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Evolution of Common Ground

The Common Ground Clinic, born in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, continues to grow and evolve.
The Common Ground Clinic, born in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, continues to grow and evolve.

The main clinic - housed in a mosque in Algiers, on the unflooded bank of the Mississippi River - opened in early September. The clinic, open seven days a week and staffed by volunteer healthcare providers, offers vaccinations, examinations, and basic medical care. For the past few weeks, it has generally seen about 100 patients per day. Clinic workers do not see many direct storm-related injuries or illnesses, but more chronic illness - such as high blood pressure and diabetes - and other unmet medical needs due to long-term lack of access to healthcare.

The clinic continues to draw many volunteers, who connect with Common Ground via a variety of channels including activist networks, online volunteer matching databases, and even the California Nurses Association - so many, in fact, that there's not enough room to put them all. In late October there were about 60 clinic staff, and organizers started trying to schedule and limit new incoming volunteers. Common Ground has attracted many nurses and medical students, but has an ongoing shortage of MDs and nurse practitioners who can write prescriptions and supervise students. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals recently agreed to extend credentialing for out-of-state medical personnel until the end of the year. The clinic could also use more administrators (like unit coordinators), social workers, and volunteers - who need not have medical training - to do random stuff like kitchen work and driving (using their own vehicles).

After asking the clinic to move by early November, members of Masjid Bilal mosque generously agreed to allow Common Ground to stay at this site until the end of the year. Clinic organizers are currently evaluating potential new locations, including the unused Catholic school next door and a nearby apartment complex.

Common Ground also operates several mobile clinics. One has been offering vaccines and first aid at a site in the lower 9th Ward near where residents board buses to view the remains of their homes; north of this point, the National Guard strictly prohibits entry. (The 9th Ward is divided by the Industrial Canal; the east side - the lower 9th - experienced the worst devastation.) This mobile clinic sees some residents, but mostly relief and construction workers. The collective has also experimented with other mobile clinic sites as determined by need, including one at a Vietnamese church in East New Orleans (also a hard-hit area) and one at a church serving a Spanish-speaking community in Kenner, west of New Orleans.

On November 4, a satellite clinic opened in a former day care center in the upper 9th Ward. The once-flooded building required extensive cleanup by a team of dedicated volunteers, including removal of sheetrock and mold abatement; this neighborhood was still without electricity in early November. The satellite clinic sees maybe 30-50 people per day, mostly returning residents; the goal is to make it a full-time clinic. The same site also houses the Common Ground Distribution Center, were residents can get food, water, cleaning supplies, legal aid, and other forms of assistance. The bulk of the collective's operations have relocated here from Malik Rahim's backyard in Algiers. The collective is devoting increased attention to eviction and housing issues, adding political advocacy and protests to direct service provision.

The devastation in New Orleans and throughout the gulf region is hard to describe, and not fully conveyed by the news. (Up close, seeing the ruins of people's personal effects left beside the curb is what I found most moving.) Common Ground volunteers have done some reconnaissance and outreach in areas further away, including the Mississippi coast and Louisiana bayou towns to the south. The new Four Directions Relief Project is working with Native American tribes in this area. Common Ground has made connections with other grassroots relief efforts, including Mama Dee and the community center that sprung up around her home in the 7th Ward, the Barefoot Doctors Academy, and the Rainbow Family, which opened the New Waveland Café in Mississippi soon after Katrina, and later the Welcome Home Kitchen in Washington Park in New Orleans; the city's attempts to close down the Washington Park encampment were recently rebuffed thanks to community and activist support. Common Ground volunteers have also established working relationships with members of the National Guard, individual Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers, and medical personnel re-establishing or creating replacements for pre-storm medical infrastructure. (I, for one, have never worked in such proximity - or with such cordiality - with so many soldiers, government officials, and conservative religious people.)

Common Ground continues to face challenges as it evolves into a long-term project. In early November, "Radio Algiers" - a community radio station operating out of an ad hoc computer center in Malik's garage - was shut down by the FCC. Some volunteers have been harassed by police, including at least one African-American member arrested earlier this month (as expected, police are less concerned about the white volunteers). Due largely to dismal Internet connectivity, news and communications from the Common Ground clinic are sporadic, and the collective is rather cut off from the larger activist community outside New Orleans. (I had to wait until I got back to my trusty computer in San Francisco to post reports and photos.) The hours are long, the work is often hard, and some of the long-tem "core" volunteers appear to be on the verge of burnout, since procedures are not yet well enough established to let others smoothly rotate in and out of these roles.

There is a bit of "culture clash" between long-time activists - some of whom distrust the medical establishment - and healthcare professionals who may have little or no experience with antiauthoritarian activism and working on a non-hierarchical basis. The clinic collective does not consistently employ consensus decision-making, relying instead on informal discussions, charismatic leaders, and long-term "core" volunteers who are aware of local conditions and concerns. Some of the many short-term volunteers who stay for 1-2 weeks have thus ended up feeling "out of the loop." (I felt like I had barely gotten oriented and started to contribute to projects when I had to leave after two weeks.) The clinic now has a bank account, tax-exempt nonprofit status, and a board of directors - whose role is far from clearly defined. With considerable financial donations coming in, there are decisions to be made about how best to spend the money and whether to compensate some of the "core" volunteers to enable them to make a longer-term commitment (suggestion: the mobile clinics sure could use a reliable vehicle!).

As Common Ground moves forward, the biggest challenge is how to make it a true, participatory community effort. The clinic has attracted a few local healthcare workers, but the majority of volunteers still come from as far away as California and Canada. There's also a question of what community Common Ground serves: the neighborhood immediately surrounding the clinic in Algiers, the disenfranchised communities of New Orleans as a whole, or all hurricane survivors who could benefit from mutual aid. Finally, as the Common Ground clinic moves toward becoming, perhaps, a permanent community institution, it's impossible to ignore the long-term, unmet medical need that also exists from Washington, DC, to Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco. Hopefully, the New Orleans effort will prove to be a model that provides inspiration - and gives activists the valuable experience - to start many more Common Grounds.

(Bay Area Radical Health Collective member Liz Highleyman spent two weeks at Common Ground in late October-early November)

To see some of the photos, go to:  link to barhc.w2c.net

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