Common Ground Relief (CGR) was founded on September 5, 2005 by Malik Rahim, Sharon Johnson, and Scott Crow in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Calling themselves “Common Ground Collective”, the group began working in Rahim and Johnson’s neighborhood on the West Bank of New Orleans, while the city remained without power or basic services. With start-up money of $50 and a vision of community care, the group began asking people in their neighborhood what they needed most, and working to protect and care for their neighbors. Said founder Malik Rahim:

“Every evening, we used to have these dialectical discussions, and one of our main discussions was on why progressive movements have always started with such a bang and then end in such a frizzle. And we kept coming up with that we allowed our petty differences to stop us from working together. Robert King Wilkerson, the only freed member of the Angola Three—said that the thing that we need to find is the common ground, so with that, we took that name. I added “collective,” because I’m a firm believer in a collective spirit, and Common Ground was founded.”

Close-up photo of Malik Rahim, Sharon Johnson & Dr. Caroline Heldman standing together.
Malik Rahim, Sharon Johnson & Dr. Caroline Heldman

In the initial months following the storm, Common Ground Relief focused its efforts where it was needed most–beginning by providing food, water and basic supplies, and cleaning garbage off of the streets. Malik Rahim also worked setting up a first aid station a few blocks away in a nearby mosque

Soon after, volunteers began arriving from all over the country and the world to New Orleans, including Secours Populaire Francais, a French organization, and  American groups Veterans for Peace and the Bay Area Radical Health Collective and Mayday DC Collective who were joined by the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, Doctors without Borders, Islamic Relief, Pastors for Peace, and hundreds of independent volunteers. Volunteers worked tarping roofs, operating two free health clinics, going door to door on bike checking on neighbors and providing medical care, mucking and gutting houses, providing childcare and pro bono legal services through a project called New Orleans Legal Action Workers (NOLAW), providing eviction defense for renters, and meeting other core needs to New Orleanians. The clinic started in the Masjid Bilal Mosque became the Common Ground Health Clinic, which is still operational today. 

In 2008, Thom Pepper became the director of Common Ground Relief. In the next few years, CGR would help neighbors gut about 3,000 homes in the Lower 9th Ward and work with about 65,000 volunteers. Common Ground moved their headquarters to the Lower 9th Ward, which had been devastated when the levees failed and the neighborhood flooded after Hurricane Katrina. There volunteers built a house modeling sustainable design, which now serves as volunteer housing for Common Ground Relief. 

Early on in Common Ground’s history, volunteers began engaging in environmental restoration work, from planting marsh grasses to soil remediation. In 2009, Common Ground began operating a native plant nursery, growing plants adapted to the specific conditions in Southeastern Louisiana, such as bald cypress trees, which thrive in warm and flooded ecosystems.  

While the mission and organization have evolved, Common Ground Relief remains committed to its grassroots, volunteer-based approach to community transformation and sustainability. In 2015, Common Ground Relief leadership determined that the most effective way of achieving the organization’s mission was to shift their focus primarily on restoring and preserving Louisiana’s disappearing coastal wetlands, which in turn protects humans and animals alike from flooding, extreme heat and land loss. However, in 2020, Common Ground Relief had to halt its live-in volunteer program due to the pandemic, and began operating its food pantry in partnership with lowernine.org and Second Harvest. After Hurricane Ida in 2021, Common Ground temporarily opened the Levee Pantry every day, serving hot food, hosting volunteers, organizing aid for the hard-hit river parishes and facilitating aid in the form of micro-grants to 23 households. Since January 2022 CGR has operated the food pantry independently, and serves about 200 families each month. 

Over a decade and a half since its inception, Common Ground Relief  has continued to work in community and environmental resilience. With a focus on experiential learning, CGR has worked with hundreds of volunteers in recent years to plant marsh grasses, cypress trees, and native irises to restore coastal ecosystems and create habitat for wildlife. Each year CGR has restored tens of miles of shoreline and worked to foster lifelong environmental stewardship in volunteers ranging from high school students to retirees. CGR continues to host on-site volunteers from all over the world, as well as building relationships with lifelong New Orleanians and local environmental and community advocacy groups. For more information on how to volunteer with us, click here.