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Interview with Occupy Sandy volunteer

Interviewee: White, mid-twenties woman volunteer with Occupy Sandy.
Interviewer: Shelly Ronen
01/10/13

Q:            Yeah. So let’s just start by telling me a little bit about yourself and whatever’s relevant to your relation to your experience with Sandy?

A:            Sure I have been involved in Occupy Sandy since the day after the storm. I was looking for a way to help out and was connected with Occupy Wall Street last year so I just saw some people on Twitter  posting that and got involved there. First doing like got on the phone line and then coordinating some of my volunteers and eventually the communication hub sites that opened up at one of the distribute sites.  And then from there I kind of heard about an unmet need in Sheepshead Bay, I went up there about ten days after the storm and have been coordinating there.

Q:            Which distribution center were you?

A:            520 Clinton.

Q:            Okay and then what was that unmet need that you mentioned?

A:            In Sheepshead Bay?

Q:            Yeah?

A:            Yeah I mean there weren’t any volunteers out there that people got really hard hit and there wasn’t any support from the Red Cross or FEMA or anyone else and that people were really desperate.

Q:            So what sort of were the main problems do you think that came up with the storm?

A:            Hard to narrow down. I think the lack of really rapid response from the city was a big one, that in a lot of these places Occupy Sandy, like a completely volunteer network most people having zero storm relief experience were the first people to be onsite, Sheepshead Bay ten days after the storm we were really the first people there.  So I think that, I think just the lack of a plan beforehand of what one should really do in the case of the storm, the lack of designated neighborhood centers where people can go for relief or to get information or to get food and hot water and just kind of lack of foresight especially with all the tall buildings with people stuck on the top floors.  Like none of that needed to be a disaster situation, there should always be a backup in case power fails to get people out of those buildings.  So I think yeah there’s kind of a void of leadership on the city’s part and just in terms of FEMA as well just really not being present, not being available to communities, not really communicating about what they were doing.

Q:            And what’s the extent of the problems in your opinion, like kind of what are the boundaries of the problems around what came up after Sandy?

A:            Could you rephrase that?

Q:            Yeah it’s a tricky question, we’re kind of interested in knowing about how people think about where in space the problems are, like is the problems are just stopping at the edges of neighborhoods or if the problems are more sort of like systemic? Like you mentioned the city, you mentioned some neighborhoods, the region do you think that the problems are sort of like bounded in some way that it was like in Sheepshead bay that this problem was happening or is it broader than that or narrower than that? Like is it more the individual level or kind of citywide or a region wide or even larger?

A:            Yeah I would say it’s a really systemic thing, stretching to the national level that I think that it’s the responsibility of the federal government as well to kick in at times like this which we’re seeing eventually, still very slowly.  So I think all around that’s why we’re in a country so like when one area gets hit it doesn’t just go down by itself so I would say that it’s really all over and we’ve been seeing that as well in terms of the response of people mobilizing across the country to send us things and it’s definitely on people’s minds as far away as California.

Q:            So it’s broad, great.  So what problems are arising now and what problems do you anticipate seeing in the future?

A:            I think now people have been living with mold for a couple months at this point so it’s a big public health concern that people are still living with that. A lot of people still don’t have heat and electricity which is just really demoralizing this far down the road.  And I think another problem that’s really emerging is that people are rebuilding as quickly as they can in the same way that they had before just to get back in their homes which makes sense but I think people are sticking their head in the sand if they don’t think this is going to happen again.  But it’s kind of they feel like they don’t have the resources to rebuild better even doing simple things like raising their utilities off the ground or raising outlets or anything like that.  That’s expensive and they can’t afford it on top of everything else so I think that yeah there’s just — it hasn’t really moved to like a point of like rebuilding better or lots of people thinking broadly and acting on like resilience or having the resources to do so, more importantly than just wanting to do so.

Q:            You kind of alluded to the fact that it’s probably going to happen again in the future, tell me more about what you think that’s going to — what you anticipate for the future?

A:            Yeah I think that we’re going to see more and more storms like this unfortunately as the sea levels rise and the sea warms which increases the extremities of the hurricanes and that this is what scientists have been predicting in terms of climate change only it’s happening a lot faster than anyone thought. So I don’t think we know when the next one will hit but I think it’s a matter of when not if and I think it’s just a matter of science at this point of what we can expect moving forward.

Q:            Do you find that a lot of people either by Occupy Sandy who you’ve been working with or those who have been affected are talking about climate change and what’s the nature of the discussion that you are hearing?

A:            Yeah definitely in my circles I was really involved in climate change activism before so I think I gravitate towards people who talk about it. But certainly in Occupy Sandy that’s been a big point of conversation. I actually worked with some Occupy Sandy people as well as some other organizations to plan an action about three weeks after the storm that was kind of calling on fossil fuel companies to take responsibility for their share of the disaster by projecting a short film about Sandy and climate change onto a mobile gas filling station.  That was definitely — you know it’s been on my mind I think that’s why I’ve gotten so involved in it it’s like I’ve been doing climate change activism for years like to prevent things like this and now it’s like it happened and I think that’s part of what has motivated me to respond and like stay involved this time.

Q:            Okay and are those people who have been affected also talking in terms of climate change?

A:            Not very much in Sheepshead Bay where I am. I’ve had a couple conversations about it that were pretty forced.

Q:            What do you think that’s about?

A:            Well I think — can I just take it really quick (phone call).

Q:            You were saying that you had a couple conversations that were kind of forced, I’m curious to know about those conversations?

A:            Yeah, so mostly when we were trying to interview people for this film I talked to one guy who’s like a real neighborhood leader and a really great guy and he was kind of just like “oh climate change I don’t really know if I believe in that, I mean sure like the weather is getting warmer but that’s about like the weather is getting warmer it’s not climate change.”  It was kind of like I think he did believe in climate change he just like didn’t like the word climate change or whatever associations he had with that. But he was kind of explaining in some ways what climate change was and in some ways wasn’t is, it was a very hard explanation to follow.  But I think overall I mean it’s a pretty conservative neighborhood, it’s represented by republicans in most levels and so yeah it’s definitely not like a super progressive let’s think and talk about climate change all the time neighborhood which is like super interesting and I think presents a real opportunity.  So I’m just yeah looking for ways to have conversations that aren’t just me talking at people about climate change and how it should be.

Q:            You say that this man’s associations probably with climate change like prevented from liking the sound itself so you think that there’s — how would you characterize those associations if you could see in his mind and what do you think those associations would be?

A:            I mean I think it would be totally speculation and stereotyping at this point but probably that it’s just like some hippy concern that it’s not really relevant to the day to day and that it’s not all that it’s made out to be.

Q:            Right.

A:            It’s not a huge threat.

Q:            Yeah that makes sense.

A:            I definitely had another conversation where someone was very much like spewing Fox News rhetoric at me and it was just like the leading scientist says that climate change isn’t real and we’re like who’s the leading scientist and he’s like well the leading one, my teacher told me and I’m like alright. So I mean it’s just who you listen to, what stations you pay attention to and all that.

Q:            So the media and the politics of it?

A:            Yeah definitely.

Q:            So I’m curious to know kind of like how your experience of the storm was similar or different from what you think other people experienced? You kind of mentioned your deep involvement in climate activism, climate change activism and also your connection to Occupy network. So do you want to talk more about those things and how you think those things shaped your experience with Sandy or other things that may be similar or different from others?

A:            Yeah are you talking about other in terms of people affected by the storm or people who weren’t as affected by the storm personally?

Q:            Either or both whatever you think is relevant.

A:            Sure. So I guess I mean my experience was very much electing to have my life thrown upside down by Sandy in that I was very lucky here, we didn’t have any sort of power outages or anything. And our home it was just kind of a nice relaxed day and then afterwards once I realized the extent to the devastation it became the focus of my life at least for the next six weeks after that I did nothing else, no other social life, no me time, I was not taking good care of my body at all.  It was just kind of like go, go, go on top of my full time job which was crazy but it was definitely like — you know it was my choice, it wasn’t like I had any even personal ties to people previously it was more just like I felt an obligation as a person and a citizen in New York to respond. Like I said before I mean just caring so much about climate change like I care about climate change because of the human impacts.

I’ve been really personally touched by stories of other disasters elsewhere in the world but it was never like my turn to respond to Katrina or to the Tsunami in Southeast Asia or anything like that where there was a huge loss of life and huge justice issues. But this felt really like this is my city now, it’s my turn to respond, who else are we expecting to do this?  So it was definitely that sense and also I think yeah being involved previously in Occupy Wall Street it was — I liked that kind of style of working as everyone just kind of going and making things happen on their own and not really bothering to worry about the formalities and just this kind of crazy energy of like yes we can do this even though we don’t have any experience doing it.  It felt really kind of there was this huge potential for change that I hadn’t felt since Occupy Wall Street so it was exciting as much as it was overwhelming and really sad and difficult.  It was just like this could be our moment to really change the dialogue in New York around issues of climate justice and affordable housing and public housing and all of these different things that I’ve been thinking about and my friends have been thinking about for years but now it’s like on everyone’s mind how inadequate NYCHA is, how inadequate our utilities are, all these things. So it was a big moment in that way also.

Q:            You were kind of already speaking to something that I’m curious about which is the degree to which kind of the mission of the organization of Occupy Wall Street that you were affiliated with beforehand, how easily that was applied to this particular crisis.  You were already talking about the ways that some of these things were hand in hand, I wonder if there’s anything else you think aside from the network and the style of work, to sort of pitch in and the sort of social justice questions.  I guess tell me about how the Occupy became Occupy Sandy, I guess that’s my real question.

A:            I don’t think anyone knows it’s still kind of weird to me, not only that it happened I think that made sense but that it stuck, that people are still so motivated and are like probably going to be in these communities much, much longer than the Red Cross or FEMA or anyone else in addition to being the first people there.  I think I mean in terms of just why we were able to do it. I think a lot of the things that we were doing we were also doing in Zuccotti Park in terms of feeding people and housing people and just kind of organizing on the fly and just using our really vast networks and social media skills. So much of this is social media, started completely from social media as did Occupy Wall Street.

Q:            You were saying something about networks and social media?

A:            Yes, social media was big and made both of those movements happen. But I think it’s also like — I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually why we’re still going as Occupy Sandy, why it stuck and I guess it’s also just that it’s a network of people who like to work in doing whatever they want to do not having a boss, not having formalities, not being constrained by even the work that it takes to be a staff at a nonprofit. So I think that it’s another opportunity for people to really self organize and work in the kind of style that really fits them and fits into their sentiments and doesn’t limit them in terms of having to shut up when my boss tells them what to do or anything like that. So it’s just another big opportunity for people to go crazy at working at something where there was a clear need and it was exciting and there was a real gap to be filled by that kind of work style.

Q:            Yeah, you’ve alluded already to the gap that like FEMA wasn’t there, NYCHA was inadequate. I wonder, how has Occupy Sandy works with all other organizations in the field, I’m curious to know what that looked like or looks like?

A:            Yeah I mean when I say inadequate I don’t mean they’re doing nothing, by any means also. So we definitely have collaborated with a lot of organizations in terms of in Sheepshead Bay where I know best like at the Red Cross has been coming and delivering hot meals everyday like to our distribution site until just recently. We just got a FEMA recovery site opened down the street from our distribution site till just recently, we’ve been connecting with a lot of different like church groups and fraternities and other volunteer groups that come out and work with us.

Q:            So it’s actually deeply collaborative?

A:            Yeah definitely and I don’t like — my personal work style is to not turn down any sort of partnership if we have the same intentions moving forward.

Q:            So you’ve alluded to this a little bit already but I’m curious to know kind of like in the original plaNYC 2007 there was a lot of discussion about mitigation and that seems to have fallen off of the table a little bit and it seems like a discussion that shifted towards adaptation. So I’m curious to know how you feel about that and where you think the problem solving kind of should be with regard to mitigation or adaptation?

A:            Yeah I think it needs to be a mix of both definitely. I think it makes sense that people are talking about adaptation right now because it’s most relevant in terms of how people rebuild and where to rebuild and if it’s necessary to really encourage people to transplant their whole community elsewhere.  But I think at the same time I mean mitigation is essential and just because it’s the farthest doesn’t mean it can’t get a lot worse so there’s still a lot of work to be done to ease the change that’s going to come with the warming of the planet.

Q:            So I have a kind of provocative conjecture that I just want to get your input on which is sort of a pet interest of mine is gender and activism and my very anecdotal observation is that I feel like there are more men in activist circles, there are more men that kind of come out in these moments and as a woman who’s deeply involved in climate change activism and in Occupy Sandy and Occupy Wall Street I’m curious to know how you think your being a woman has affected your experience with these spaces or if you have anything else about that?

A:            Yeah.

Q:            Or do you want to totally refute my conjecture?

A:            I don’t think I should refute it but I feel like that hasn’t been my experience with activism maybe just because I like really elect to be in spaces where if they’re not women-dominated at least women are really respected. I don’t think that’s essentially been — or intentionally that I’ve been avoiding spaces that are really male dominated manarchist but I didn’t know that when I’m in those kind of spaces there are other things I also don’t like about them so I tend to leave pretty quickly.  So I think I’ve noticed actually I mean I had a male friend who was involved in both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy point out to me that Occupy Sandy is really strong in female leadership and I hadn’t really noticed it until that point. But I think that it’s true that we’ve been seeing a lot of women really step up both at the citywide coordination level and definitely at Sheepshead Bay it’s all women coordinators like exclusively actually in terms of the people really doing the organizing and volunteer coordination and long term thinking.

Q:            What do you think causes that?

A:            Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that also, I think that you could give a very stereotypical answer which I’m not sure I’m very comfortable with in that a lot of the work Occupy Sandy is doing is more in like the traditionally female sphere of taking care of people, of feeding people and that kind of thing. But also I mean most of the work these days is really more of the masculine like, traditionally male side of things in terms of the building, the demolition, construction the stuff that requires boots and hardhats. But even if the dynamic in Sheepshead Bay has been very much mostly men are taking on leadership in terms of like teams of people doing demolition and a lot of homeowners request frequently that they want a bunch of big strong men and specifically when we sent women to them they’re like no I need men. But at the same time everyone who’s kind of calling the shots and dispatching volunteers and everything along those lines is a woman so it’s an interesting dynamic like that.

Q:            What sorts of responses have activists had when like a women shows up for something that they want like a group of guys for, how do people respond to that generally, the women themselves?

A:            The women who are volunteering?

Q:            Yeah.

A:            In my experience in Sheepshead Bay they’ve always been like no you can do it and I think…

Q:            So they stay.

A:            Generally yeah. I mean I don’t think anyone’s trying to hurt themselves if there’s some situations where it’s a group of both men and women if they aren’t strong enough to move a huge piece of furniture they don’t.  And then sometimes we do have to send them big strong men there to move it but yeah overall we’ve generally been able to work it out.  Except for there’s been some people who I think for cultural reasons they’re very insistent that they need men and they will not let the women exert themselves.

Q:            For cultural reasons?

A:            Yeah I mean I think a decent number of like eastern European immigrants I’ve noticed that type of behavior with I think different kind of cultural norm even than here.

Q:            That’s really interesting definitely. So we’ve talked a little bit about gender and I guess I wanted to bring up this as sociologists often talk about these things in terms of race, class and gender inequality that these kind of three things are all bundled together and shape people’s experiences.  And I’m wondering if you could speak to how you think that the aftermath of the storm was related to these kinds of inequalities that sociologists like to talk about?

A:            Yeah definitely. It’s a really interesting one I think because in some ways there’s a lot of injustice to be pointed out along class lines and then other ways it was kind of like cross-class and it wasn’t as clear cut as like a Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I mean it was still like I visited Howard Beach two days after the storm and it’s a very upper middle class neighborhood and they still were being totally ignored by the city. They had no support out there and I think it was an interesting experience to be giving donations to people who were more wealthy than I was but they were the people in need at that time.  But other than that I think that there are huge class issues to be dealt with especially in terms of the comparison between how quickly Wall Street and even lower east side got back up versus anywhere like Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island, Staton Island or Rockaways, Red Hook have gotten back on board. And certainly I think we’ll see some real big class issues and struggles around gentrification in the rebuilding process and I think there is a lot of fear right now that the vision of the city is to really wipe out these low income waterfront neighborhoods and take advantage of the prime beach-front real estate that’s there.  So I think that that’s another big reason why Occupy Sandy is sticking around and trying to support the communities who do want to stay to stay in their homes.

Q:            So the gentrification moving forward might be a big battle?

A:            Yeah I think that, I’m predicting that really coming to head very soon.

Q:            And any other predictions of what other battles there might be for the future? I’m curious in your opinion.

A:            Yeah I think there’s a whole bunch in terms of how much the status quo changes, if there’s really a difference in how public housing is structured and how our utilities are structured. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with LIPA for instance, you’ve been hearing about how Cuomo is interested in privatizing it because of their really poor response to the storm which in some ways that they’re not responding well then obviously something needs to be done about that but their response of privatizing it is kind of the opposite in the direction many people responding to the storm through Occupy Sandy and that kind of thing want to go in. That we would rather see utilities publicly owned and controlled. So I think that’s one, I think that there is yeah just going to be a lot about how climate change is talked about and whether it’s really given appropriate response or if it’s just going to be green washed like most other things. I’m sure that it’s in Bloomberg and Cuomo’s political interest to do something on climate change but I guess it’s just how deep that is and how much it really benefits environmental justice communities, both on the waterfronts and other environmental justice communities in New York.

Q:            Tell me more about what you mean by green washing, how do you see that playing out?

A:            So I could see that playing out in Shell or someone sponsoring a [inaudible] I mean that kind of approach of doing just enough for oil and gas companies or even it’s the city to look like they’re really investing in renewable energy but not doing it in a way that is really deep and really inclusive of a lot of different people um, really expands the possibility of renewable energy to be the dominant energy source in the coming years.

Q:            So you already alluded to the role of New York in this was your city, this is your surface so that kind of galvanized you I’m wondering if the storm has caused you to kind of experience the city differently in any other way, if there’s more for you to speak to on that?

A:            Yeah it’s a really interesting question. I really felt like there’s been two New Yorks since the storm, like the one that’s been completely turned upside down since the storm and the one that’s going about business as usual. And I think it’s been hard for me to spend time in the business as usual one without just kind of wanting to shake people and be like do you understand that people like half an hour away from here are living in mold and you can do something about it if you just like put on some gloves and get out there. But people I think have largely forgotten and I think that’s really disappointing and frustrating that we’re still getting volunteers in from all over the country but I still have friends in other parts of the city who haven’t come out to volunteer yet.  So I don’t think that’s particular to New York by any means I think it would be just as true in any big city where people can easily ignore the problem.

Q:            I wanted to followup on something that you mentioned earlier to which was that you went out there, you started volunteering and that you basically sort of felt for six weeks after that you were doing a full time job and also volunteering which no doubt was moving and an incredibly strenuous lifestyle.  I’m wondering if you could talk more to that, it seems the people that I’ve seen who volunteered, my friends who are involved with Sandy or whatever those who were involved seemed to really throw themselves through a passion activist degree but one that seemed like almost detrimental to their health and I’m wondering if you can talk to that aspect of your involvement?

A:            Yeah I think that’s a really accurate observation. I think that there’s a lot of talk of this is a marathon not a sprint and a lot of talk of encouraging each other to really take time off but not necessarily people modeling it. And I think it’s really easy when you get in a situation where everyone else is working super hard, at least for me that’s kind of what makes me feel like I should work as hard as they are or as hard as I perceive them to be working and not feel like I have the right to take time to eat a good meal or get a decent night sleep or that kind of thing.  So yeah I think it’s an issue whenever there’s a really important problem to be solved. I don’t regret like neglecting my personal wellbeing as much as I did for that period of time like I knew it was temporary and I knew there would be a point where I’d be like this is enough I need to like get back to thinking about how I can do this very sustainably so I always kind of had that in my mind that I never wanted to burn myself out so I was like dropout of the whole initiative. But I think that that’s one reason why it’s harder now is because people aren’t willing to sacrifice everything else in their lives to do it and I don’t think they should be but that’s why I think you kind of see some pieces not fitting together as they once they did because they really fit together like at the sacrifice of many people’s personal lives, social lives, work lives, health, well being all sorts of stuff.

Q:            So when these pieces are fit together how does that manifest, what does that cause, how do you see that it’s not fitting together?

A:            I mean just roles being unfilled, meetings not having as many attendees as they once did that kind of thing.

Q:            So when would that point be, that point when you realized you’re like okay this is a temporary mess, that was a temporary moment how did that happen for you, how did you transition out of it?

A:            I think the first big one was having a real weekend for the first time in a long time visiting my boyfriend in DC almost two months after the storm, that was kind of the first okay let me chill out a little bit after this. And then over winter break again I was away and that was my really big realization that I didn’t want to keep working in the same way that I had and I’ve been kind of adjusting since then and thinking about what I reasonably can do moving forward in keeping my job and seeing friends and doing other things that are really important to me.

Q:            So roughly what would look like, how many hours are going to give to this in the future, what’s feasible?

A:            I don’t know I haven’t really plotted it out in terms of hours but I know it means I’m not going to be going on site every single day I have to be work the way that I was and that every single weekend day I was there and I’m kind of like no, no more of that.   Maybe I’ll go one out of those days if I feel like that’s important but I think also the needs are changing, I don’t think there’s such a need for me to be onsite all the time. I think that I can be more useful personally in thinking about long term work and thinking about how I can bring in resources to the community in a larger way than just like a handful of volunteers. So I’d like to see my role moving more into that, that’s more of the thing that I can do during evenings and such during the week and whenever I have time.

Q:            Great, I think we’re coming to a close. Is there anything else that I haven’t asked that you think is relevant, anything you’d like to add about this in general or your experience or what’s happened, why it’s happened, how it’s happening those sorts of things?

A:            I don’t know. It depends on what you’re trying to get out of it and if there’s anything else that you want me to touch on?

Q:            No I think you really answered all of my questions so thank you so much for your time.

A:            For sure.

[Tape off]

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