Common Ground Collective: Grassroots group launches development project

C.C. Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
May 31, 2006

As the City of New Orleans braci for another rough hurricane season, Common Ground Collective, the first grassroots, al volunteer relief organization swings into high gear on its lates survival project - the development of a 350-unit housh complex.

"We just gained site control of a 350 unit apartment complex calle The Woodlands," said Malik Rahim, principal organizer and CI founder of Common Ground.

The Collective's goal is to "build self-sustaining community where the economic resources turn ove at least two times in the development," Rahim told the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.

Rahim spoke to the Bay View from Washington while on a multi-city speaking tour. He will be in the Bay Area this week to receive a coveted award from Global Exchange.

Rahim is one of three "change makers" who will be honored at Global Exchange's Sixth Annual Human Rights Awards, Thursday, June 1,6-10 p.m., at the Gift Center Pavilion, located at 888 Brannan St. in San Francisco.

Also being honored are "Peace Mom" Cindy Sheehan, who has galvanized the peace movement, and historian Eduardo Galeano, who has been the "conscience of the I..,eft" in Latin America for decades.

Since its founding on Sept. 5, I 2005, just days after Katrina, Common Ground Collective has launched several emergency relief programs, including three health clinics, house-gutting, a tool- lending library, a women's center, i bioremediation and wetland restoration, prison support, legal support, and both an after-school tutorial and summer program for youth.

The organization's bioremediation program is based in uptown New Orleans. There are several raft builders who are working on rafts for evacuees. There is a computer lab, a communications center that offers free phone services to those who need to make calls, a victims' defense legal program, and a facility in Houma, Louisiana, that can accommodate 1.500 people during a hurricane.

In addition, Common Ground has built alliances with other relief and community organizations, developed a network of over 700 volunteers, secured over 150 bikes for area residents and volunteers and produced a promotional video called "Solidarity Not Charity."

However, the Woodlands development plan is the Collective's most ambitious recovery project to date. Rahim said the group will rent out 250 units, and the remaining apartments will be used for social programs.

Four units will be used to treat substance and drug abusers. One unit will house the development's tenant association and five others will be used for the kids and community programs. Twenty-five units will be used for economic development.

"We're taking 25 units off of the rent rolls for economic development, for retail projects such as a food store, clothing and shoe stores, a pharmacy, restaurant and others," Rahim explained. "We're going to use solar energy and bio-diesel generators," he added.

Common Ground looked at successful community development models and based its development plan on at least two working concepts - one by Johnny Youngblood, a New Orleanian who is operating such a program in New York, and Bennie Stewart's in Marin City, a predominantly Black community on the shore of San Francisco Bay where Tupac Shakur once lived.

"It is our goal, besides collecting rent, to build a community based upon supportive housing,' Rahim said. To that end, 100 units will be used for supportive housing and another 25 for the Collective's Emergency Preparedness program.

"The development also has the tallest buildings in Algiers, some as high as six floors. It's high enough to withstand a major hurricane," added Rahim. "Right now, FEMA and the City can't handle a tropical storm," but the Woodlands adds extra protection, said the community organizer and former Black Panther. The buildings are constructed of concrete, and each unit can house at least 10 hurricane evacuees.

A Community Center will also stand on the site "to show what people can accomplish when they get together," he continued. The center is a joint venture project involving Cajuns, Native Americans and African Americans, based upon the seafood industry.

In addition, the development will house a community newspaper, community radio station and a recording studio for aspiring musicians. Two women's centers are planned for homeless women

and women fleeing domestic abuse.

'Our intent is that you cannot solve the drugs and violence problems in the city without employment. Right now, New Orleans is gripped in a drug war. The best deterrent to crime is employment based on a living wage, n said Rahim.

To launch the project, Common Ground will begin with a construction trades training program. "We're planning on training 20 people at a time. There is so much work to do, but what prevents us from taking advantage of this type of employment are skills."

The training program will offer classroom and on-the-job training, money management, parenting, anger management and the importance of civic responsibility. At least 100 residents will be training in the construction trades initially.

To ensure the program's success, the Collective is seeking progressive partners and entrepreneurs and Black progressive contractors interested in rebuilding New Orleans.

"We need volunteers, people to come down, not just to gut homes, but to help establish programs. We need professionals in the areas of drug abuse and substance abuse. We need doctors, lawyers, engineers, health care professionals and grief counselors. We need money and contractors, but, most of all, we need educators and students to be role models for our children," Rahim declared.

He said Common Ground has sent letters to members of Congress asking for the establishment of a neutral monitoring committee to oversee how anticipated federal funds will be spent.

The group is currently seeking sponsors for its Woodlands development and the kids' summer program.

"Our goal is to bring 100 students from New Orleans to the Bay area of California as part of our homeless assistance for kids. We also want to bring at least 100 kids to the Essence Festival. We want to expand their vision and give them a summer they will long remember, n Rahim adds.

The community activist said that in spite of all the work Common Ground Collective has done without government assistance or funding, they have not been able to get reimbursed for the health care they have provided, nor has the group been offered any help or recognition from the City of New Orleans.

"They say no one has done what we have done, but they refuse to even meet with us about our first responder plan: Rahim said of the Nagin administration.

"We've cleaned every storm drain in Algiers, and we're in the process of cleaning all the storm drains in the Ninth Ward," all at no cost to city government. "They won't even compensate us $22 per person for the health care we provide," he said of the federal and state government.

Ninety-five percent of the group's budget is spent on direct services.

No one receives a salary at Common Ground Collective, but it costs about $71,000 per month to run the operation.

"We had 2,800 volunteers for Spring Break. We had to prepare 56,000 meals,· explained Rahim, who added that the organization buys the boots, goggles and protective clothing needed to clean up the storm ravaged homes in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. "We feed anyone who is hungry.·

Now that Common Ground has met its mission of providing short term relief for victims of hurricane disasters in the New Orleans area, it is ratcheting up to meet its long term support goals of rebuilding the communities affected and "giving them hope by working with them, providing for their immediate needs and emphasizing people working together to rebuild their lives in sustainable ways."

To volunteer with Common Ground Collective, visit write to commongroundrelief [at] gmail [dot] com (commongroundrelief [at] gmail [dot] com) or call (504) 218-6613. To donate, mail checks to Common Ground Collective, 1415 Franklin Ave., New Orleans, LA 70117. If you want your donation to be tax deductible, mail it to CFC/Common Ground, 221 Idora Ave., Vallejo. CA 94591.

CC Campbell-Rock, a native New Orleanian, veteran journalist and Katrina evacuee, is the editor of the Bay View. Email her at campbel/rock [at] sfbayview [dot] com.">campbel/rock [at] sfbayview [dot] com.