it’s these deep relationships means you can cut down on the bureaucracy. And also another thing is that sometimes we get it wrong. I’m sure we’ve helped people who maybe could have payed for it themselves, but there’s got to be some cost-benefit there. I think about voter fraud a lot. Like, how many people are prevented from voting versus how many people voted illegally. I think we’ve helped hundreds of people because we don’t have very much eligibility testing. And I bet you there’s one or two people that maybe wouldn’t have qualified for Baker Ripley. But also if you really talk to them, maybe they’re taking care of their sister that has cancer but they don’t file in the same household, or – there’s always extenuating circumstances. My basic point is people in northeast Houston are struggling. And they deserve help. And even the wealthier people in northeast Houston, when you really get down to it, they’re in a really precarious situation. They’re one storm away from permanent poverty, basically.
AB: So to answer the specifics of this Uri storm question, I would say that there are these sort of ripple effects – like, we’re all in the water, right? There are these ripple effects of inequity. And, you know, for the people who are sitting on the outskirts, these are straight up waves, and the waves are getting bigger with each storm.
SS: Thank you so much for all that – it really answers the question of why recovery needs to be a long-term sustained effort rather than a 5-10 day effort after a storm happens without me even having to ask a question about that, so thank you so much for providing all that.
BH: I would say, though, that disaster response, which happens in those ten days, is incredibly important. And we need to get better at disaster response also. But there should be a distinction between response and recovery. They shouldn’t be conflated with each other. We’re not particularly good at response, but we’re truly bad at recovery. So we’re kind of better at response than recovery, and that’s when you see this big swell, and people are driving around dropping off waters, and that’s so important. That keeps people sane, it keeps people alive. And I think it’s important that we don’t knock that. I think it’s just important to say that they’re really two different things. Like, when you give someone that case of water and 100 bucks and some hot meals, that’s like so they can get to the point where recovery might be a thing that they’re even thinking about, you know? It’s really just – it really is a bandaid, and it should be a bandaid. It should be a very high quality, healthy, organic bandaid. But then we need to talk about recovery – you know, they still splint your arm when you shatter your arm, right? We have lots of things like this in many fields, to prevent it from getting worse, to comfort you a little bit, that’s all really important.
SS: I think that we’re just about wrapping up our time together but just to conclude on a note that hopefully people can take some action with, what would you say to anyone who is listening or reading today that they can do to improve this lack of focus that we have on recovery, and to help people who are going through this sequence of one disaster after another? What can we do to help?
BH: I have two things – I know I just said I like when you go first Andrew – I think that one of the really big things is that poverty (and I know this is going to sound like it’s not an answer, but it’s my answer) poverty iis completely undiscussed in American life. If you go watch the presidential debate, or you go look at any political campaign, the idea that there are people in poverty is like non-existent. There’s stuff about the middle class, protecting the middle class, maybe sometimes someone will say working class, but there’s a huge number of people in America that are truly poor. They’re wealth poor and they’re income poor, and it has nothing to do with their own choices. So we need to focus on eradicating poverty. It’s bizarre and absurd that poverty persists. In Houston, I always say it’s one of the richest histories in the history of humanity. It’s not just a rich city, it is uniquely historically rich. And we still have so many people with severe lack of access to life sustaining goods: shelter, water, food. Never even mind the cool stuff like education, and getting to make art, or like going for a run in the park. All that stuff’s really important, but there’s a lot of people thataren’t even close to that. So we need to focus on poverty and we need to think about what eliminating poverty requires, and that eliminating poverty is the best way to improve resilience. Eliminating poverty is the best way to improve resilience because poor people take so much longer to recover. I also prefer the term “poor” to low-income. I am low income, I am not poor. And I think it’s important that we cut the bullshit with terms like low-income, you know. There’s a lot of trust fund babies that are low-income. It’s fine. Then the second thing I think is that everyone should try to join democratic institutions that they can. It can be a DSA chapter, it can be a food not bombs group, it can be a radical feminist bookclub, it can be a democracitally governed harem for all I care. Whatever. We actually need to practice democracy because we are really conditioned to believe that we don’t have a lot of power and we’re conditioned to believe that we can’t cooperate with each other when things get difficult and that you need some dad to make a decision for you. This is why people loved Andrew Cuomo so much. He’s just like a dad, and he just tells you some facts on a nice Powerpoint, and it’s at least very clear, and you don’t have to deal with very much nuance. We need practice because that isn’t working. It’s like, him and Q, right, those are both ideas about the dad that’s going to take care of everything. And it’s not going to happen, so we need to actually practice democratic decision making. And disaster is a place where people really don’t do democracy because they’re like, it’s too urgent to do democracy here, so we just have to do the same thing. But disaster recovery’s not working. People aren’t recovering from disasters, and like Andrew’s saying, the disasters keep coming before the recovery happens. So it’s almost like that should remove the urgency for us, like what we’re doing isn’t working. So let’s try to have a democratic response and let’s try to eliminate poverty. Those are the root causes of why disasters are so bad. Not to put too fine a point on it, but CenterPoint turned your lights out. CenterPoint is in charge of the Greater Houston Community Fund’s recovery fund. The CEO of CenterPoint. Which funds West Street Recovery, we should say. So we’re not immune from this, we’re not uninvolved in these contradictions. But that’s a lack of democracy, right? You have so much power, you turn off everyone’s lights, and then you’re like well, i’m the only person with the wherewithal to fix these problems, I have so much power, we can’t engage community, it’s too urgent, we just gotta get – and like Marvin Odum, he ran the Harvey response. He’s former executive director of Shell. So these people cannot be in charge of a just recovery. It’s not in their interest. And so we need to build our democratic skills, you know? It’s like, we need to practice, and we need to try to eliminate poverty. So that’s what I think. That’s sort of a weird anwer, but I think the problems are so big, and you should Venmo money to Mutual Aid Houston, so they can Venmo it to someone else, also, in the short term.
AB: I would say first and foremost, this generation – your generation, we’re probably two different generations – you’re a Z baby, right? Cool, and I’m a millennial, and I’m sorry for using that horrible slang Z baby. That was –
BH: And also I think Andrew and I are exactly the median millennials.
BH: We’re the center – we’re the worst of the worst.
SS: Oh no! [laughs]
AB: But the thing I love about generation Z is that you guys are so empathic. A lot of the work that I’m seeing out in these communities – a lot of the students that are coming out to work on our efforts – those are you guys, and so I know your hearts are already there. What I say first and foremost is that despite what your political leanings are, whether you’re a crotchety leftist like myself and Ben here, or you find yourself just left of center, this country as a whole needs to be more collectivist in its mindset. And if we’re not, we’re going to slowly destroy ourselves. This idea that any of us are a day away from being the next Bill Gates is just asinine. For most of us, we are just a paycheck or a few back mistakes away from being at the lowest of the lowest of society. If government isn’t going to be there for us, we’ve got to be there for each other. And the best way to be there for each other is first and foremost be informed about the communities around you. If you live in Houston – but most of us in Houston haven’t seen all of Houston – simple things you can do. Just travel, go to neighborhoods you haven’t seen before. See what’s going on in the greater Houston area. See where there are issues of poverty, see where there are issues of infrastructure. We all know these things are going on around us, you know, tangentially. We hear the stories about these record-breaking food lines in front of food banks, or elderly folks having a hard time being able to access COVID vaccines because of their area codes – because people from outside their area codes who have more money and are more tech savvy are coming to their neighborhoods and getting the shots that are designated for them. We all are aware of these issues that are going on. But we are at a precarious time in our society where we can no longer afford for anyone to sit on the sidelines. Do whatever you can to inform yourself on the issue that affects your community. What I like to say is we can’t fix the problems of the world, but we can start where we are. Find an issue near you that you are passionate about, and get out there, and do whatever you can to be a part of the collective that is doing the work that is needed to change that issue, first and foremost. And secondly, stay informed. One of the big issues with a lot of our populous, and not just the residents we work with, but you know, us ourselves, and folks as a whole, is that there’s so much about the process, the bureaucratic process, that a lot of us don’t know. And that’s by design. When a bill comes out and it’s like 700 pages long, it’s by design so that people don’t read it, you know? All of these changes happen to us all the time, but the thing that I’ve learned from these last two generations is that we’re quite tech savvy, and when we bring our resources together; I might not be able to read 700 pages, but all of us could probably read one or two or three pages, and so collectively bring that information together. We all have these resources at hand; it is our responsibility to get off the sideline, and share the resources we have with those around us who are less fortunate. So that is what I will leave you with.
SS: Thank you. And there’s definitely a lot I got from what both of you just said, but I think one thing that just really sticks out is just again and again, the importance of community, and being invested in your own community and reaching out to the communities around you. And I think that’s a really important message for a lot of people listening today and I hope that everyone listening and reading has learned as much from this as I have. So thank you both once again for being here, this has been really awesome. We’ve been talking with Ben Hirsch and Andrew Barley from West Street Recovery. They have a website, it is weststreetrecovery.org. You can go there to learn more, to donate, and to volunteer. Do y’all have anything else you want to leave off with?
BH: Yeah, I thought of one last thing that i think is important which is that community organizing is hard and that it’s ok to make mistakes. And that if you really want to do this, you’re going to make mistakes, so you have to be gentle on yourself, and critical but affirmative to your peers. Because we make mistakes every single day – bad ones – and we still hear from the communities we work with that they want us to keep going and that it’s very much worth it. That culture of collective care that we were talking about with people that you’re serving – or like that are really hard on their luck – we need to have that for each other too. Because it’s just too hard. The work is too hard and you’re not going to make any money doing it, so you need to take care of yourself and your friends as you do this work or else it’s impossible. So you have to find ways to find joy, and find celebration in the work, and be silly. Like, Andrew and I once made up a jingle about waiting 10 years for the city to repair your house. And sometimes you just need to do something like that. It can’t be all serious all the time because you’ll lose your mind. So that’s kind of my last thing. You have to make mistakes and be nice to each other and allow each other to make mistakes. That doesn’t mean brushing them under the rug, it means, yeah of course we’re pretending to be a government and we’re not, so we’re going to make mistakes.
AB: I would say something I said earlier in our conversation. I know COVID has got us all a lot in our headspace, all of us have been going on our own emotional journeys due to this. But something that relates both to what your listeners may be personally going through right now, but also connects back to the work that we do, is that every single one of us, just by being born, just by existing, inherently have value. And it’s important to remember that. There is no one in society, no one ever, who has more value than you or is of less value than you. I think if you carry that in your day-to-day life and remember that, you’ll do just well.
SS: Thank you so much, I think that’s a perfect note to end on. Again, we’ve been talking with West Street Recovery. Please if you can consider supporting their amazing efforts on their website.
Sarah is an undergraduate student from Rice University studying English and Environmental Studies.
Andrew Barley and Ben Hirsch are co-founders of West Street Recovery. Learn more and support what they do on their website: https://www.weststreetrecovery.org/.