Well, we are officially in the Atlantic hurricane season (though, as has become the norm, the first named storm
of this season didn’t pay attention to the calendar). So, for today’s edition, I wanted to introduce you to Andrew Barley and Ben Hirsch, two of the co-founders of West Street Recovery
(WSR). Founded in 2017 in response to Hurricane Harvey, WSR is a “horizontally organized grassroots non-profit organization” with a focus on community involvement and empowerment. I got connected with Barley and Hirsch in April as I sought to hear from non-profits in Texas about how they were dealing with the compounding crises the state has faced over the past year, including Covid-19 and the February freeze, as well as how they were preparing for the 2021 hurricane season.
If you missed my first Q&A on this topic with Matthew Marchetti, one of the founders of CrowdSource Rescue, you can check it out here!
Barley and Hirsch were really generous in sharing their time with me to detail how WSR has built trust in Houston neighborhoods where locals have “heard the same story over and over” from officials following disasters, as Hirsch described it, and how they have sustained that to support recovery and resiliency efforts. I had to edit our interview down to fit into this newsletter, but you can learn more about WSR’s ethos and goals in this post
on Undesigning Disasters
Now, onto the interview!
Colleen Hagerty: I’m curious where the Covid-19 pandemic found you last spring, and how it impacted the work that you were doing and the communities that you were serving?
Andrew Barley: I would say that it sort of evolved our understanding of what we felt was a natural disaster, or what we felt was appropriate for disaster recovery work. For a lot of our homeowners, all of these things are sort of interconnected. You know, they live in communities that are flood-prone and have poor flooding infrastructure, but they also are victims in other ways due to heavy industrialization in these neighborhoods; they’re also victims of various forms of environmental racism.
These are Black and Brown communities, meaning these are some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods when it comes to an infection rate [of Covid-19], but they’re also the ones who are not really given the appropriate resources so that they can better protect themselves. And we’re also, keep in mind, talking about the intersection of class. These are working class folks who have to leave their houses in the middle of this pandemic and who have to subject themselves to potentially getting Covid in order to make ends meet, they don’t have the luxury of staying home like a lot of folks do.
So, for us, it changed our classification of what a disaster is, and it felt only natural for us to use our community resources and our community connections in order to prepare our folks the best we could for the long haul when it comes to the Covid-19. That meant working with our partners to provide economic assistance, that meant working with partners to provide masks and other sanitation supplies, and that also meant working with our community members and making sure that they had a network amongst each other where they could check-in and make sure not just that everyone’s okay but that everyone has equal access to resources in the community.
Ben Hirsch: Our membership has actually done quite well in the face of Covid in comparison to the broader community that they’re part of, and we think that part of that is just that we have all these weekly calls and weekly or bi-weekly Zoom meetings with pretty high numbers of community members where we’re just, like, encouraging people and people are encouraging each other to take proper protective measures. Also giving people money so that they can pay their rent and stuff like that and maybe they don’t go take a risky job as a day laborer or maybe they don’t go back to their daycare job. I know there was one woman we were working with who we basically paid her to not go back to work. She had just given birth, and she worked at a daycare that was taking very few precautions.
Also, supporting each other and people talking about different things they’re doing to avoid boredom, for example, or to get people sharing food pantry information every day on our WhatsApp chat. And I think all that together really did make a difference for people. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, this is the one intervention that did it.’ I think it’s more building the community, combining the financial capital with the social network, and [connecting] different people with different types of information.
I would say also, in terms of vaccines, the broader community that we work in has some high degree of suspicion with the vaccines and even some people that we work with really closely were originally pretty worried about the vaccine. They didn’t feel that it was safe, they didn’t feel that it was right – that it was being sort of tested out on Black and Brown people from their perspective. And I think over time, having discussions and celebrating every time someone did get the vaccine, being like, ‘Oh, Miss Sandra, you got the vaccine, congratulations!’ People shared pictures of themselves getting the vaccine, coordinated rides to get the vaccine, and I actually think over time that did build trust, because people saw people that they’re in community with getting the vaccine and that it was working out for them. So, I think from prevention all the way to vaccination that community care work was so important.
CH: With the start of hurricane season now approaching again, what does your work look like day-to-day at this moment?
So, one of the things that has been helpful for us is that we’ve got these two community groups, the
Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus and the Northeast Action Collective. They’re completely community-led, and they go out and they do their own actions and events and things. With them, I’ve been fortunate enough to do some of that, like, future planning in regards to community-based disaster prepping.
We have a disaster response team as one of the subteams of the Northeast Action Collective, and those guys are working to create a system now prior to hurricane season coming. They do things like they have a convenient disaster call list where they check in with all the members of their community to make sure that folks are safe, and they have these disaster go bags that have the essentials people will need when in the middle of a disaster to keep themselves and their families safe. They’ve been able to get grants so that they can do things like buy generators for the community, and when a disaster happens, we’ll know that house has the generators, that house has the water and medicine, and that house has a couple boats over there.
A lot of our team members – they know that hurricane season is coming, and, unfortunately, they’ve experienced this enough and they now have the resources and self-advocacy to know that they don’t want that to happen again. So, we’re helping them gather the resources and prepare themselves knowing that there will be failures in the system every time like there have been in the past again. We’re already organizing to protect ourselves during the next hurricane.
BH: We’ve been in this long-term fight trying to get disaster organizations to reduce the barriers to getting aid, and we’ve actually seen some real success on that front. For example, after the winter storms, they did some stuff to pre-qualify certain geographic areas of Houston where the median income and such are so low that they don’t feel the need to do a household-by-household check, it’s like, if you live in this zone, you need help.
Part of the disaster preparedness work is fighting for changes in the overall system, and the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus has spent all of their efforts fighting to get HUD (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) money to their families and in doing so have come to understand the HUD and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) aid systems so much better. And that knowledge is like a type of preparedness as well, but it takes a lot of collective effort to build that knowledge over time.