Jonah Goldman Kay
“People here will shun socialism, talk about it like it’s the worst thing ever,” says Sarah Woods, who lives in the small town of Elton, Louisiana. “But it’s the model that they cling to, in a time of disaster.” Woods is referring to mutual aid, a common method of social support in Louisiana communities, especially after hurricanes. But in a deeply conservative region, it often comes as a surprise to residents that this kind of aid might also be coming from leftists.
In late August, Lake Charles and the surrounding area, including Elton, were devastated by Hurricane Laura. The Category 4 storm sparked chemical fires, ripped off roofs, and flooded large parts of the city. Then, in early October, Hurricane Delta tore through the region, touching down just 20 miles from where Laura had landed six weeks earlier. When evacuees returned, they found their homes destroyed and their lives upended for the second time in less than two months.
Local government and the National Guard coordinated evacuations, but residents, especially those in smaller communities, received little additional support in the aftermath of the storms. Many of them were renters or owners without insurance. Those who were insured often had deductibles of up to $20,000, which few could afford. So progressive activists stepped in to fill the void, patching roofs, supplying generators, and offering monetary support to those displaced by the storm.
On the surface, Southwest Louisiana and socialism might seem an odd mix. The oil industry has a firm grip on the region, supplying the bulk of the high-paying, secure jobs. Oil companies have invested significant resources into fighting progressive policies, particularly those related to the environment. Eager to avoid regulations, the industry has aggressively denied climate change and encouraged its employees to oppose progressive policies like the Green New Deal.
Yet the region also has a long history of union organizing and mutual aid. In the 1880s, as labor unions gained a foothold in the Northeast, the lumber industry began to look elsewhere for cheap, non-union labor. Lake Charles was particularly appealing, primarily due to the lack of pro-worker legislation and the general weakness of unions there at the time. But workers quickly began to unionize, and the lumber unions became some of the strongest in the region. In 1906, 800 sawmill workers walked off the job to protest their employers’ hiring of non-union labor.
Then, in the 1930s, the oil industry, spotting the potential for offshore drilling in the Gulf, moved into the Lake Charles area. Trade unions for related professions, like electricians and pipefitters, began to spring up. But as awareness of climate change has increased in recent decades, oil companies have doubled down on efforts to influence the ideology of their workforce. Many have brought in spokespeople to convince workers that climate change isn’t tied to the oil industry. “I think they’re very confident in the degree to which they’ve been able to propagandize the Gulf Coast against the idea of climate change,” says Phil Peterson, one of the founding members of the Southwest Louisiana DSA chapter.
Both oil companies and the unions that represent their workers remain strong today. In the wake of natural disasters, as well as man-made ones like the Deepwater Horizon spill, the industry has mobilized to provide support for its workers. As a result, union members in Lake Charles often hold a mix of political views: on the one hand, they are fiercely conservative in their views of climate change and climate activists. But they also have a strong belief in organized labor and communal support systems. It’s in this latter aspect that progressives see a potential meeting point.
To date, the organization hasn’t had the resources to get unions to join their efforts. “There has to be something in it for them in order to get them on board,” Peterson says. But the response to the hurricane has given the DSA an opportunity to meet with the workers face-to-face and form the kind of interpersonal connections that can present opportunities to push back on the narratives put forth by the oil companies.
DSA Southwest Louisiana has provided mutual aid by working alongside Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR). MADR, a network of volunteers from around Louisiana, was originally founded to aid in the recovery of New Orleans post-Katrina. In the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, the DSA started working with MADR to learn from their organizing strategies. “After [Hurricane Laura], we mostly tagged along with MADR and took notes,” says Jeremy Chittenden, a member of the chapter.
That experience meant that DSA organizers were prepared for the next storm—they already had a support system in place and volunteers trained in disaster relief. “When Delta came through, we wanted to show that we could stand on our own and have a more localized response,” Chittenden says.
Right after Hurricane Laura hit the town of Elton, Woods started asking around for support. A friend on Facebook suggested she contact DSA Southwest Louisiana, which was looking for communities to help. The organization was focusing on identifying smaller communities, like Woods’s town, that were often overlooked, her friend said. Elton, which is majority Black and Native American, was accustomed to finding itself at the end of the government’s long list of communities in need. “When I first got in touch with the DSA in Lake Charles, they were looking for communities that were largely forgotten,” Woods says.
It started with a small, personal request for a generator to keep the lights on at Woods’s house. The next day, a generator showed up at her door, courtesy of the DSA. After Woods’s neighbor told her that their roof had been torn off in the storm, she again contacted the DSA. That weekend, they organized a crew to come out and tarp the roof—a temporary measure that would at least keep water out for the next few weeks.
“It usually starts with one person, then they just start making phone calls to everybody,” says Chittenden.
As more people in Elton heard that the DSA was providing assistance, requests large and small began to pour in. One person needed assistance with paying their medical bills. Another asked for bug spray for their children, who couldn’t sleep because mosquitoes kept coming in through holes in the roof. As Hurricane Delta approached, the chapter handed out cash grants to residents to help cover evacuation costs.
“Because there’s no hierarchy, it doesn’t take days for things to come in,” says Woods. “Why doesn’t the world operate like this?”
The DSA chapter was able to fund these efforts through a highly successful GoFundMe campaign, which raised more than $10,000 for the cause. The DSA members I spoke with were eager to stress that this was a truly grassroots campaign, financed by those living in the community.
“Most of us make less than $30,000 a year,” says Peterson. “That we raised $10,000—it’s incredible. Just the thought that we have been trusted to manage it makes us proud.”
Even after giving aid to the residents, the donations have continued to pour in—they’ve now doubled their goal to $20,000 and are close to reaching it. To put those additional funds to use, the chapter is working with Elton and another small town to create a free store, a pop-up shop that distributes products free of charge.
“We’re going to be renting two locations in Southwest Louisiana to distribute resources to people who need them on an as-needed basis,” says Peterson. The store, which they’re planning to open soon, will offer food and other necessities that residents can use as they continue to rebuild.
For Woods, who has worked at nonprofits for most of her career, the DSA’s horizontal approach to providing aid was particularly satisfying. “Nonprofits usually look for a kind of a manufactured need—something that looks good,” she says. “But with the DSA, you don’t have to be a perfect recipient.”
That approach has been successful in both providing much-needed help to the residents of small communities like Elton and reaching out to those who might be skeptical of socialism. Not all residents who have received the aid question its source—what matters is that it arrived. But those who do are usually surprised to hear that it’s from a socialist organization, Woods says. “It’s a very slow process, because, you know, you have a lot of people who are very conservative in their views,” she says. “So you slowly introduce things like the free store and show them that this is what socialism is all about. Everybody brings what they have to the table, and then everybody shares it according to their needs.” ♦
Jonah Goldman Kay is a writer based in New Orleans. His writing has appeared in Artforum, The Bitter Southerner, and The Brooklyn Rail.