Helping from the heart: Sacramento activist to the rescue of Katrina evacuees

11-06-05, 8:07 am

Interview by Seth Sandronsky

RoLanda Wilkins is the national coordinator of the Birthing Project USA, the Sister/Friend Program, a national model for improving birth outcomes for African American women. There are 75 Birthing Projects across the United States. Working from a Birthing Project office in midtown Sacramento, RoLanda helped to bring baby and personal hygiene items and clothes in September to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Locally, the aid was collected by her employer, along with the Freedom Bound Center and Sacramento Area Black Caucus. Pastors for Peace organized this trip to the hurricane region. A second aid trip is on tap for mid-December.

Seth: The federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina was shamefully—some say criminally—negligent. Thousands of people, mainly Blacks, were abandoned to their own devices on the streets of New Orleans. What motivated you to bring aid to the storm’s evacuees?

RoLanda: My motivation is my humanity. When I saw the images and heard the Katrina stories on the news via TV and the Internet, all I could see was myself, my family and my people.

Seth: Who did you travel with, and where was the humanitarian aid distributed?

RoLanda: Kathryn Hall-Trujillo, my boss, mentor and long-time community mother and I flew on Southwest Airlines (which waived a shipping fee for the aid) from Sacramento into Little Rock, Arkansas. We took some of the aid to the Watershed Social Hospital/Watershed Birthing Project in Little Rock, and to the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Jackson, Mississippi. The rest went to the following cities: Jackson, Hattiesburg and Biloxi, Mississippi; Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana; and to Houston, Texas. Seth: In September, there were 75,000 Katrina evacuees living in Arkansas, according to Hall-Trujillo. Who did you meet with and what did you learn during your aid mission to that state and others in the Gulf Coast region?

RoLanda: We met with grass-roots community leaders from Curtis Muhammad’s Community Labor United Coalition, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and United Artists for Peace. A young woman with the CLUC told us about children and teenagers who were separated from their family. Community women in Jackson came forward and took care of these children and teens to try and help them to locate their parents. To me that is the spirit of motherhood and extended family. A family we met in a shelter told us about their fighting to stay together and continuing to live with pride and dignity in the face of Katrina, and relief agencies that were treating them like they were nothing. Over-all, people were helping each other and opening up their hearts, homes, churches and whatever they had to help. They were very grateful for all the kindness shown and given to them in their time of need. Seth: Explain the challenges facing the storm victims who were reduced to seeking help from non-union Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which at least showed much more quickness than Uncle Sam did. What do the displaced folks you spoke with wish to be done?

RoLanda: Their struggle is over what they are going to do once things settle down, and how they are going to get back on their feet and support their families in new places. They do not want to be forgotten or to be called refugees. The people want relief, to return and rebuild (their communities).

Seth: What was your experience working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross on the September trip?

RoLanda: Kathryn tried to work with the Red Cross, but we were too busy to go through their training. We registered with FEMA to help but got no reply. So we listened to the needs of the people there. We used our common sense and figured out how we would be useful to our sisters and brothers in the Gulf Coast.

Seth: Tell us more about the December aid trip for the hurricane victims.

RoLanda: The trip is set for December 12-16, 2005. Birthing Project USA is taking seven women from California, Arizona and Illinois to bring more needed supplies to community-based organizations and clinics that are helping the storm evacuees. We are going to start off in Little Rock, Arkansas then head to Jackson and Biloxi, Mississippi. We plan to not only bring needed supplies but to be of service, working in every city we deliver supplies. More humanitarian aid—baby items to new coats, shoes and boots for winter—is being collected again in Sacramento, plus in Phoenix and Chicago. We are also taking more personal hygiene items, towels, slippers, and other needed accessories.

Seth: What are your final thoughts on U.S. hurricane relief?

RoLanda: We help people in so-called Third World countries, and it is time we help people in our own country. You don't have to go far.

To find out how you can help America’s hurricane victims, contact the Birthing Project USA at 916-558-4809.

--Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive paper. He can be reached at