Archive for the 'New Orleans' Category



I’m 99% sure that in my first post-Katrina New Orleans project, when I was part of a team interviewing community activists for funders, my colleagues interviewed this guy.


5 years out of step?

Talking about GOP Candidate Anh “Joseph” Cao’s win this weekend over Bill Jefferson in Louisiana’s 2nd House district, local reporter John Maginnis described the state as “five years out of step” with the rest of the country.  It’s a place where Republicans are “still coming up.”  The main themes of the victory are a) low turnout among black voters and b) white activism to vote the indicted Jefferson out of office.  Many have pointed out that Cao’s win reflects post-Katrina demographic change in New Orleans: the black population has shrunk by at least 7 %, and whites have increased by 5%.  Asian-Americans – mostly Vietnamese – make up 3% of the city’s post-storm population.  Last year, the City Council became white majority again for the first time in 20 years.

What I find more interesting about Cao’s victory is his inspiration to enter politics after Katrina, due to the flooding of his office and home and the poor government response to the disaster.  It is this kind of local activism that I have seen in the city and region since the storm.  It is this burgeoning, organized activism that promises to fill the political and socio-economic gaps in the city and region, given the chronic lack of local government leadership in New Orleans, and/or the willful neglect of local and state governments around the Gulf Coast.  That is, one remarkable outcome of the 2005 storms is the tremendous civic infrastructure that is being built by activists, professional advocates, non-profits and funders, because governments either lack the money or political will to rebuild fairly and responsibly.

As the field remarks, the GOP’s big tent pretty much begins and ends in Louisiana.  Much more so than creationist Gov. Jindal, we might look to citizen-activist Representative-elect Cao for insight on how to expand the GOP to include those who simply want better, more responsible government to fulfill our individual rights to private property and to help us run our small businesses.  I’m obviously not all that interested in strengthening the GOP, but I’m intrigued by the task ahead for the Party, as it must modernize and moderate its platform if it ever wants centrist Republicans to turn up at the polls again.

But Cao’s election symbolizes a broader trend underway in Louisiana: the slow, methodological development of citizen engagement, non-profit capacity building, and political accountability.  Louisianans have their work cut out for them: Jindal has abolished the Department of Labor in this right-to-work state, wants to effectively get rid of the Medicaid system, and has imposed cuts to vital non-profits throughout the state.  This is also the place where only 2 months ago GOP Rep. John LaBruzzo advocated sterilization for low-income women as a poverty alleviation measure, then patted himself on the back for taking a tough, bold, innovative anti-poverty approach.  Then there’s Jena.  And Angola.

I need to stop now before I further inspire my LA and Southern colleagues to remind me of the Northeast’s and Boston’s own dirty laundry of injustice and political chicanery.    But I write from an inspired position.  The people I’ve met in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast are doing more work than is reasonably expected to rebuild their homes and communities in the absence of government leadership.  It is some of the most impressive mobilization I’ve seen in my shortish life.   And they’re dragging their governments, with their shuttered Charity Hospitals, toxic FEMA trailers and bloated ports, into a new, more progressive era.  It’s like the civic activist version of the World’s Strongest Man contest.  Stay tuned!!


hell no, hell yes

Thank goodness someone said it: Caroline Kennedy – the audacity of entitlement?

On the flip side, this is a fabulous appointment.  Here’s hoping we can rectify some of the massive wrongs by the Bush Administration at the V.A.  The treatment of Vets in our country, preceeding Bush but exacerbated by him (like every other inequality) is reprehensible.  The conditions at Walter Reed ranked right up there with life in FEMA trailers in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast.



I’m in New Orleans for a meeting of non-profit recovery advocates.  Yesterday, I spent about 45 minutes talking to a local photographer, Christopher Porche-West, about the changes in the city since Hurricane Katrina and his particular challenges rebuilding his life.

Porche-West talked about how social boundaries and networks have really changed in the city since the storm.  Prior to Katrina, neighborhood identification and boundaries were primary; the city had about 450,000 people prior to the storm, but 73 formally designated neighborhoods.  In reality, New Orleanians tell me, there were about 200 neighborhoods in this sprawling city on the Mississippi River.  The appropriate question to ask New Orleanians to categorize them is what high school they attended.

Porche-West says now that given the disparity of the physical damage, and the displacement, dislocation and relocation of so many people to new neighborhoods, that neighborhood boundaries and identification just isnt’ accurate anymore.  This is particularly acute for African-Americans, as middle-class blacks and Creoles from Gentilly and New Orleans East have relocated en mass to other black neighborhoods that sustained far less damage; lower-income and former public housing residents are most likely to remain displaced, as rents are more than 50% higher than they were pre-Katrina.

The other major demographic change in the city is the influx of outsiders, who have flocked here to participate in the recovery.  (Non-profits are leading the way in housing redevelopment.)  There is even a social network bubbling up – Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals, or YURPs.  As you might imagine, the city is becoming whiter and more affluent.  Due to the extent of the physical damage, the average median housing value has risen 45%; the white population has grown by 5% and the African-American population has fallen by 7%.  In 2007, more than 1 in 10 New Orleanians were not living in Louisiana in 2006.  Transplants now make up 20% of a city that has lost at least 150,000 residents since Katrina.

Porche-West says the new dichotomy is whether you were living here when Katrina hit.  Go figure.  I put all this out here as you check out Gambit Weekly’s 11th annual “40 Under 40,” their “annual look at some of the young people who are making remarkable contributions to the New Orleans metropolitan region,” submitted via nominations.  I just want to point out that of the 40, 5 are African-American.  What I find particularly striking is that 4 of them are in the music industry (though in a variety of capacities).  I realize that Afro-American music, art, culture and history defines New Orleans and is a thriving business sector (and is also exploited by an extractive tourism industry), but really…does this strike anyone else as problematic?  Whites, Asian-Americans, and Jews are the social entrepreneurs, the do-gooders and the brain trust of the rebirth of the city?  While African-Americans are its cultural foundation and…its entertainers?

Not that I was wondering why tensions often abound in my network of recovery advocates where more than 6 in 10 of us are not only not from New Orleans, but about half of us are from coastal, liberal, elite, latte-loving, high-“capacity” cities.  (Mostly women and about even white and African-American/Creole, with small Latin@ and SE Asian participation.  Not that I’m keeping track or anything, in our post-partisan, post-racial world!)



There’s been a  lot happening on and off the tubes in the last couple days: if you haven’t sent some love Melissa McEwan’s way, please do so.  If you are cranky from Thanksgiving and holiday plans, I can sympathize.  If you are bridled by Obama’s alleged sudden appreciation for Sen. Clinton’s foreign policy experience built on “tea” parties, join the club.

I’ve been pretty reflective this week, imagining what it’d be like to have a role in the Obama Administration and whether it’d be a good fit.  A colleague of mine is on the transition team, and the Administration’s job application sits in my inbox.  But, I’m cowed and more than a little aghast at the information required.  The disclosure of closet skeletons (and outraged blog screeds) is one thing; more importantly, I can’t get past the language about whether or not my information would “be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the president-elect.”  (I realize this is s.o.p. for vetting potential Administration staff, but this election is really my first as a fully engaged adult.  It’s all enthralling, unsettling news to me.)

Without question, there are recorded and secret moments in my past that are totally mortifying.  So I think I can confidently assure President-Elect Obama that yes, I could be “a possible source of embarrassment.”  Who wouldn’t be?  The larger issue is what the transition team considers “embarrassing,” or a “conflict of interest,” or disqualifiers.  Our President-Elect tried coke, no prob after Bush, and worshipped with a preacher steeped in black liberation theology, which turned out to be not easily understood by and a major but not insurmountable problem for the bulk of the (white) American public.   Our Vice President-Elect has a plagarism scandal behind him, as well as the dubious position of being the guy who referred to his new African-American boss as “clean” and “articulate.”  No biggie?  Not now, it seems, but it certainly was at the time.

When I think about willingly filling out the job application, I wonder: a) who’s going to be reading this?  (Is it too much to want to know which lucky sap gets to read the tawdry yet mundane details of my life?) and b) short of criminal behavior, what is really considered too scandalous for the incoming Administration?  It’s likely not my Clinton support (right?), but I can see President-Elect Post-Partisan bristling at my blog references to the Bush Administration’s post-Katrina HUD as “public enemy #1.”  I don’t exactly mince words, nor play nice.  Diplomacy is a learned behavior for this Virgo. (I should probably also stop referencing the zodiac.)

And really, isn’t this one of the fault lines within the Democratic Party, the progressive-liberal blogosphere and in party versus movement politics in general, writ large as we argue with one another over how or whether to support Obama?  Does doing so require me to compromise my principles?  What are my principles?  What are my political beliefs versus my pragmatic politics?  Is incrementalism ok?  How can or should a progressive agenda be enacted?  Do I care about a particular political issue above all others?  Do I adhere to a general political philosophy that outweighs any particular issue or policy area?  Am I partisan?  What do I make of a politics of conciliation?  Questions like these are at the heart of political activism, movement building, and Party identification and support.

The job app in my inbox and the fallout over at Shakesville both leave me thinking deeply about my political values and where I see myself in the “inside-outside” game of governance and political advocacy.  I’m disinclined to apply, not wanting to find myself apologizing for my outraged passion over the GOP and Bush’s failure to do right by the Gulf Coast.  There’s also that pesky dissertation demanding my attention.  Can we talk in 2012?


Memphis on Obama

I think the countdown to the election clock on CNN is overkill, how about you?

Over the weekend here in Memphis, I surveyed 7 African-American shuttle and bus drivers about the election.  (I spent A LOT of time shuttling between two hotels and riding around on buses with Amnesty International members.  As I texted my boyfriend last night Highways 40 and 55 are beautiful this time of year.)

Here’s what I found:

4 were excited and hopeful, if somewhat restrained in their expression.  A young man, probably in his early twenties, was the most energized, adding that he “knows” Obama is going to win on Tuesday.  The male bus driver of the two I talked was optimistic but added that he hoped “[his] president” didn’t get shot in office.

3 were ambivalent, resigned and/or pessimistic.  I wrote in detail about two men’s opinions here.  I spoke with a young woman, 35?, who didn’t care much for Obama or McCain.  She didn’t like Obama’s (lack of) experience and worried about McCain’s age.  She didn’t think either of them were all that qualified to deal with our “problems at home,” which she emphasized should be a president’s priority before they wandered off to stir up trouble in the rest of the world.  She added that she has never been all that impressed with Obama, which often caused arguments with other African-Americans.  Of the six people I spoke with she seemed the most circumspect, and was the only “undecided” to whom I spoke.  Three, IIRC, had already voted.  (39% of Shelby County voters voted early.)

As I ate at Onyx last night, a jazz club in Memphis’s South Main arts district, the band announced they had a new album out, with a title song “It’s time for a change.”  The majority African-American crowd (majority middle-aged, majority having date night) cheered.  At this great clothing store Divine Rags (across the street from the Church of God in Christ bookstore), they had an Obama t-shirt I’ve never seen before:


Yes We Can!

Obama ’08

made by American Apparel.  It was too long for my taste, sadly.  I own no Obama swag to sport on Tuesday night.  Guess I’ll have to go with my Hillary t-shirt.  Or my Ortiz jersey.  (Go Sox!)

Similar enthusiasm existed among the Amnesty crowd (AI is a non-partisan organization).

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The deserving among us

This is a yet fully formulated thought, but I wanted to throw some stuff up here…

Here’s a comment I left at NYC Weboy’s place this morning in response to this post on the bailout:

“There isn’t another magic solution, there’s nobody with a better idea… there’s this, or nothing.”

I agree generally, we have to do something. But I thought there were lots of better ideas being circulated – Sen. Clinton’s emphasis on reviving the HOLC, Galbraith had a well thought out plan in WaPo, no?

I was struck this morning by the brief remarks of 1 House GOP on BBC who voted against this bill, how it would give $$ to “undeserving” pp and that would make his constituents unhappy. It’s sort of mind boggling…remove “Wall Street tycoons” and insert “welfare queens.” (Wanda Sykes did the best riff on this on Letterman last week.) But really, it’s like this faux notion of us all being in the “middle-class” and being the only “deserving” bunch in this country has really triumphed, and that blunt concept combined with this notion that our “middle-class” lives are distinct from those at the very top as well as those at the bottom is really problematic.

Anyway, this is just the beginning of a thought that’s forming…not quite sure where I’m headed with this yet…

So yes, there’s an issue of trying to get the bailout “right.” And I’m the first to point out the problems of economic inequality and polarization in this country. Yet, I’m nonetheless surprised to see how people’s (conscious or otherwise) understanding of this plays out. I could be crediting falsely this GOP member (and his colleagues) with a responsibility to their constituents (“the voters” are always a good scapegoat), but I’m – naively, I suppose – surprised again and again with how we routinely invoke this notion of “deserving” vs. “undeserving.” Now, instead of false, racist, classist, sexist notions of lazy, immoral poor people (women and children) of color, we’re propagating less false but still stereotypical tropes of rich, ruthless white, male tycoons robbing us blind with the help of the government. Notice my use of the pronoun “we,” lest you think I’m excusing myself here.

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Day of Blogging in Support of Community Organizing

Check it out at the Afrospear/afrosphere.

UPDATE: Kevin @ Slant Truth has links galore.

I have never been an organizer, but in my field of community development, I’ve worked for years with them, and my research now focuses on organizing in post-Katrina New Orleans. Being an organizer – like social work – is a job I am not cut out for but one for which I have tremendous respect and some feelings of envy/inadequacy. It’s one of those jobs I wish I wanted, because it’s powerful and intense and transformative at a microscale and often at mezo- and macro-levels.

Community organizing can not only elevate issues into public debate and force decisions by elected officials and others who should be held accountable to communities (e.g., developers) – decisions both good and bad, remember, as the threat/impact/force of an organized community can win victories for neighborhoods as much as devastate them in the powers-that-be’s efforts to silence and defuse them.

Community organizing also offers an individual and collective benefit of empowering people to realize their own potential, their own power, and to instill a sense of purpose in people and groups. I think I appreciate this in particular because I was raised by a Capricorn nurse turned mental health administrator, who believed in the essential power of activity and work to raise people’s spirits and direct their energies. I’ve witnessed her talk people out of frustrated anger and direct their efforts towards productive endeavors, whether it be protest activities, writing, organizing others around them experiencing the same problem, or volunteer efforts meant to fill gaps in the mental health system. Etc. Not always a likable trait when you’re a kid wishing you could watch tv inside all day, but tremendously inspiring when you’re facing down seemingly insurmountable obstacles like a devastating hurricane and flood and the potential permanent displacement of 100,000 low-income New Orleanians.

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From the Field

Reporting live from New Orleans, where I’m sneaking a quick trip to the gym b/w meetings.  Since I’ve arrived I’ve seen this image (Geaux Obama!) and also a woman wearing a t-shirt with Obama’s image that says “Prince” beneath it.  (And no, I don’t think this means he’s named Prince as his running mate.)

I also just sat down with a public housing activist and resident, an older African-American man, who is not voting this year because, as a Clinton supporter, he doesn’t think Obama can get the job done, and he’s not voting for McCain.  He doesn’t think Obama can do the job like past Presidents, incl. Clinton, our first “black president,” he reminded me.  Obama will not be that, he told me.

What’s that now about bitter old white women??

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Hello Dolly

Still just a Category 1 hurricane, Dolly nonetheless threatens to top the levees and devastate the rural, low-lying, poor areas around Brownsville, TX and in the Rio Grande Valley.  People forget that Katrina hit New Orleans at Category 3 force, and that it was levee failure much more so than Katrina’s organic strength that flooded and devastated the city – a city of above average concentrated poverty.  Dolly’s potential impact is similarly chilling:

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