I once saw an interview with Bill Clinton where he was asked “What do you think of the American people?” His response was, “Give them enough time and they always get it right.” That struck me as wildly optimistic, but stayed in my mind because I felt that it gave real insight into the man. Witnessing two days of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) reminded me of that interview. Former President Clinton seems determined to use his political capital in order to bring attention and resources to bear on some of the world’s most serious problems. And he’s as optimistic as ever.
The idea behind CGI is to get a range of people together discuss global issues, come up with action plans and steps towards action. Each morning began with a plenary session followed by working group meetings in which CGI members and invited guests met to brainstorm action items, make suggestions and most importantly, make commitments.
While the press was not allowed in the working sessions, we were able to watch video feeds of the panel discussions. I chose to watch the feeds on education in order to see what would be discussed about Africa. I knew that Bill Clinton has been extremely inspired by Kenya’s efforts at providing Universal Primary Education to all of its school age children. Kenya’s Education Minister George Saitoti reported on the popularity of the school program and what his country is doing to ensure its success.
Kenya is emphasizing teacher training, parental involvement in budget decisions and multi-age classrooms so that older students don’t feel segregated and stigmatized. Since this initiative was first announced in 2003, enrollments have skyrocketed and Minister Saitoti mentioned that the countries oldest primary school enrollee is 75 years old! At a time when over 100 million school age children around the world are not in school, this is an ambitious undertaking and Kenya’s efforts are being watched closely to see whether its program can be replicated.
On Friday’s panels, Andre Agassi touted the success of his charter school in Las Vegas which serves a 96% African American student population. Dr. Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), spoke of BRAC’s expanded initiatives in Uganda, Tanzania and Southern Sudan and John Wood of Room to Read discussed his organization’s efforts to create 10,000 bilingual libraries around the world by 2010. Author Toni Morrison attended the working sessions on education, while actor Jeffery Wright participated in the special sessions on poverty alleviation and highlighted his efforts to support the recent elections in Sierra Leone.
There seemed to be particular interest in supporting the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. On Thursday, President Clinton personally pledged $500,000 as a matching grant to support housing construction for displaced residents. By Friday, Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” campaign increased the money directed towards New Orleans by an additional $5 million. In making his announcement, President Clinton stated, “Anyone who wants to return home to New Orleans ought to be able to do so, and we want to do everything that we can to make that possible.”
It is difficult to describe the range of emotions that I felt at this event. The energy of the conference was electric. It was exciting to hear world business, governmental and non-profit leaders talk enthusiastically about their commitments to create social change. I left Thursday’s sessions buoyed by a “Clintonesque optimism”. Each day he announced more commitments from CGI partners and pledges to date total over $10 billion. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering what happens next? How does CGI insure that the commitments that are made reach the organizations that need them? How many times have global conferences inspired pledges only to find that the funds never materialized six months later?
At home, while I was turning these questions over in my head, I turned on the TV and there was Clinton again! This time at the Apollo theater in Harlem, announcing the creation of CGI-U, an initiative directed towards college students. I decided at that moment that I would suspend my academic cynicism and get my students on board. I guess optimism is contagious. Plus, it will give me an opportunity to blog some more and see firsthand how these initiatives are working.
Buried amidst video montages of a still devastated Lower Ninth Ward and sound bytes from the pundits and politicians who have come to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina's one year anniversary, the biggest story will continue to be who is not in the city. Sadly our nation's greatest tragedy continues for a displaced and dispossessed American community unprecedented in scale.
Katrina was more than just a failed levee system or a botched response to disaster. The storm displaced over a half million people, uprooting them from their homes and property. As they were being evacuated, these people trusted their government to help them eventually return home and to protect their rights. Now their geographically divided voices remain inaudible in the halls of government as their rights are gradually ignored.
Citizen groups in New Orleans like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now insist that all the storm's displaced survivors have a right to return to their neighborhoods, an idea backed up by internationally accepted human rights standards developed by the United Nations.
"After the storm, virtually every aspect of daily life became a struggle, particularly for displaced low- and moderate-income families," explains Stephen Bradberry, head organizer for ACORN New Orleans. "As we discover the city's new future, it is only right that these folks are fully engaged in the rebuilding process and can come home to benefit from its outcomes."
Mayor Ray Nagin and even some federal officials have begun giving the right to return lip service without enacting meaningful legislation to allow the displaced to exercise this right.
More than half of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population, predominately African Americans from working class communities like the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Holy Cross, has not returned. These were the vibrant neighborhoods that gave birth to the food, music and culture of the city and their residents were the backbone of the city's economy; small business owners, line chefs, hotel maids, and even the most revered musicians like Fats Domino.
More than 200,000 displaced former residents of New Orleans, spread across 46 different states, who have been denied their human right to return face numerous obstacles to be able to come home. They have no way of knowing the current state of their homes and neighborhoods-basic issues like whether the water and electricity are running, or whether their local schools are open. Their remains no centralized source for this information, neither government-run services nor private news sources. Most government decisions affecting their neighborhoods do not make it into the news broadcasts in their new communities. Without this necessary information it is nearly impossible for displaced people to make an informed decision to move back home.
The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina brought the focus back to New Orleans, but Gulf Coast communities in Mississippi still struggle to get attention and help for areas swept away by last summer’s deadly super storm.
“We have been so overshadowed. In Mississippi, we have total neighborhoods that have been just completely wiped off the map. Not even streets were left,” said Cynthia Seawright Wright, who lives in Ocean Springs, Miss. Before the hurricane, she lived in Escawtapa, Miss. Driving around nearby Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., after the storm, she couldn’t find her way around areas she’d known all her life. Most apartment buildings were destroyed, Seawright Wright said.
"We are still living in trailers that are meant for you to live in for a few days," said Darneice Williams, who is raising her granddaughter Brianna with her son deployed in Iraq. He has not been allowed to come to Mississippi to tend to his family because the Army does not want him “injured” trying to help rebuild, she said. Meanwhile, Williams said she was diagnosed with severe liver damage from drinking dirty water in the FEMA trailers. "I need to talk to someone, I need psychological help, I cannot get it, I don't know what to do," she said.
“There is still such a long way to go and still a lot of work to be done,” commented Rev. George Rouse, pastor of Missionary Baptist Church in Gulfport, Miss. He and other faith-based leaders and churches are renovating and putting survivors back in their homes. He hasn’t seen a lot of federal government help. About 1 in 10 people knocked out of their homes are back inside, he said. FEMA trailers dot many places as Mississippians await help and try to rebuild on their own.
“The government isn’t the one who are really putting the people in houses, it’s actually the church or faith-based organizations,” Rev. Rouse said. “FEMA has put people in their FEMA trailers, however, the church stepped up and put people in their homes,” he added, quoting one of his church deacons.
Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, in Greenville, sees grassroots organizations and community leaders at work. But, she pointed out; there is no excuse for the lack of federal government support and action. No one in the government has been held accountable, she said. The racial disparities and injustices existed before Hurricane Katrina, but the disaster has made them more pronounced, she added. The Mississippi Workers’ Center has been working on the Gulf Coast for more than eight years combating workplace hate violence and other issues.
The priority is rebuilding casinos with promises of economic development, without a commitment to building low-income housing, according to Hill. Casinos offer low-wage jobs that help keep people in poverty, she said. Questions remain about public education and getting students on track, environmental hazards abound, workers are getting hurt at unsafe sites and some immigrant workers aren’t paid at all, she added.
“They are rebuilding for the sake of profit, not for the rebuilding of peoples’ lives,” she said. Hill’s group and the U.S. Human Rights Network opened the Mississippi Hurricane Media Center in Biloxi, Miss., to try to draw attention and document survivors’ experiences. She wants survivors to be given a real role and voice in the rebuilding effort, government commitments to make survivors whole, and a push for a better way of life. The FEMA trailers need to be replaced with decent, affordable housing, Hill said.
“People don’t have a desire to go back to the same conditions they were in before Katrina. Katrina exposed the gaps and the underclass and the face of the poor. It only comes up when people are put on the national media. Dead bodies floating in the water, people trying to swim to save themselves, it’s a media event. That’s the only reason we’re seeing the poor in the United States,” she said.
Worst of all, Hill continued, the basic things that people want, food, clothing, shelter, safety, income and education, are human rights. The U.S. has been exposed as a major human rights violator, and sham democracy as it exports “freedom” around the world, she said.
“We are seeing people use this event as a media opportunity, but it is an opportunity to change things,” Hill continued. She believes Black and Brown unity, visible solidarity from Black communities outside the Gulf Coast, a constant demand for updates and answers about why residents can’t return, or rebuild, are needed.
“We need people from every community letting the government know that this is not an isolated incident, but you’ve got to be concerned about all of us,” she said.
According to Gulf Coast activists, 231 people died from Katrina, 750,000 people were displaced by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, damages in Mississippi hit $125 billion, the state’s fishing and shrimp industry is still reeling, unemployment remains high, billions are needed to repair public schools, and just 12 percent of $2 billion in federal contracts went to the state.
Housing remains a major concern, activists add. Just over 100,000 people still live in temporary housing and 274,000 individuals and families still receive housing assistance from FEMA, which provided over 37,000 trailer and mobile homes in Mississippi.
“Stranded, lost, left out and homeless,” said Karen Madison, of the L.C. Jones public housing development in Gulf Port, Miss., describing the plight of residents. Some buildings were patched up to keep residents in apartments, but now the property is going up for sale, she said.
Federal officials promise housing vouchers and transfers to other developments, Madison said. But, she added, three public housing complexes with more than 3,000 residents each are closing. “I don’t know of no other public housing around here that they could move us to,” Madison said.
The 32-year-old mother of three is worried about moving further from work, and where her children will go to school. “To me, they’re just telling us, you ain’t got nothing, get out. If there was anywhere to go we wouldn’t be having all these FEMA trailers out here,” she said. “We have no help, other than working. And, those that can’t work, they’re ground zero.”
Cynthia Seawright Wright watched the storm hit the Gulf Coast on TV in Atlanta, having evacuated her home. When she came back to the mostly Black community of Moss Point, Miss., neighbors had stacked possessions on the side of roads, trying to salvage things. Seawright Wright found four feet of water inside her home. She moved.
“I walked in the house, turned around and walked out,” she said. “I did not want to touch anything that had been in that sewage water.” Seawright Wright was worried about what a nearby industrial plant and a water treatment facility might have dumped in the water and environmental hazards. Her possessions, packed in boxes and suitcases on the floor of a friend’s home in anticipation of moving, were drenched.
When Seawright Wright saw her friend’s bath tub and commode filled with three to four inches of a blue-green sludge, it confirmed her decision to abandon everything.
Later, she found out Moss Point had high levels of arsenic left after floodwaters receded and many suffered from rashes and respiratory problems. Violence, suicides, and depression have increased, Seawright Wright said.
The Red Cross came out the third week after the storm, the Salvation Army showed up late and dumped things “funky old clothes” in church parking lots and at shopping centers, Seawright Wright recalled. By that time, she had started her own emergency distribution effort. She recruited a former beauty queen to help. Her sister, Toni Seawright, was the first Black woman chosen as Miss Mississippi, make appeals for assistance. With some news coverage and some breaks, helped started to pour in, she said.
Then there were problems, with people treated badly and questions about how a pastor was using donated money, according to Seawright Wright. She turned to another pastor in Moss Point and went to work. Out of her efforts was born An Outreach of Love, a faith-based group. “We called it that because we weren’t getting paid. We still don’t get paid,” said Seawright Wright, who receives disability payments.
Stephen Bradberry is the Head Organizer of ACORN New Orleans and recipient of the 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Jeffrey Buchanan is the Information Officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.
The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, should be a day to remember our commitments to our fellow Americans and mourn our collective losses. It should be an opportunity to reflect on what we as American citizens expect from our government in our most dire hour of need. It should be a time to honor the courage of the hundreds of thousands of still-displaced Katrina survivors as they struggle to return home one year after the storm broke land.
But instead, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the city council have callously chosen the anniversary to begin a policy that will demolish what little hope displaced families have of returning to their city.
In May, the city council unanimously passed City Ordinance 26031, which sets a deadline for homeowners to gut their homes or potentially lose them. By August 29, homeowners who have not been able to make the necessary repairs to their battered homes risk having their property seized and bulldozed by the city. The council’s decision will further “cleanse” New Orleans of its poor, continuing the exclusion and discrimination that have become hallmarks of the reconstruction.
But the survivors of Katrina are not alone. Although the government is not fulfilling its obligations, many nongovernmental organizations are trying to help survivors. Groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now are working around the clock to save homes from demolition and enforce a principle of fairness and inclusion in the disaster recovery process. Read more
NEW ORLEANS - A year after the unthinkable devastation of New Orleans wrought by Hurricane Katrina, progress in reconstruction is slow or non-existent if you’re poor or black. In fact, many observers believe New Orleans is a case study of what those in power would make out of every American city if left alone to execute their plans - urban centers without poor folks.
Katrina left 80 percent of the city flooded, killed more than 1,339 people in Louisiana, displaced 786,372 citizens and has ruined 18,752 businesses, according to the NNPA.
In New Orleans, there are efforts to reassure the people that everything is all right. On WYLD 98.5 FM radio, deejays continuously plug the slogan “Building New Orleans, one day at a time.” A “My Katrina Hero” essay contest is underway by the city government. The French Quarter, which sustained only wind damage, looks like a Hollywood movie set. Rumors still persist that levees were blown up to spare this historic tourist district by redirecting raging waters to the predominantly African-American 9th Ward.
A casual pan of city streets indicates priorities in the rebuilding effort. A gigantic sign graces the top of the New Orleans Astrodome, letting passersby know that the facility re-opens on August 26. The Dome of Death was the shelter of last resort for more than 60,000 stranded victims and the centerpiece for many a reporter’s human interest (or horror) story.
A closer look and a chat with the residents reveals that all is not well, even in the Quarter. Two hostile, hand-written signs were posted on the storefront windows of YesterYears on Bourbon Street, a shop of quaint and quirky novelties. One sign read, “There is no real intention to rebuild New Orleans” and the other lamented “There is no economic recovery money.” The owner had just laid off her last paid employee and was uncertain about her 29-year-old business. Without government assistance, YesterYears was about to become yesterday’s failed business statistic.
The Democratic members of the House Small Business Committee have found that 80 percent of small businesses on the Gulf Coast have not yet received loans promised by the federal government. The Small Business Administration has approved loans of more than $10 billion, but only $2 billion has been loaned to business owners.