The city is an international symbol of neglect and racism. But the federal government isn’t the only one to blame.
A year and a half after
In a recent conversations with scores of
Research backs up the anecdotal reports. A January 2006 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy argued that the amount given to post-Katrina
A February report from New York City’s Foundation Center points out that the Red Cross, which raised perhaps two 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. At the time of the report, another 35 percent of the money the foundations designated had not been spent. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, Salvation Army and
After nearly fifteen months of shuttered storefronts, a block of Black-owned businesses in
Neighborhood spaces like the
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
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
In the aftermath of Katrina, the people of
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.”
Echoing this analysis, the Chronicle of Philanthropy article complains of a “long-term lack of concern and neglect that foundations that operate nationally and in the Gulf Coast region have shown for poor and minority Gulf Coast residents, even as some grant makers proudly strutted their awards to national antipoverty and antiracism programs.”
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, and, “a look at who and what gets funding in
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
Foundations are not to blame for the continuing crisis in
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, and in many cases, the priorities of the “movement” are guided by those with money rather than being led by those most affected.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of Katrina for people concerned about social justice is that the structures of
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 non-accountable movement stopped organizations from responding more capably to the disaster when it happened, and that a movement more responsive to the 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. “Its 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
“What’s wrong with our movement and our organizations,” the director of another grassroots organization asked me, “that they couldn’t collaborate and coordinate and offer us some organized plan of assistance instead of asking us to do more and more to help them help us? What’s wrong with funders that they couldn’t coordinate, the way they ask us to, so that they could come down once, together, and not on 15 separate trips?”
When asked for solutions, many in
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 multi-year commitments. They didn’t just come and dump money – or worse, come and promise money then disappear, as some did.”
“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 …
“I would ask national organizing groups to send a staff person down for 6-12 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
The stakes are far beyond
Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine.