The Common Ground Relief Legal Clinic, one of the many resources the group offers. Photo by Cameron Conklin.
Common Ground Relief is an organization that strives to create Gulf Coast Communities that are environmentally stable, financially viable and have true interpersonal connections. They help residents to build assets to support their mission of community transformation and renewal. Centered in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, this non-profit encourages building new homes, provides legal assistance, works with wetlands restoration, and facilitates community gardening. They also educate children about things like food security and the environment to ensure their efforts continue into future generations. (Common Ground Relief, August 20th 2013, http://www.commongroundrelief.org/home).
Common Ground Relief was a response to the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which effected tens of thousands of residents in the Lower Ninth Ward. Pre-Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward was a unique community, where over 54% of the residents had lived for over 25 years and roots in the neighborhood had resulted in the highest percentage of African American home ownership of any city in the United States. The loss of these homes represented the disappearance of a family’s major asset, economic livelihood and, as a result, their future. Common Ground is working to reinstate the Lower Ninth’s pre-Katrina attributes by rebuilding this community. They first set out to rebuild and reconstruct homes for those who lost everything, but have since expanded on this mission serving a wide range of roles in the community.
A home built by Common Ground. Photo by Cameron Conklin.
Anita Roddick Advocacy Center
The Anita Roddick Advocacy Center functions as a resource in the community for residents returning and looking for support in building their homes. The center holds computers, a fax and copy machine free of charge, and it is the site of our community kitchen. We provide space for local organizations to hold their meetings in the advocacy center, such the L9 school development group and the L9 stakeholders coalition, and residents can request work from our volunteers here. The Center houses the Mos Chukma Institute, which provides talk therapy sessions for adults and art therapy for children. Common Ground offers its employees aid in technical assistance and to navigate the often confusing rebuilding process, from construction materials and donation opportunities, to counseling on Road Home related issues. We have the capacity to act as case managers and we make it a priority to direct homeowners to proper organizations if we cannot provide the requested service directly. The Anita Roddick Advocacy Center is also the reception area for all short and long term volunteers, and it is situated in the midst of our wetlands demonstration area (Common Ground Relief, August 20th 2013, http://www.commongroundrelief.org/advocacy).
Common Ground Relief has established a free legal clinic in the Lower 9th Ward (held in the Advocacy Center), the first and only legal resource available in the neighborhood since the storm. They employ a part-time paralegal and two part time attorneys as well as work with law students from Loyola and Tulane University to address legal needs of the residents of the Lower Nine. The legal clinic is focused on low-income residents who would otherwise not have the funds to hire a private attorney, yet have a salary too high to receive legal services from other providers. The Common Ground Relief Legal Clinic also handles cases that other legal service providers will not work on, such as community property and family law. They also have created pamphlets on heirship, clear title and licensing to spread awareness on these issues. In addition, they continue to advocate for the restoration of certain rights and benefits of the formerly incarcerated. They support efforts to rehabilitate and educate first-time criminal offenders rather than sending them to jail or prison (“Legal Clinic”, Common Ground Relief, August 20th 2013, http://www.commongroundrelief.org/legalclinic).
One of the community gardens. Photo by Cameron Conklin.
Community Gardening Projects
Common Ground participates in a wide variety of gardening projects. They create raised vegetable gardens for homeowners and install rain gardens in the yards of residents involved in our Home Construction Program. They have teamed up with GroundWork New Orleans to install many of these rain gardens and others throughout the neighborhood. They also provide soil testing of buildable residential lots prior to any construction, so future residents are aware of any toxins on their property. They also began the Meg Perry Healthy Soil Project, a local nursery used to grow plants vital to wetlands restoration. In addition, they maintain their own vegetable garden that provides greens for salads and citrus fruits and berries for volunteers (“Gardens”, Common Ground Relief, August 20th 2013, http://www.commongroundrelief.org/gardens)
Garden of Eatin’ Program
The Garden of Eatin’ Food Science and Nutrition Program is based at the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School. Students learn about all aspects of food production, from plant science and nutrition to food systems and sustainability while planting a garden of their own. By gaining the tools and knowledge to grow their own food, students can make informed decisions about their diets and become stewards of their environment, contributing to the renewal of their own neighborhood. In addition to the Food Science and Nutrition focus, the program has expanded to include an urban forest and watershed demonstration area. In addition, drought resistant roses and a Louisiana Iris collection are being created and will be supervised by student mentors from a Wetland Education program created in conjunction with their partner GroundworkNOLA (“Garden of Eatin'”, Common Ground Relief, August 20th 2013, http://www.commongroundrelief.org/gardenofeatin).
New Home Construction Program
Common Ground Relief works to elevate existing houses and construct new houses for returning residents throughout Orleans, St. Bernard, and Jefferson Parishes. In addition, funds have been allocated to elevate homes in flood prone areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, making elevating your home with Common Ground even easier and more affordable. Beyond elevation, CGR Construction uses skilled volunteers to provide services to homeowners to reduce the cost of new construction. They build homes that are energy efficient and custom built, starting at $89,000.00. (“New Construction”, Common Ground Relief, August 20th 2013, http://www.commongroundrelief.org/newconstruction).
Job Training Program
Common Ground believes that job training and skill building for the rebuilding effort is essential for restoration. They have recently initiated a job training program so that local residents can gain the necessary skills and can economically benefit from the rebuilding of their neighborhoods. Common Ground Relief provides trainees with a $10 per hour stipend for a 40 hour work week for a period of six months. With the support of local construction related business owners, they are able to expose job trainees to a variety of construction trades. These include drywall hanging and finishing, electrical, plumbing, and painting. Ultimately, the trainee is able to focus on a particular aspect of building and is then fully trained. At the end of the program they have the knowledge and experience to be hired. in conjunction, Common Ground Relief has opened a carpentry shop and has created a carpentry program to build custom cabinetry, moldings and trim (Job Training, Common Ground Relief, August 20th 2013, http://www.commongroundrelief.org/jobtraining).
A sign leading into the wetlands restoration station. Photo by Cameron Conklin.
Skilled construction volunteers are needed to continue the rebuilding effort and aid in the construction of new housing. Individuals and groups with experience in framing, drywall and millwork installation are always needed. Common Ground Relief’s ability to provide free skilled construction labor greatly decreases the cost to homeowners who are still anxious to rebuild and return home. So far, Common Ground Relief has worked with nearly 45,000 volunteers, and that number is growing (“Volunteering, Common Ground Relief, August 20th 2013, http://www.commongroundrelief.org/volunteerconstruction).
Common Ground Relief is one of many organizations that have worked to restore the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. As part of a larger study of the impact and networks of non-profits in 2013, please see “Mapping Non-Profit Influence: The Case of the Lower Ninth Ward” for more details. Based on expectations put forth in this study, Common Ground Relief excels in the following categories:
Access to consumers, regardless of ability to pay
Common Ground Relief is able to provide a number of services to residents in the Lower Ninth without fees, effectively accessing those residents who have little funds. These services include the free legal clinic, housing counseling, speech therapy, access to computer and fax machines, and public meeting spaces. Many of these amenities are not offered in the Lower Ninth Ward at all, much less for free from the government or private sectors.
Provisions of collective goods
Common Ground provides collective goods such as wetland restoration, public meeting space, education, and training.
Opportunities to volunteer
Common Ground is highly reliant on volunteers and has developed a huge network of volunteers both locally and nationally.
When we analyze Common Ground Relief based on its extent of participation in information sharing activities, we see they are active in 5 ways:
Common Ground works in education through their Garden of Eatin’ Program with elementary children.
Common Ground has developed a new construction training program to develop practical and marketable skills in Lower Nine residents.
Common Ground engages in capacity building through their training program, their education program, and their counseling. Each of these projects expands the knowledge and experience of Lower Nine residents, enabling them to make informed decisions and improve their lives and community.
Common Ground has connections to eight organizations in this study (Bayou Rebirth, GroundWork New Orleans, CSED, lowernine.org, NENA, Make It Right, The Village, Sierra Club). They also work with a variety of organizations in the New Orleans area as a whole.
Common Ground is initiating social change through their commitment to environmental sustainability. They are restoring the wetlands, aiding in food security in the Lower Nine, and building energy efficient homes to help the Lower Nine rebuild consciousness of their natural surroundings.