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The Parish: A Hurricane Katrina AmeriCorps Story

August 27, 2012

Joel Smith, author of The Parish.

As we all heard from Wendy Spencer and echoed throughout AmeriCorps Alums Day at the White House, we as AmeriCorps Alums need to continue to share our service stories and let our community know about the impact that AmeriCorps members and Alums are making. There are so many creative ways for us to share our story and one AmeriCorps NCCC Alum is telling his through a new graphic novel that he’s been working on.

Meet Joel Smith who’s putting together the finishing touches on The Parish, a graphic novel based on his NCCC experience helping in the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. We got a chance to speak with Joel to learn more about his western graphic novel, which takes place in a Post Katrina New Orleans:

  • Tell us who are you and what’re you’re doing in your life after AmeriCorps.

Hi all, my name’s Joel Smith, and I served in AmeriCorps NCCC, Class XIII (Jan to Nov, 2007). Based out of Denver, my team (this one’s for you, Water 4) started off with Habitat for Humanity in Beaumont, TX and St. Bernard Parish, LA. Third round, I returned to Denver to kickstart Summer of Service, an environmental youth program, after which I rejoined the team as we wrapped up at a YMCA camp in St. Paul, IN.

As for what came next I had no idea, until 2008 when I flew out to Switzerland to renovate an old farmhouse with Peter Furer, a fellow NCCC alum. It was then I decided to become a writer.

Now, after two-and-a-half years at the University of Arizona and thanks to an MFA in Creative Writing, I spend my days as an Adjunct Lecturer and my nights as a writer, editor and dreamer. The adjunct life is a thankless and underpaid one, though it does offer little victories. As AmeriCorps alumni, I think you know what I’m talking about.

  • Why did you serve in AmeriCorps NCCC and tell us about one “A-Ha” moment during your service.

Excerpt from The Parish

It’s a tale of two stories. Here’s the lofty one. After learning about Gandhi and his principle of svadeshi, I decided we should improve things in our own backyard before heading off to exotic locales in pith helmets and mosquito nets. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Peace Corps, they’re pretty awesome, too.

Looking back, here’s a less glamorous origin story: I needed to sweat out some immaturity and learn how to swing a hammer. If that sounds über-masculine, I don’t mean it to be. Some of the best, hardest, most efficient workers I knew were girls, especially on Water 4. Sorry guys.

Speaking to the second half of your question, I like how you ask for one “A-Ha” not the “A-ha.” Halfway through my year of service, an opportunity arose for AmeriCorps members to staff the Tavis Smiley Leadership Institute in Houston, TX. For those curious, L.I. is the preeminent conference for African-American youth 13-18 years old.

Anyway, as it turned out, a few other corps members and I were the only pink-skinned people in a lecture hall filled with speakers and luminaries such as the great Cornel West. What other path in life could have led me to spend four days at a historically black college in a city I had never been to, every minute of it in a uniform of hand-me-down gray shirts and surplus black pants, all the while representing youth and service like some nonviolent foot soldier in some nonviolent army? In that instant, I could sense America’s promise; I could feel it vibrate and hum.

  • How do you think AmeriCorps prepared you for where you’re at today?

In a word, see below. It’s all about empathy.

  • Tell us more about how you came up with the idea for The Parish.

Right before I left for Switzerland, I was living in Davis, CA on my cousin Erica’s couch, trying and failing to embrace a vegan lifestyle, suffering from a bout of Shingles (random, I know) when The Parish sort of just came to me. Growing up, I’d never been a comic book geek and I only read my first graphic novel (Watchmen) while living at Camp Hope during AmeriCorps. My bunkmate, the late Greg Williams, was the one who lent it to me.

Back to Davis where, a few days later, Erica helped me design a logo for the project: saloon doors fused with a fleur de lys (the symbol of New Orleans). From then on, I read every graphic novel I could get my hands on, starting with Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus.

Next, I began to map out a graphic novel (memoir?) set in post-Katrina New Orleans inspired by the people I met, the service we did, and the places we explored (whether trespassing or not).

But The Parish didn’t exist yet, not until I moved to Tucson and met my illustrator, Ryan Winet, a talented poet and PhD student at the University of Arizona. Three years later, here we are, still in the kitchen, trying to get the thing published.

  • What inspired you to tell The Parish as a western style story?

As narrator Leo Jacobs mentions in Chapter One: A Town Where Doors Swing Both Ways, “Hurricane Katrina washed away the Old South and left a New West in its wake.” St. Bernard Parish, with its empty neighborhoods, boarded-up churches and abandoned courthouses, felt like nothing so much as a ghost town. Although The Parish’s characters are decked out in tool belts instead of holsters, and ride around in twelve-person passenger vans instead of horse-drawn wagons, the wild feeling is much the same.

  • Without giving away too much, describe “The Players” in the story and their significance to The Parish.

“The Players” of The Parish

Besides my stand-in Leo, the main characters are Snave, a twenty-year old who’s always in trouble and an inch away from expulsion, and Kiley, a quiet go-getter who’s more than just the object of Leo’s affections. Originally, I envisioned The Parish as creative nonfiction, and many of the characters are based on real folks. Art imitating life, you know? Rounding out the cast are Davy Longhair and Cirelle, who have as much to teach Leo as they still have to learn themselves.

The main thing here is we’re not trying to claim ownership over St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans, or the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina. The story Ryan and I seek to tell focuses on the volunteers, five strangers who came to town, so to speak, in the aftermath of the storm.

  • What do you hope alums, especially ones who served in New Orleans during the recovery efforts for Hurricane Katrina, will get out of The Parish?

As far as I’m aware, no one has told this story before, and certainly not from our generation’s point-of-view. That means there are 700,000+ AmeriCorps alums out there whose life-changing experiences have gone unchronicled in arts and literature.  Likewise in The Parish, Leo’s not some alpha-male home-building superhero; no, he writes and edits the internal Camp Believe newsletter. We’ve all been there. One billion service hours logged, sometimes flashy, other times invisible, and people need to know about it.

Also, let’s not forget how in certain quarters, “AmeriCorps” itself is a dirty word, a program that should be defunded, gutted. It is my hope that The Parish and projects like it can help create a permanent and lasting culture surrounding AmeriCorps, so that it can never be torn down.

  • What does a Lifetime of Service mean to you?

Excerpt from The Parish

I might as well go all in here. There’s more to life than the profit motive. Serve your family, serve your friends, serve yourself. It’s not like you can take it with you anyway. 

  • One word that sums up your AmeriCorps experience.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ken mock permalink
    August 28, 2012 11:17 pm

    When The Parish comes up for sale – and it will come up for sale in a big way – I will be at the head of the line to buy multiple copies. The story is as pertinent today as it was in the aftermath of the worst hurricane in US history. It’s only fitting that such a story with fabulous illustrations chronicles the fantastic efforts of this band of dedicated young volunteers.

  2. Erin permalink
    September 18, 2012 6:30 pm

    When will The Parish be for sale?

  3. September 19, 2012 10:45 am

    Erin – They’re working with the publisher and we’re hoping soon. We’ll definitely keep you posted when we hear it first!

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