Six months after Katrina, I found myself sitting on the front steps of what used to be a house, but was now an empty shell. I was in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. There were cars washed up into the trees and complete destruction. It was an unbelievable sight. I had been asked by my dear friend and mentor, Billy Shore of Share Our Strength, to help coordinate tours of people from all over the country who wanted to see and "bear witness" to what was happening in Katrina-stricken New Orleans. By the time I reached the tenth tour, I sat on the stoop, and found myself polishing my toenails. Who has time for a pedicure in the middle of a disaster? My PTSD had clearly set in. I was numb.
I distinctly remember the entirety of the moment down to the color of the nail polish. It was an OPI brand nail polish color, Belize It Or Not. I realize now that it was a bit ironic, because the definition of "bearing witness" is to go to see things in order to uncover the truth. Belize is a gorgeous place, but it probably has the Gross National Product of a one-stoplight town; and here was an American city still looking six months after the storm more like a town demolished in a Caribbean storm. Nothing was left. Believe it or not.
Those people who came to bear witness could not believe it was happening here either. This was long before Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt came to New Orleans. These visitors flew down to take pictures with their Blackberries (iPhones weren't a thing back then) from inside a bus in the Lower Ninth Ward. There weren't even any people living there: these people were just taking pictures of abandoned and demolished structures, and I kept polishing my nails.
Eight years have passed, and I never saw those people on the buses again. Meanwhile, my mentor Billy Shore has dedicated his life to bearing witness to spread greater awareness of hunger, and has achieved remarkable things through his work.
But what about Katrina? Who will bear witness for the recovery of people who have been through natural disasters like Katrina? And Sandy? And Oklahoma? What do the people who come down to bear witness to these disasters do? Is this water cooler conversation? Does it change them as individuals, as Billy Shore would say? Have they spread the word to help us through the last eight years?
I found myself on many buses, in seminars and conferences, and once again painting my nails and overhearing conversations. It all sounded like other OPI colors. I Forgot My Czechbook. Berlin There Done That. They talked about Lessons Learned. If I hear one more conversation about Lessons Learned, I'm declaring it one of my favorite nail polish colors: It's All San Andreas' Fault.
Everyone wants to bear witness for social change when disasters first happen. This gets mistaken for voyeurism, which is the fault of the media. The press endlessly cycles destruction video in order to draw in viewers. I think someone should come up with a disaster channel: disasters all day, every day, with no uplifting stories. Such a channel would generate extraordinary ratings and advertising revenue.
But the people who came to New Orleans were not voyeurs in my opinion, though many in the disaster world argue otherwise. Voyeurs are people who take joy from observing the sordid or scandalous -- the media coverage is usually enough for them. They are, in my opinion, rubber-neckers. They wait until the disaster hits, and get a thrill from observing the event. The media perpetuates this, because the media isn't interested in everyday injustice. To be fair, I give kudos to anyone willing to actually get on a plane and come down to the site of such a dangerous event.
But bearing witness can't simply be about the aftermath of a catastrophic event. It's about everyday poverty; it's about everyday injustice; it's about everyday racism. If people want to bear witness, they should bear witness every day to understand how the underprivileged live and work. I bet they can do this in their own backyard.
And if you come to bear witness, you can't forget your checkbook. It is imperative that you also share your privilege. Bearing witness is a window to empathy, and it's about seeing and physically placing yourself in the environment where others are living so that you can go and better report and spread the word. It is a way to inform and correct ignorance. The last OPI color any of us want you to use is I Don't Give A Rotterdam: it isn't my fault or problem. The nude OPI color Passion is a much better color for the busy hands of people who serve. We want you to have empathy. It just needs to be directed appropriately. "Smart compassion," as USAID's Center for International Disaster Information would say. "Strategic and effective giving," as the Center for Disaster Philanthropy would say. "Peace, Love, and OPI," as OPI would say.
It's time to roll out new shades to bearing witness. Bare-ing Witness, perhaps, a nude tone? Recovery Rose? Or how about Service Warrior? I would buy that color in a hot second: traveling with my mentor Billy Shore and taking those compassionate souls that came down to see the destruction remains the most rewarding thing I have done in the disaster space. I'd love to hear from all those people on those many tour buses again.
These days, I'm painting my nails with A French Quarter For Your Thoughts?