“We’re not dead yet”

For each of the anniversaries of 9/11, victims’ families and co-workers would gather at Ground Zero and read aloud the 2,700+ names of individuals killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  On the Gulf Coast, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – followed by Rita’s wrath one month later – killed over 1,800 people in Louisiana alone.  The physical and social tragedy and trauma of the 2005 hurricane season also needs to be comemorated and respected; but as one of my colleagues affirmed to room brimming with the energetic commitment of more than 40 organizations devoted to rebuilding their communities: here on the Gulf Coast, most of us are “not dead yet.” 

Not only has the city of New Orleans and the rest of the region not ceased to exist (contrary to the general tone of the anniversary press), but there is a tremendous surge of young leadership coming to the fore to direct long-term change in the region and the nation. On my latest project related to post-hurricane recovery, I have the pleasure and the honor of not only working beyond the boundaries of New Orleans, but with a group of emerging young, mostly African-American leaders from around the country dedicated to rebuilding the Gulf Coast.  From a personal perspective, it’s great working among a group of young thirtysomethings - my peers and a group I hope I’ll be working with and/or watching take the lead in effecting change in our country in the coming years.  From a professional standpoint, this is the group being groomed by the senior statesmen of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, and the professionalized community development sector that’s grown up out of these movements. 

While our elders from the Civil Rights movement see the fight for equity and inclusion in the Gulf Coast as a resurrection of past struggles, younger leaders are grappling with transforming these past movements to deal with twenty-first century realities.  While the threat of racial and class antipathy and divisiveness is as real as ever, the black-white color line has blurred significantly to include more explicitly the mutual and competitive challenges of other ethnic groups in the U.S., such as the SE Asian immigrant communities that are a large population of the low-income seafood industries along the Gulf Coast in this post-Vietnam era, and the rapidly growing Latino groups around the Gulf Coast due to reconstruction opportunities. 

There is also the tension between movement activism and the professionalized nature of community development work in which many of us have cut our teeth.  To say that there is conflict between the fluid energy of block-by-block organizing and political protest and the need to put on a suit and prepare statements to lobby government leaders would be an understatement.  One of the disappointments of elder movement members is the perceived lack of activism in my generation.  The thirtysomething company I’m keeping would surely feel differently, but we are definitely sorting out how to harness the very leftist and global activism of events like the recent U.S. Social Forum with our advocacy successes such as the Gulf Coast Collaborative’s congressional policy forum held yesterday at Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans.

I’m sitting in a coffeeshop in New Orleans right now, with some of these colleagues waiting for the rain to pass so we can carry on with our work today, on the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall.  Though this week’s media attention is ephemeral, our efforts towards equitable and inclusive economic, social and political development in the Gulf Coast and the nation will carry on for years.  I’ll keep you posted on our efforts, and look to C-Span, BET, and possibly, gasp!, even Oprah for coverage of work here this week.


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