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In Post-Katrina New Orleans, Do Black Lives Really Matter?

August 28, 2015

Katrina_steps_guardianHurricane Katrina laid bare the lack of value attached to black lives in the U.S., a reality that New Orleans residents and the nation are still wrestling with a decade later. Recent events suggest that Americans are at a crossroads in terms of how they think, talk about, and deal with race and racism — but are still a long way from agreeing that black lives do indeed matter.

Ten years after Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees, the outlook for the city's African-American community is as grim as it was before the storm hit. According to the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, an estimated 26,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the city are disconnected from education and employment. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, which jails nearly 40,000 people per year (66 percent of whom are African American), as many as one in seven black men in some New Orleans neighborhoods are either in prison, on probation, or on parole. What's more, fully half of all African-American children in New Orleans live in poverty — more than in 2005.

As we mark another anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a fateful turning point in the city's and nation’s history, a critical question remains: How has so much racial and economic inequity been allowed to not only persist but worsen?

A considerable amount of attention and resources were given to New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm, with local and national philanthropic leadership playing an important role in the city's recovery efforts. Philanthropy alone, however, cannot solve problems created by centuries of deeply-entrenched racism and oppression. Instead, its role should be to seed and test innovative ideas and help implement community led solutions that can reduce poverty, increase equity, and quantify hope.

Yet even that kind of philanthropic input is not enough. Innovative ideas and solutions require reliable, sustained, and adequate support from both the public and private sectors. Without significant cross-sector investments in quality social, educational and economic programs, grassroots organizations that are committed to positive social change are forced to rely on — and compete for — limited philanthropic dollars. It is a model that is neither sustainable nor likely to lead to systemic change.

Since Katrina, community-based organizations such as the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) have led the push for solutions to the social and economic ills that have long plagued New Orleans. Established in 2004 following passage of Act 1225, the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, YEP now provides educational, mentoring, and employment readiness services to more than a thousand vulnerable youth in the city each year, 98 percent of whom are African American. YEP's founders witnessed firsthand many young lives lost to violence and the prison system, and they recognized that the lack of services available to, and investment in, the state's most underserved population was in part to blame for this tragedy.

Despite having only been established a little more than a year before Katrina, YEP was able to provide emergency support and services to young people and their families who were displaced and scattered across the country by the storm. It was one of the few youth organizations in New Orleans that managed to function in the chaos that followed, monitoring and assisting its clients – some of whom had been separated from family and friends and were living alone in shelters or on the streets. Maintaining YEP's core staff and infrastructure in the storm's aftermath, as well as its connections with other key organizations and agencies, set the stage for the organization's rapid growth over the next decade. YEP's story is, in part, a successful case study of how, given adequate resources and support, community-based groups can work collaboratively with leadership across the board to create meaningful impact.

That said, there's a much deeper and complex challenge confronting local leadership in struggling cities like New Orleans: America's unwillingness to invest in solutions that address poverty. The lack of public-sector investment speaks volumes about the nation's current value system in terms of what and, most importantly, who it truly values. It is clear that the urgent issues and challenges we face will not be resolved without targeted, meaningful action by government, business, and philanthropic leaders.

Headshot_melissa_sawyer_YEPIn post-Katrina and post-Ferguson America, national leadership must collectively commit to working with, and investing in, strategies designed to help black communities realize their full potential. Doing so will require a strong, long-term commitment from communities, public agencies, and the private sector to allocate resources to the kind of social infrastructure that supports sustainable change. It's the only path forward if we truly hope to create a prosperous, caring, and equitable society.

(Photo credit: The Guardian)

Melissa Sawyer is a co-founder and executive director of the Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans.

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