The Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA) is a grassroots organization formed after Hurricane Katrina in the Lower 9th Ward. Tricia Jones, who runs the organization, leveraged her experience in the legal and accounting professions to step into the vacuum of community leadership created by the storm. We learned about them via word of mouth from other organizations operating in New Orleans. NENA is doing exactly the kind of work The Fish Foundation is trying to support through FISHNET.
NENA is working in four distinct but equally important areas.
1) Outreach and advocacy
NENA is collecting and disseminating information for people who have returned to the Lower 9th Ward, and for people who are trying to get back to their homes from out of state. This information includes rebuilding resources, including grant programs and donated materials and labor, and employment opportunities for returning residents. NENA is organizing 'neighborhood captains' among Lower 9th Ward residents to spread information and organize local resources so that people can help each other more effectively.
2) Case management
NENA is one of the only organizations (to their knowledge) who is doing case management in the 9th Ward. Currently, they're assisting 1200 households in issues ranging from housing to employment to rebuilding construction to title issues.
As we've noted before, it's very difficult for Lower 9th Ward homeowners to get the funds together to rebuild their homes, leaving much of the area barren two years after the storm. The costs of private contractors and insurance policies are high, and insurance and Road Home money is barely enough to support these expenses. NENA is currently gathering funding to set up a housing loan fund, so that Lower 9th Ward residents can borrow forgiveable loans to rebuild their homes.
Architecture for Humanity is helping NENA to develop new, sustainable housing models in the Lower 9th Ward. This summer, NENA established a Community Design Studio which provides pro bono on-site architectural, construction administration, and permitting assistance to residents as they rebuild their homes. The Studio’s work is integrated into NENA’s case management services for both rehabilitation and new construction projects, assisting residents with property assessments, building design, preliminary cost estimating, contractor identification, and the ongoing administration of construction work. You can read more about AFH's Gulf Coast programs here.
4) Economic development
NENA is fixing one of the big problems we saw in the 9th Ward and other unrecovered New Orleans neighborhoods -- no small businesses. NENA is creating vocational training opportunities as well as business planning and entreprenurial classes so that local residents can rebuild new, vibrant community businesses.
1) The good and bad of bureaucracy.
State and local reconstruction efforts in New Orleans are moving at a snail's pace. You could blame Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, or the Bush administration, but that's not really going to solve the problems of people who can't rebuild their homes. The state-run Road Home program, which grants federal relief money to homeowners who want to return and rebuild, is in a shambles. At a recent Senate subcomittee investigating Road Home's problems, one community leader testified that the most recent Road Home grant applicants would likely wait *seven years* before receiving a check. Right now, Road Home has a projected shortfall of three billion dollars, and Bush administration officials appear unlikely to give more money to the program. (You can read more about the hearings here.)
However, the fact that municipal and federal government are slow to help means that big change can come from below -- from grassroots organizations and community activists. In New York, we're used to a high level of bureaucracy and top-down control. You only need to look at our local government's response to 9/11 to realize that a high degree of coordination, planning and execution went into rebuilding lower Manhattan and our financial infrastructure. In New Orleans, that kind of coordination is pretty much absent. So there are some big shoes to fill when it comes to rebuilding impoverished communities down there, and we met plenty of people -- grassroots organizers and impassioned residents all -- who are stepping in to meet that need. New Orleans is a city of entrepreneurs and can-do people. It was heartening to meet people who are putting together positive ways of rebuilding communities, whether that's getting better food to the poor, or organizing them to take back their homes and schools.
2) New Orleans don't like poor (black) people.
Surprised? Don't be. After decades of getting a bad rap as the murder capital of the country, New Orleans is doing its best to prevent certain kinds of residents from coming back. We didn't believe it until we saw it with our own eyes. Before the storm, the housing projects in New Orleans were nearly 100% black. Now, they're 100% empty. These buildings -- many of which received almost no flood damage -- are completely boarded up to prevent people from returning. Landlords are charging Manhattan-type rents in private apartment complexes, taking advantage of the rental housing shortage. And in areas like the Ninth Ward, which were primarily populated by black homeowners, it's prohibitively expensive to rebuild thanks to skyrocketing insurance and construction costs. Only communities with some wealth or community infrastructure before the storm have been able to bounce back. Driving through the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Wards, we saw that these communities really have no small businesses to rebuild around. Financial education and small business development could go a long way to making these communities viable again. Local government and moneyed interests are using the storm to their advantage. Now, more than ever, it's the time to help the displaced poor take their homes back and build stronger communities. Karrie's Aunt Shirley said it best -- "We're ready to move back home, but I don't know if New Orleans is ready for us to come back."
New Orleans is a place that's ripe with opportunities for new models of growth. After a catastrophe like Katrina, the one thing we heard over and over was that people were more receptive to new ideas -- any ideas that would help rebuild, despite the disinterest of the government. We're already planning a longer trip later this year to do more outreach and find more organizations to help. In the meantime, we'll be updating this space with more information on the people and organizations who are doing great grassroots work in the areas affected by Katrina. FISHNET is coming along well, so soon you'll be able to communicate and donate to the organizations we've found.
We began our day with an attempt to film residents and volunteers organized by the People's Organizing Committee. They planned an action to repair and rebuild a classroom in Thomy Lafon School, one of the public schools shut down after the hurricane. Actions like these are often interrupted and dispersed by law enforcement, so it was potentially a dangerous situation. Thomy Lafon sits right by the C.J. Peete (Magnolia) housing projects in the predominately black Central City section of New Orleans. We've heard stories of public housing residents who have returned with plans to reclaim and rebuild their apartments, only to be evicted by the police. To this day, I don't understand why it's illegal to go back to your home to claim your property or go back to your school to try to rebuild a learning environment for your children. Historically, community ownership is a huge problem in inner-city areas, especially among African-Americans. When you feel like you don't own anything, why would you feel entitled to take it back?
Central City was deserted; block after block of shuttered homes and broken streets. We arrived at Thomy Lafon School to find a group of contractors boarding up the windows and doors. They said they were sealing off the school until the city decided what to do with the property. We thought the timing of the contractors' work on the day of a planned rebuilding action was suspicious, to say the least. They also seemed pretty suspicious of two black people with cameras, so we took off. We grabbed some footage outside the school and the housing projects, and spoke at length with a former Magnolia resident. He said that the school and the projects are being kept clean and closed so that someday, the city can sell the properties to Tulane University on the cheap. When we asked him why people haven't moved back into their homes despite the fences and barbed wire, he explained that the projects were now totally unsafe. Law enforcement doesn't patrol the empty buildings, so criminals use the area for their dirty work. He also said that the city didn't put up fences fast enough to protect the projects -- looters have removed most of the copper wiring and pipes to sell on the black market, making it nearly impossible to restore electricity and plumbing in the buildings. From what we could see, these brick buildings were structurally sound. Only one to two feet of water came to Magnolia, but it was enough water for city government to put people out of their homes.
We saw the other side of black community ownership on our next stop in Petal, Mississippi. About two hours away from New Orleans, Ben Burkett farms okra, corn, peas, watermelon, squash and other crops and sells them at various farmer's markets in the city. His family has managed their 350 acres of land for generations now, and Ben himself is one of the founding vendors of the Crescent City Farmer's Market in downtown New Orleans. He's also active in many farm co-operative efforts, coordinating black farmers as part of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, the Indian Springs Farmer's Association, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. As he took us through his fields, we spoke about the importance of getting fresh food into poor communities, and the heritage of African-American farming. Ben and other farmers in the cooperative deliver their produce not only to downtown New Orleans, but also to two markets in the predominately black Upper and Lower 9th Ward, sponsored by the Downtown Neighborhood Market Consortium. Ben is even doing work to bring farmer's cooperative models and agricultural know-how to nations in western Africa.
We were surprised to learn from Ben that there are approximately 50,000 black farmers, operating mostly in Mississippi and Texas. Many of the farmers in Mississippi, like Ben, were adversely affected by Hurricane Katrina. Ben's old-growth trees were twisted and felled by 100-mph winds, and most of his crops were destroyed, along with his home. It's been a long road back to self-sufficiency, but Ben is back in action, spreading the gospel of good greens to the city. Ben has even found the time to mentor two boys with disciplinary problems (pictured above with Ben). It was very encouraging to speak with a person who dispels the stereotypes that African-Americans are powerless to control their own destiny. Mr. Burkett symbolizes the kind of community spirit of cooperation and empowerment that we would like to foster in New Orleans. We'll be posting portions of our video interview with Ben Burkett as soon as we're able, so you can hear him for yourself.
We met with the People's Organizing Committee, a group that's organizing poor, black residents of New Orleans around issues of housing, education, and the rebuilding. Most importantly, the POC trains and develops these residents with the skills they need to organize and lead communities on their own. The Fish Foundation is all about creating self-sufficiency in poor communities, and the POC is out there making this a reality. There aren't many groups dedicated to giving the poor the rights of self-determination. Right now, they're helping poor residents take back public schools and public housing that were closed by the state after Hurricane Katrina.
The housing crisis is acute in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of New Orleans. Before the storm, homeowners made up 80% of the Ninth Ward. These people lived in the area for generations, and consequently many owned their homes outright. However, many of these homeowners didn't have their property insured, and today they're unable to afford expensive flood and wind insurance, the cost of paying private contractors to rebuild their homes, and the cost of elevating their homes to meet guidelines to protect against future flood damage.
On the other side of the coin, people who lived in public housing before the storm have not been allowed to return to their homes. Most the public housing projects were structurally *undamaged* by the storm, leaving us to wonder why state and local authorities won't allow residents to reclaim their homes and property. We've driven by public housing to see for ourselves, and it makes no sense to us why hundreds of apartments would be surrounded by chain link fence. The residents of New Orleans public housing are overwhelmingly poor and black. The People's Organizing Committee isn't content to wait on the state to rebuild the community; they're helping the poor do it for themselves. They're mobilizing residents to take back their apartments, and they're also helping rebuild and repair classrooms ahead of the next school year. We're going to be filming some of their work at a local public school in the next few days, as well as assisting in their fundraising efforts. The images above show a housing project in the Seventh Ward that's been fenced off, as well as a local school.
After meeting with the POC, we drove two hours out to Gulfport, Mississippi to meet with Melinda Harthcock, the executive director of the STEPS coalition. Hurricane Katrina narrowly missed New Orleans, but the full force of the storm all but destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast. While the news media reports ad inifitum on the destruction in Louisiana, the plight of the residents of Mississippi has gone under-reported. The poor communities of this region are facing similar issues of displacement -- a lack of housing, community and prosperity in the wake of the storm. STEPS is acting as a bridge for grassroots organizations in Southern Mississippi who are working to rebuild their communities. As Melinda explained, millions of federal dollars haven't yet made their way down to the poor people who need the most help. Much like the People's Organizing Committee, STEPS is supporting a rebuilding effort from the ground-up, rather than waiting on the state and local government. We're going to help publicize the work of STEPS and their thirty allied organizations by boosting their internet presence via FISHNET.
"Katrina didn't destroy New Orleans," says Colette Pichon-Battle. She's the executive director of Moving Forward Gulf Coast, an organization that's working with grassroots organizations that are rebuilding the region. As we stood on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Colette described the 30-foot tidal surge that swept in from the Gulf of Mexico and battered her home here in Slidell, Louisiana. "The water sat here for nine hours," she says, gesturing out at the battered remains of homes along the shore. The wall of water eventually receded and traveled south, destroying the levees that flooded New Orleans. It was a man-made disaster. Oil pipeline production has all but destroyed a chain of barrier islands that would have stopped the wall of water. And the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that "the levees it built in the city were an incomplete patchwork of protection, containing flaws in design and construction and not built to handle a storm anywhere near the strength of Hurricane Katrina" ("Army Builders Accept Blame Over Flooding", New York Times, June 2, 2006). But regardless of whether Mother Nature or Uncle Sam should take the fall for the disaster, the fact remains that thousands of American citizens are still in need. "Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded," says Colette. "Imagine if Manhattan, from Battery Park to Midtown, was under water. What would it take to recover from that?"
For grassroots organizations like Moving Forward, the recovery needs range from the basic to the complex -- everything from administrative professionals and software training to community centers. Most of all, Colette stressed to us the need for basic tools and infrastructure so that volunteers and social entrepreneurs can get their work done. "What we need are buildings," she says. "We can talk about microfinance and psychological care all we want, but we need the space for people to put those kind of ideas together." As we noted before, there's a serious lack of infrastructure -- local businesses, community centers -- in areas like the Ninth Ward and Gentilly. Moving Forward is actively working toward funding a multi-purpose building that could house financial services, community space, non-profit offices and other resources -- a central space that communities in New Orleans can gather around and rebuild.
Moving Forward is also using media advocacy to raise awareness of the ongoing issues in the Gulf Coast. Trupania "Trap" Bonner, the Director of Media Programs, is producing a series of films called "Recover and Restore" that details how Katrina has affected communities in the area and answers the questions of local residents about rebuilding. The films cover issues like health care, contractor fraud, environmental health. You can watch a trailer of his film "Crescent City Exodus" here. We're going to help him get some more of these important films online and to a wider audience.