I spent a good part of my day writing this email to a future employee of HONO. When I finally finished, I thought it was something important that ought to be said to more than just him... So I'm lamely posting it on my blog:
...Anyway, people rally around HONO (even ex-staff members and volunteers who have moved on) because we have always worked hard, and tried to put the community before anything else. I was extremely disturbed recently to read in M----'s feedback from PWC that "HONO needs to be treating these projects more like events." While that sort of suggestion might certainly make our corporate partners more happy, to me it feels like the death of what makes this place great.
It is great because everyone who works here, or comes through the doors to volunteer, is here to put someone else's needs above their own. It is a focal point for the most beautiful part of humanity; the part that knows that - whether I'm a designer from New York, or a bus driver from the lower 9th ward, or a Japanese business man, -- we are all on this earth together - and for that we are the same, and for that - we have to care for one another.
When you create a place and an environment where your small, personal and selfish concerns - are less important than humanity's concerns - together, people will always be drawn to it, because it represents the best part of them.
Back to M----'s feedback - I think there is a balance to be struck between "event" and "project" - but that the community's needs, as determined by that community, should always come first and foremost above anything else. As soon as something else comes first, your volunteers can sense it - and you are robbing them of the chance to feel that selflessness - to feel like they are giving something to another that costs them something - to feel that connection to humanity. And as an organization at that point, you are no longer saying "we need these dollars to help the community." You are saying - "We exist to get these dollars." And who wants to be a part of that?
Reggie, Chet, Amanda - None of them particularly enjoy corporate projects. But they understand with us that these projects, bring us the revenue we need to continue our work in this city. A work that is dirty, and un-catering in every sense. They support us, because they want to see us continue to pour resources into the lives of the people who need it.
There are two cities in New Orleans. There's the tourists' New Orleans: the conventions, the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, swamp tours, casinos, and Cafe du Monde.
And there's the people's New Orleans... the New Orleans' full of rich, rich culture they keep hidden away from the outsiders - It's the best food in the restaurant in the alley with no signs outside; it's the mourners in the second line; it's the musicians with more talent than anyone recording right now - playing together in a dirty backyard; it's the Mardi Gras Indians, sewing their costumes the whole year round, and singing u-na-ne at Honda Wandas - in the neighborhood that the pizza boys won't deliver to.
Recently this New Orleans - threw a "Hands On Party!" in the back yard of the home of a Wild Magnolia, one of the local Indian tribes. There weren't any sponsors or cameras or posters. The family called their friends and pulled together a meal - Fried chicken and pasta. There was a cake that said "Thank you Hands On" in icing. The Indian in question, called some friends - who happen to be some of the best local musicians and spoken word artists in New Orleans - who all came out and played for hours in the yard for our volunteers.
We had never worked on this family's house. They hadn't been a part of any of our projects. The Indian was one of a handful of older gentleman who sit on the corner of 1st and Dryades and play dominoes every day. He had watched from across the street as we sent thousands of volunteers out at 6am every morning for a year and a half. He watched them all come home with black faces and dirty tools. He watched us fix house after house down Dryades Street.
After a year of earning the community's trust, that night - they opened the doors of the real New Orleans to Hands On.
I bring all of this up, only because I believe so much in the goodness of what we have done so far as an organization. We have used corporate groups and events, not as the center of our work - but to support the real work of HONO. The work that has earned us the unparallelled support of our volunteers, and the community's embrace.
S--- - I think you will do fine down here. I admire your professionalism, your calm under pressure, your friendly attitude, and your creativity. We always talk about how New Orleans is so relationship oriented. But it's not about 'rubbing elbows' with the right people. It's about tying your humanity to theirs, and saying I'm here with you. When people feel that is true, there is nothing they won't do to support your work.