Malik Rahim: Spreading Common Ground

An interview with the cofounder of New Orleans' Common Ground Collective.


Malik Rahim. Photo by Matt Pascarella.
“I believe the first thing that we should be teaching is civic responsibility—why is it important to help your neighbors?”
Photo by Matt Pascarella.

Doug: It's been 18 months since the hurricanes hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It seems that New Orleans has all but disappeared from the major media. What do people need to know about the current state of things in New Orleans?

Malik: That it's the tale of two cities. Where the majority are white, rich, and politically well-connected there is almost 90 percent recovery. The Saints are winning, Mardi Gras was a success, the Jazz Fest is coming forward, and the Essence Festival is coming back. But that's only one side of the city. There's another side, where only about 10 to 15 percent have recovered. In that part, it's still like the disaster happened last month.

Doug: What has the experience of Common Ground taught you about how communities can learn to act together?

Malik: I'm going to tell you, that's the reason why I continue on. Not only has it taught me what we can do, it has shown me the true greatness of this nation.

Yes we are a rich nation; yes we are one of the most powerful nations. But, the greatness of our nation is not in our government—it is in our people. I have seen the essence of that greatness in those who made sacrifices to come down to help us in our time of need.

Doug: What would the future New Orleans look like if it were rebuilt in the way you think it ought to be?

Malik: I think that we can show, not only people in New Orleans, Louisiana, or in America, but globally what happens when people of conscience come together, in spite of their government. If we can rebuild New Orleans in such a way that we break the dependency upon fossil fuels, if we look at alternative energy in our reconstruction and look at new methods, if we could move away from a levee system and start developing a storm protection system that no longer challenges nature, but works with nature. If we break the shackles of racism, and become a truly progressive city. If we could develop the schools and the education system, if we can work to develop health care for everyone. If we could do these things, we'd know that the sacrifice by all the thousands of volunteers from Common Ground and others wasn't in vain, and I believe that the rest of the world can look at us as a model.

One of the things that we try to project is that we can no longer be less than 10 percent of the world's population utilizing almost 30 percent of the world's resources and causing maybe 40 percent of the world's pollution. We can no longer just sit idly by and be this way. We have to change it, we have to find some sort of solution to global warming. We can be victorious in overcoming hatred, bigotry, racism, class-ism. We can make this city a jewel in America.

Doug: The motto of Common Ground is ‘Solidarity not Charity.' Can you tell me what that means in practice?

Malik: In many cases people will come into a community to do good work, but then they go back to their own communities. To us that is offering charity. Solidarity is working with the community. Living with the community, going through the same hardships they are going through, working with them to develop the method for social and economic uplift. It is meeting the basic needs, and meeting them by not just offering a donation, but by truly rolling up your sleeves and working with them. So that's why we say solidarity not charity.

Doug: What's the essence of the Common Ground approach that is different from other relief organizations?

Malik: We don't get bogged down in bureaucracy. And we always keep emphasis upon grassroots organizing; that you can make a difference. I believe the first thing that we should be teaching is civic responsibility—why is it important to help your neighbors?

Doug: How have you dealt with issues of race and class between volunteers and residents?

Malik: We do an “undoing racism” workshop for our volunteers. We've been infiltrated by different hate groups that tell many of our white volunteers that they don't have a place in these communities. And by what we call progressive racists, who believe that, “Yeah we can come in and help, but we need to be in charge because we know what they need.” We have been dealing with those people.

As for an incident—I'm superstitious so I knock on wood—we have yet to have one major incident. Volunteers come down to some of the most violent communities in New Orleans and we've never had an incident. Any rational person knows that the person is there to help them. Not only here to help, but to live with them and go through the hardships.

Doug: How did Common Ground start without government assistance?

Malik: Faith. Faith in the Most High and faith in the American people.

Malik Rahim. Photo by Matt Pascarella.
Photo by Matt Pascarella.

Doug: Did you see any risk in starting this kind of work without any official permission?

Malik: Well, I've been at risk all my adult life. I've spent the last 35 years in the struggle for peace and justice, so I've always been at risk. I've always challenged this government when I thought that what they were doing wasn't in the best interest. But that's the beauty of America. We do have the right of expression, whether it's pro-government or anti-government.

Doug: It seems that it would be easy to get discouraged. How do you keep going?

Malik: I'm a spiritual person. I see the spirituality in the work that I'm doing. And then, I've been blessed with the opportunity of meeting so many great people, so many young people. Right now, we had to turn down over 1,000 students who volunteered to come down and work. We just couldn't provide housing and support for all of them. They could have easily said “Well, I'm going to spend my spring break out at some beach just partying,” but they made a conscious decision that they were going to come down and work to help rebuild this community. Sometime that's the thing that keeps me going even when I go home burnt out, sometimes so tired I can't even take off my clothes.

Then there's the fact that I have seven kids and 21 grandkids, and I don't want my grandchildren to ever say, “Why didn't you do something?” I believe we're the generation that's going to be known as the ones that saved life as we know it or the generation that squandered the opportunity and caused the loss of life as we know it. I'd rather be the former. So I continue on.

Doug: You're on tour to raise awareness about New Orleans residents who are still living in other parts of the country. How many cities are they in?

Malik: Well I can't say how many cities, but I do know that we have displaced people in every state of the union, on the mainland.

But that's one part of what I'm doing. The second part is to establish different chapters of Common Ground. So that not only can we work with displaced people who are in these cities, but also teach people the lessons learned in emergency preparedness. As progressive people, we need to be prepared. We cannot wait on the federal government.

So say here in Seattle, if an earthquake would happen, you wouldn't have the four days' warning that we had with the hurricane. If that happened, how long would it take before FEMA could deliver the services that would impact this area? The hurricane only had an impact on a little over 2 million people. If we're talking about a major catastrophe on the West Coast, we're talking about something that may have an impact on tens of millions. So if our government responds slowly, at best, when FEMA is prepared, what would be the response to a sudden emergency?

We are telling communities to work with local officials on developing and revising their disaster plans. And we're telling individuals how to get together. The Red Cross does a tremendous job of helping families and individuals, but now we need to learn how to survive as cities, neighborhoods, and communities. We need to make people aware that you can't just be talking about three days, and then expect the federal government to come in and start offering those services. You should be prepared as a neighborhood, as a community, or as a city to provide service for at least two to three months.

Doug Pibel


No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.