New Orleans: Continuing Crisis

Jordan Flaherty
December 20, 2006

Fifteen months after New Orleans became an international symbol of governmental neglect and racism, the city remains in crisis. Students are still without books, healthcare is less available to poor people than ever, public housing is still closed, and infrastructure is still in desperate need of repair. In an open letter to funders and national nonprofits released yesterday, a diverse array of New Orleanians declared, "From the perspective of the poorest and least powerful, it appears that the work of national allies on our behalf has either not happened, or if it has happened it has been a failure."

In conversations this week with scores of New Orleans residents, including organizers, advocates, healthcare providers, educators, artists and media makers, I heard countless stories of diverted funding and unmet needs. While many stressed that they have had important positive experiences with national allies, few have received anything close to the funding, resources, or staff they need for their work, and in fact most are working unsustainable hours while living in a still-devastated city.

Research backs up the anecdotal reports. A January 2006 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy argued that the amount given to post-Katrina New Orleans was "small-potato giving for America's foundations, which collectively have $500 billion in assets." The article also asserted, "just as deplorable as the small sums poured into the region are the choices foundations have made about where the money should go." In other words, very little of the money had gone to organizations directed by or accountable to New Orleanians.

A February report from New York City's Foundation Center points out that the Red Cross, which raised perhaps 2 billion dollars for Katrina relief despite widespread accusations of racism and mismanagement, "ranked as by far the largest named recipient of contributions from foundation and corporate donors in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita," receiving almost 35 percent of all aid.

Community responses

After nearly 15 months of shuttered storefronts, a block of black-owned businesses in New Orleans celebrated a rebirth this week. The street, on Bayou Road, in the seventh ward neighborhood of New Orleans, is a hopeful sign in a city where 60 percent of the population remains displaced and many businesses are shutting down or moving. As recently as August, most of the area remained shuttered and empty.

Now, almost every shop is open. The Community Book Center, a vital neighborhood gathering spot in the middle of the block, reopened this week, despite still having no front windows and a floor in major need of work. "Step carefully," Vera Warren-Williams, the owner, warned guests as they entered the store during the reopening celebration.

Neighborhood spaces like the Community Book Center have long been a vital part of New Orleans organizing, serving as a gathering place for people and ideas. The revitalization of Bayou Road is just one example community pulling together -- friends and strangers coming by to help gut houses, clear debris, cook food. Although Community Book Center is a crucial resource, spaces like these have received little outside support.

Foundations, according to the Chronicle article, "seem to have been preoccupied with the issue of accountability. Many foundations wondered how they could be certain that grants to local groups would be well spent and, therefore, publicly accountable."

While those are reasonable concerns, many in New Orleans see a double standard in this view. The Chronicle writer goes on to state, "the question of accountability didn't seem to bother the large foundations that gave so generously to the Red Cross, which had a questionable record of competence to begin with and attracted even more criticism in the aftermath of Katrina over its unwise use of funds, high administrative costs, and lack of outreach to minorities."

Many feel that the message from major funders has been that New Orleanians cannot handle the money appropriately. "Twenty seven years running a business, and they don't trust us with money," Jennifer Turner of the Community Book Center, comments, when asked about her feeling towards national funders. "They think we're all stupid or corrupt."

In the aftermath of Katrina, the people of New Orleans were depicted in the media as "looters" and violent criminals, or as helplessly poor and ignorant. In other words, as anything but a trustable partner in the rebuilding of their city. Even today, many news stories about New Orleans post-Katrina focus on FEMA payments that were misused or obtained through fraud, rather than the bigger story of corporate fraud.

Many feel this media depiction, and the bias and racism that it in many cases reflected, is in part to blame for the reluctance of major funders to give money directly to the people most affected.

"They figure if they give poor people money, they'll buy crack and cigarettes," People's Organizing Committee and People's Hurricane Relief Fund co-founder Curtis Muhammad summarized.

Money and resources

At a small corner bar in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood, community activists and organizers from grassroots base-building organizations such as Critical Resistance, the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition and Safe Streets/Strong Communities gathered to celebrate a victory. After a year of organizing, protesting and lobbying, Safe Streets won city funding for an independent monitor over the city's notoriously corrupt and violent police department.

The Safe Streets victory is the result of several years of struggle by many organizations and individuals. More importantly, it is a part of an overall effort grounded in, and led by, those most affected. While there has been some funding for base building organizations such as those listed above, it has been pennies compared to the hundreds of millions directed elsewhere.

For a region of the country that has been historically underfunded, these issues are nothing new. "I'm very much afraid of this 'foundation complex,'" civil rights organizer Ella Baker said in 1963, referring to the changes happening then in the structure of grassroots movements.

In an article in an upcoming South End Press anthology about New Orleans post-Katrina, members of INCITE Women of Color Against Violence write, "Though hundreds of nonprofits, NGOs, university urban planning departments, and foundations have come through the city, they have paid little attention to the organizing led by people of color that existed before Katrina and that is struggling now more than ever."

The INCITE authors posit that successful organizing is rooted in the community and takes a long time to bear fruit. Mainstream funders don't appreciate this, "Organizations that represent their work through quick and quantifiable accomplishments are rewarded by the system."

For many in the nonprofit field nationally, post-Katrina New Orleans has been an opportunity for career advancement. While local residents have been too overwhelmed by tragedy to apply for grants, a few well-placed national individuals and organizations have not hesitated to take their place in line. Although some have no relation to New Orleans, they often have previous relationships with the foundations, as well as resources that translate into easier access to funding, such as development staff, website designers and professional promotional materials.

Systemic failure

Foundations are not to blame for the continuing crisis in New Orleans, nor do they possess a special responsibility to help the city. However, many foundations have expressed a desire to support New Orleans' recovery, and funding is desperately needed on the ground. Because of this, their actions have taken on added scrutiny from people in New Orleans.

Foundations are an integral part of the current structure of U.S. nonprofits, a system that INCITE has called the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, to emphasize the intersecting, dependent and corporatized ways in which the system is constructed. It is a system in which organizations are frequently pitted against each other for funding, where organizers are discouraged from being active in their own community, and where accountability to and leadership from those most affected has become increasingly rare.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of Katrina for people concerned about social justice is that the structures of U.S. movements are in serious crisis. As the director of one base-building organization posed the question, "What's wrong with the 501c3 structure that everyone could come down for a five-day tour, but no one could come to actually do the work for a month? What's wrong with a 501c3 structure where … the biggest disaster this nation has seen in decades occurs and no one can stop what they are working on to come down and help?"

One thing that is clear is that the current paradigm simply doesn't work. Without community accountability, projects aimed to bring justice to that community are weaker and sometimes counterproductive.


Writing in the South End Press book, INCITE members argue that the structure of a nonaccountable movement stopped organizations from responding more capably to the disaster when it happened, and that a movement more responsive to local community would have been more effective. "Community organizing and community-based accountability are the things we have left when the systems have collapsed," they argue.

Many organizers told me that, in dealing with foundations, they were expected to be responsive to the foundations instead of to any concrete needs on the ground. "It's not just that you have to jump when they tell you to jump," the manager of one organization told me, "You also have to act like you wanted to jump anyway."

Again, these issues are not new -- more than forty years ago, Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader and co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, complained. "I can't see a leader leading me nowhere if he's in New York and I'm down here catching hell."

Moving forward

When asked for solutions, many in New Orleans called for allies to bring a deeper respect for the experiences of the people on the ground. Others expressed an overall need for movements to move away from reliance on foundations and large donors.

Several organizers highlighted the examples of positive experiences. "National Immigration Law Center (NILC) came here in a principled way, looking to hire someone local, and to support already existing local projects," Rosana Cruz, who works with NILC and the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, explained. "Advancement Project does litigation led by and in support of grassroots organizing campaigns. OXFAM is a major international organization, but they came in and worked responsibly with small organizations on they ground they had previous relationships with. And they made multiyear commitments."

"Ironically, many of the folks who have come through for us are Southern groups, who are themselves under-resourced," the managing director of one organization told me. "Organizations like Project South and Southerners On New Ground (SONG) have been stronger allies than many larger national groups."

The Chronicle article asks foundations to play a role in "strengthening nonprofit organizations that serve low-income people and African-Americans, as well as other minorities. America's foundations need to move from a policy of neglect of the nation's most vulnerable organizations to one of affirmative action, an approach that will mean changing the way many foundations do business."

"I would ask national organizing groups to send a staff person down for six to 12 months," begins the executive director of another organization, "I would also recommend all progressive and liberal foundations with Katrina money to do an analysis of funding and jointly release the results along with the plan for funding in 2007 and 2008."

Others listed specific needs they felt were unmet. "We need seed money, technical training and leadership development," explained Mayaba Liebenthal, an organizer active with the New Orleans chapters of Critical Resistance and INCITE."

The stakes are far beyond New Orleans. This is a struggle with national and international implications. Questions of race, class, gender, education, health care, food access, policing, housing, privatization, mental health and much more are on vivid display. "Everyone is here right now, or has come through," Curtis Mohammed comments, referring to the vast array of organizations and individuals who have visited the city. "If the movement continues to grow, New Orleans will be seen as a turning point." But, despite all of the resilience on display here, the people of New Orleans can't do it alone.

Call to action

Please help stop the continuing crisis in New Orleans by donating directly to the local community organizations in New Orleans:

INCITE Women of Color Against Violence --
New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition --
Family and Friends Of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children --
People's Institute for Survival and Beyond --
A Fighting Chance --
People's Hurricane Relief Fund --
People's Organizing Committee --
Common Ground Relief --

Jordan Flaherty is a community organizer in New Orleans and an editor of Left Turn Magazine, where a slightly different version of this article originally appeared.





When asked for solutions, many in New Orleans called for allies to bring a deeper respect for the experiences of the people on the ground. Others expressed an overall need for movements to move away from reliance on foundations and large donors.<br />
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