(Tony Pipa is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he reviewed Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa.)
The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the levees in New Orleans will occur in just a few short days. Certainly the recovery of this iconic American city is far from complete and has been fraught with challenges. Halting and inadequate leadership at all levels of government has been too much on display, beginning with the flooding itself, a direct result of corners cut by the Army Corps of Engineers (with an assist from local management boards) when building and managing the levee system.*
And yet where government has struggled, citizens have demonstrated resilience, creativity, and good old-fashioned guts. I truly believe that New Orleans has the highest level of civic engagement of any city in the United States right now. Residents keep up with what is happening in their neighborhoods, they voice their concerns, they try to come up with solutions. New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, and almost every neighborhood has a vibrant, active grassroots group guiding its renewal. Organizations like Neighborhoods Partnership Network link them together and ensure shared support and vision.
Take Central City. A troubled neighborhood pre-Katrina, two of its public housing complexes are slated to be redeveloped with mixed-use housing, schools, and recreational facilities; an architecturally significant school, Mahalia Jackson Elementary, is being repurposed into a community resource center with cutting-edge early childhood development programs and integrated social services; and the business corridor along O.C. Haley Boulevard is being revitalized with streetscape improvements, loans leveraged from the city, and the possible use of land trusts to drive more locally-owned commercial development.
As someone who was on the ground almost immediately after the storm and frustrated, especially in the first year, by what I perceived to be an uncertain and overly conventional response from the foundation world, I have to admit that the recovery has also provided several instances of philanthropy at its best:
Philanthropy has taken risks. The Rockefeller Foundation and Greater New Orleans Foundation walked right into the middle of a hornet's nest when they provided the backing, both financial and political, for the United New Orleans Plan, a process that successfully involved many residents and put an end to the endless planning processes that kept springing up as the city tried to get off the mat. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of school reform, the philanthropic sector has played an important role in the effort to use charter schools to turn around and redefine what was arguably the country's worst public school system.
Philanthropy has focused on building capacity. The Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health has been advised by a committee of local grassroots leaders and has focused on supporting emerging activists and initiatives. In addition to strengthening the local nonprofit sector, foundations have even experimented with building the capacity of the public sector. The Ford Foundation, working in partnership with the Foundation for the Mid South and leveraging help from the Rockefeller Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, developed a loaned executive program to expand the pool of skilled professionals in city government.
Philanthropy has collaborated. Central City's renaissance has been catalyzed in part by a group of almost twenty foundations and corporations that have been intentional in integrating their approaches and communicating regularly about their work.
Philanthropy has been an advocate. The policy advocacy capacity of the Louisiana nonprofit sector was weak prior to the storm, and foundations both local and national have made significant investments to strengthen it and give it real voice at the federal, state, and local levels. In particular, the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, formed in the aftermath of the storm, has made public policy advocacy a real focus and incubated the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, a multi-state, multi-issue coalition of grassroots leaders advocating at the federal level.**
"Social innovation" has become an overused buzz phrase, but it's genuinely happening in myriad ways along the Gulf Coast. By the same token, the recovery has demonstrated the limitation of private action for the public good. After the largest charitable response in the nation's history, the work of thousands of volunteers from outside the area, and the tireless efforts of tens of thousands of residents, the challenges remain daunting. An estimated 65,000 properties in the city are blighted, the healthcare safety net is frayed (mental health services are a particular concern), and affordable housing is in short supply.
As the city shifts from a recovery mindset to a future-oriented vision, not quite halfway through what most residents consider to be a ten-year process, an improved governmental response will be critical to its success. Given the strong philanthropic and nonprofit presence, I think the opportunity exists for the Obama administration to make practical the new sort of relationship it has proposed between government and the social/philanthropic sector. New Orleans is starting to emerge as a model, with lessons for all of us, for all the right reasons. Too much hangs in the balance to walk away now.
-- Tony Pipa
* It is past infuriating how most media focus on "the storm" when describing what happened in New Orleans. New Orleans, in contrast to the towns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, withstood Katrina's fury. Most people forget the sigh of relief the city breathed once the hurricane passed -- and before it became apparent that water was pouring through the cracks. What befell New Orleans was a man-made disaster, not a natural one.
** Disclaimer: I am a founder of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and continue to consult with it and other foundations and NGOs working in the region.