A Visit to New Orleans Reveals the Pre-Katrina Crisis

By now, I hope everyone has noticed that the Gulf Coast crisis is not so much the result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as of poverty, structural racism, and a stunning lack of leadership. At every level of government and at every stage - before, during, and after the storms - leadership has utterly failed the Gulf Coast. More than a natural disaster, it is, in fact, a social and political catastrophe.

On a visit to New Orleans earlier this year, residents movingly told us that the best way to help them was by going back to our communities and working every day to reveal and eradicate racism and poverty. This, they said, would increase the safety of every citizen and community in both peaceful and disastrous times. This would be true homeland security.

They had found strength and help from regular people being good to each other, rescuing each other, sharing resources and caring for each other, not from FEMA or other government organizations. Even the Red Cross failed in some of the hardest hit areas. Yet many of these same social networks were destroyed by the displacement and devastation of Katrina, making folks even more vulnerable in the future. Families living close to one another rely on neighbors for child care, personal safety, and even economic help. That was wiped away with the floodwaters.

What does this ongoing tragedy mean for funders, a key issued raised in my visit? How do non-governmental outsiders who can deploy relatively large resources help? The first lesson we learned was: forget everything you know about grantmaking. This is an unprecedented domestic disaster. Stop asking for grant proposals from people and organizations that still don't have computers. Drop your assumptions and even political agendas, and increase your flexibility as a funder. One out-of-state foundation program officer described his new paperwork process as a phone call with Gulf Coast grantees; he took notes and filled out grant forms as they spoke. His foundation's existing relationships with activists and organizations allowed him to vouch for any new relationships and activities.

And support grassroots organizing and advocacy. Already direly underfunded by large foundations, this work is key for local people to lead their city's recovery and vision their city's future. It is key for defending the health and rights of local laborers working to clean up and rebuild the city. It is key to shaping the rebuilding in a way that works for all people. And it is key to slowing down the profiteering which continues even a year after the hurricanes hit; why are we targeting the corporations for a "recovery" they are in no need of.

Taxi drivers, organizers, funders, and shopkeepers all appreciated the interest we outsiders showed, and our determination to bear witness and have what we saw shape what it is we do. They hoped we would encourage others to come visit. For their sake and all of our sakes, we need a national dialogue about what the Gulf Coast experience means to us as a nation, about how our government is failing us, and about how we perpetuate structural racism and poverty, and the cost of this to America.

Wendy Volkmann, PRA Board Chair

Fall/Winter 2006

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