New Orleans, Louisiana
City Farms Director
“I aspire to make as little money as possible, which means living creatively.”
Nicola talks about what led to their going to New Orleans to do relief work shortly after Hurricane Katrina, why they have made it their home, and their deep and satisfying commitment to austerity.
I do a lot of different things. I coordinate a lot of different projects with the New Orleans Food and Farm Network. We are an organization that supports urban growing and urban farmers and backyard gardeners. So we help provide resources and workshops, whatever can be done to support a local food economy in New Orleans. That’s my fulltime job.
We teach how to grow food to support your family or yourself. We can’t ignore the issue of food deserts, the common term that’s used nowadays for areas that don’t have any grocery stores within walking distance. So we focus on those areas and try to build programs. We’re really open to building many programs that we think will work well in terms of supporting people to be able to grow their own food for their family or to be able to access fresh and healthy food and trying to encourage a local food economy, meaning we can support local growers and local markets. There’s emphasis on local primarily because it supports jobs in the neighborhood; it supports getting away from, relying on fossil fuels to bring our food to us.
I hope it’s a sustainable thing. It’s not new in our civilization, our societies. What we’re doing is, and especially in New Orleans, we’re kind of bringing back the heritage of growing our own food. I think it’s just been lost the last couple generations. The ability and knowledge of growing our own food is something that I think we have to get back to.
I knew very little about New Orleans before Katrina. Then a friend asked me to go to there after the storm to deliver medical supplies. I ended up staying. I did relief work, and never thought of New Orleans as a home or as a place that I would be moving to until after I left, burned out and exhausted and sort of traumatized by the whole situation that I was in. It was a really big wakeup call to the amount of suffering that can happen in the world and in life and also just a huge lesson in how to survive and how to continue on and have good mental stability after a situation like that, both for volunteers and for the people who experienced the storm.
The project that I worked on and helped start was an organization called The H.O.P.E. Project. For two years, I had helped coordinate a group of people in our parish. We were a group of about fifteen people in the beginning of 2006. And by February, March, we had founded a local nonprofit organization. Nonstop work. I mean, I’m a workaholic in a lot of ways, and I love the challenge. Helping families who are rebuilding, especially folks who had a contractor leave and steal their money. Either half-finished or a house that was improperly built or rebuilt. I was doing a lot of that work and basically sliding scale construction work. To me it was the greatest work I could ever imagine.
We didn’t have any boss; we didn’t have any national relief organization dictating to us what we needed to do. We were just a grassroots-based organization that worked on addressing the immediate needs of people in the neighborhood that we were living in. I did everything from paperwork to coordinating volunteers, making the website… Then as things moved on and progressed, we learned as a group how to roof houses, hang drywall, do plumbing and electrical work. It was the kind of job where me being a jack-of-all-trades could really be active and do all kinds of things.
I think a lot of people were attracted to the hurricane relief scene because you could get a place to live and you could get food and you had an immediate sense of purpose. We would often have folks who were fighting drug addiction and also had other life problems, maybe had a warrant out. We had a lot of people that we found out had a warrant in another state and they were just sort of hiding out and escaping, but really sweet people. We never really asked. We didn’t pre-screen people before they came and volunteered with us, although we were careful. I think we had a really good collective of people working to keep a good balance.
A lot of people had never been in an environment where people were just doing good work every day. I think people were totally inspired. We had an insurance adjuster quit his job and donate himself fulltime with us. He was one of those people that just went for a year without money. He was so distraught about the amount he was getting paid to screw people out of their insurance deals. You know this story.
People had paid insurance on their houses their whole life. They paid hurricane insurance. They were told they did not require flood insurance. Then Hurricane Katrina came and the insurance company said, “Sorry, we can’t help you rebuild your house because all you had was coverage for wind damage. We can help you get a new roof.” But there are whole houses filled with flooded-out mud and everything in their house is ruined. Full of mold, falling over. Anyway, this insurance adjuster was just losing sleep every night with the fact that he just had to say no and refuse help to all these people that paid insurance their whole life on one of the most valuable things they owned. And he quit his job and worked with us.
We ran off of a budget of under $10,000 for that first year. We received donations, in-kind donations and monetary donations from volunteer groups that would come down and do fundraising for us. That kind of met our basic financial needs.
What about your own needs?
I had a credit card. (Laughs) I had an automatic payment from my credit card, basically. We didn’t have Internet access. I had a cell phone for the first time in my life, but it was just an old school, basic cell phone. So when we would go to the other side of New Orleans to go to a library or an Internet café or something, I would just handle that business.
I didn’t have to pay rent, food, gasoline. I had a truck, my own truck, but any kind of maintenance or gasoline, things like that, was all paid for by the organization. We started a bank account so we could pay for our basic needs. We would get food donations. Food definitely wasn’t a problem. We had housing taken care of, a variety of different housing situations over that year.
I didn’t have any health insurance. I remember a moment, realizing that I was living in “Cancer Alley” or whatever they call it. I never thought about what could give me cancer in life until I went to southern Louisiana, and I was surrounded by oil refineries and the bottom of the Mississippi River and realizing there was all these environmental exposures that were just increasing my chances of cancer. Probably realizing in my later years of life, I might get it. I guess there was sort of a, what can I do?
I didn’t see it as trying to be a martyr. I just thought, you know, this is a place where other Americans live. This is their home. I didn’t have things tying me down so that I couldn’t help, so I put myself fully into helping. It gave me a great sense of purpose, and that to me is one of the most important things in life.
What does money represent to you?
Money represents a means by which to continue the work that I do, and the work that I do usually has nothing to do with money. But I usually have to pay rent, or I have to pay bills, insurance. But there’s so many ways to get around that. I’m living a lifestyle where I don’t need very much money, because we live in a society in America where food is abundant. Our supermarkets throw away an incredible amount of food, so it’s not very hard to get food for free. There’s a culture of squatting houses and reclaiming abandoned houses, especially now that we live in this age of foreclosure.
There are a lot of folks that are reclaiming houses to live in and then can live rent free. I’ve definitely lived without a vehicle in the past, and I could do that if I wanted to. So there’s all these ways I’ve figured out how to reduce the money I need in my life. For most of my life, I’ve made under $7,000 a year. So yeah, money’s kind of this annoying thing that I have to have in certain circumstances. I aspire to make as little money as possible, which means living creatively, I think.
One man, a stocks trader, told me that everybody has their own “currency.” What you would say your currency is?
This is going to sound really cheesy. [Laughs] But I would say my currency is love. And that comes from a story of a person that I became really good friends with in St. Bernard Parish. He was our neighbor when we lived in a house in St. Bernard, a town called Violet. He was my neighbor who grew up in this town. In this little tiny neighborhood that no one’s really heard of, and no one really ever leaves.
He was in his 50’s, truck driver, was living in a FEMA trailer, rebuilding his house piece by piece, doing as much work as he could on his own or hiring contractors when he could. We never asked him for any money, and he couldn’t believe it. We would have about 30 volunteers at a time, like a church group or a school group come down. They would stay in the house with us and we would work on house-gutting or hanging drywall.
He would come over when we were eating dinner. He just loved talking to strangers; he loved getting to know new people from other states and other places. Every time he’d come over, he’d be like, “What do you need, Nic? You need some money; you need $20?” I’d be like, “No, I’m okay.”
One time he came over. He said, “I’ve never seen people like you; I’ve never seen somebody just come down and not want money, not want anything in return, and just want to help us.” And he was baffled.
Sometimes he’d stare at me, and he would get this smile on his face and he’d say, “I don’t get it. What do y’all survive on? Love?”
I received this update from Nic on 8.23.14:
I continue to focus in on my work for social change through food sharing. I see so much food waste and pollution by the capitalist system of supermarkets and industrial agriculture. So, initially I aim to redirect food excess produced by supermarkets, wholesalers, and farms to families & households without decent access to fresh food, and also coordinating a kitchen to cook a weekly free meal. In summary: distribute food & meals for free with the excess produced by our economy. All work is done voluntarily & without pay by a collective called Community Kitchen.
On the flip side, I am hoping to support myself financially by starting an urban farm that will in many ways act as a hub for sustainable growers in the region. We’ll produce organically-grown vegetable transplants and compost made from the food scraps of the local food service industry, a thriving part of the New Orleans economy that contributes tons & tons of waste–potential garden fertilizer–to the landfill daily. This urban farm project is called Vetiver Farm. The larger picture of this initiative is to create a sustainable model of food production and resource sharing that doesn’t necessarily compete with others, but rather supports all those who want to grow local food, backyard gardeners and small farmers alike.
I continue to live frugally & with intention. It feels good to help lessen the suffering of neighbors (and myself) while bringing about the most joy possible. Finding an end to capitalism would be great, but in the meanwhile, we must survive together and have as much fun while doing it.
See also my interview with Patty Gillis who took a vow of poverty in her youth and does work in Detroit similar to Nic’s recent work