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5 Questions for…Judith Rodin, President, Rockefeller Foundation

October 12, 2015

The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was a poignant reminder of the power of nature and our often ineffective efforts to control and contain it. As we have come to understand more fully in the decade since, Katrina also exposed a number of troubling truths about America that many had chosen to ignore or deny. Growing inequality. The persistence of institutional racism and racist attitudes. The social and economic costs of de-industrialization. The interconnectedness of the built and natural environments.

The New York City-based Rockefeller Foundation was one of the first philanthropic organizations to respond to the devastation caused by Katrina, and within months the foundation had been enlisted by the Louisiana Recovery Authority to assume a leading role in the recovery planning process for New Orleans. Recently, PND caught up with a busy Judith Rodin, Rockefeller's president, to talk about the foundation's role in the recovery process and what it learned from its efforts about urban resilience in an age of climate change.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Rockefeller Foundation was instrumental, post-Katrina, in the formation of the Unified New Orleans Plan. What was the foundation looking to accomplish by supporting the UNOP effort?

Headshot_judith_rodinJudith Rodin: I stepped into the presidency at the Rockefeller Foundation in March 2005, and Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Like many others, we responded to the immediate need, in our case funding Enterprise Community Partners and Habitat for Humanity to work on rebuilding the city's devastated housing stock. But then, in early 2006, I got a call from Walter Isaacson, who at the time was co-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and wanted to gauge our interest in restarting the recovery planning process, which, six months after the storm, had stalled. Walter knew that my then-colleague Darren Walker [now president of the Ford Foundation] and I both had experience with collaborative community development efforts involving stressed, often fractious, and impoverished communities. We also knew that without a plan, the bulk of the federally authorized recovery money could not flow to the city. People were desperate, and our board authorized us to jump in. It was the first big test of the approach that would come to define the Rockefeller Foundation as it turned one hundred.

The goal in New Orleans was to use a deeply consultative, inclusive process to create a single unified plan that would go beyond recovery and rebuilding to expand the capacity of local institutions such as the Greater New Orleans Foundation and promote interventions that would build greater resilience in the city and the region.

From day one, we focused on community empowerment. The storm had exposed longstanding issues of race and class that contributed to the city's inadequate response; we wanted to work with all stakeholders — community leaders and elected officials, NGOs and the private sector, and, most importantly, the people who had been displaced, whether they had returned to their neighborhoods or not. Creating a shared vision was crucial if the recovery was to proceed more effectively and New Orleans was to become more resilient and better able to handle whatever the next shock might be, which, as it turned out, was the BP oil spill a few years later.

The funding we provided to support the creation of the Unified New Orleans Plan helped the city recover and rebuild. As New Orleans looks forward, we have been proud to partner with the city on its just released resilience strategy, which includes the city's priorities for long-term resilience building. Supported by 100 Resilient Cities, the global organization we founded to celebrate our centennial in 2013, it is one of the first strategies of its kind and will serve as an example to other cities around the world that are currently developing their own resilience strategies.

PND: If you had known then what you know today, what might the foundation have done differently to respond to Katrina?

JR: While it is tempting to look back and speculate about what everyone could have done differently, I think it is more constructive to look forward. New Orleans has come a long way over the past ten years, but there is obviously still much to do over the next ten.

Moving forward, it will be important to ensure that investments in building resilience benefit everyone in the city. Not everyone has gained equally over the last ten years as things in the city began to improve. Crime and unemployment among black males are still far too high. Resilience planning is being more intentionally designed to respond to and integrate physical infrastructure solutions with economic and social ones. For example, as the city continues rebuilding its water management system, it has done so in a way that responds to the threat of flooding and clears sewage more effectively for conversion into usable water. The new system will better manage water through an improved canal-and-pond system as well as bio-swales and rain gardens, keeping water inside the levees where it belongs. Importantly, this water management project is designed to provide job training and new, good jobs for two hundred and fifty currently unemployed African American men, with many more to come. This type of resilience planning is designed to respond not just to the physical needs of the city but also its social and economic needs. By preparing the city for future shocks, and also creating opportunity today, the city is realizing what we call the "resilience dividend."

PND: Do you agree with critics of the federal and state response to Katrina who see in that response echoes of what activist Naomi Klein has called the "shock doctrine" — that is, a conscious effort to use disaster as an excuse to re-order existing socioeconomic and political facts on the ground?

JR: New Orleans had to dramatically and visibly confront its challenges head on — it had no other choice. Pre-Katrina New Orleans was strongly divided by class and race and, despite its rich and vibrant culture, was one of the poorest cities in the United States. For decades leading up to Katrina, the city's manufacturing base had atrophied, leaving a weak employment environment, diminished tax revenues, and widespread poverty — along with a legacy of failing education and health care and large holes in the social safety net. Those were facts on the ground that needed to be changed — for the benefit of all residents of New Orleans, most especially its poorest residents.

The city has come a long way but resilience is a journey, not a destination. And New Orleans still has a road ahead of it: Like other cities across America, too many African-American men in New Orleans do not have access to jobs, crime is a major challenge, poverty in communities of color remains too high, and too many families struggle to find safe, affordable housing. That's why Mayor Landrieu and other city leaders should — and are — focusing on the types of investments that can create social and economic benefits that deliver a resilience dividend.

PND: How did Rockefeller's experience in New Orleans inform the foundation's 100 Resilient Cities initiative?

JR: New Orleans was an inspiration behind 100 Resilient Cities, which is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are increasing in the 21st century. New Orleans is living proof that with the right planning and preparation cities can meet the challenges they face head on and learn to manage the avoidable while avoiding the unmanageable.

From our work in New Orleans, we saw that bringing together community, civil society, business, and government is at the heart of building resilience. And we also saw the importance of local leadership and talent. There were and are many excellent local foundations and NGOs in New Orleans, and we offered them capacity-building support. We also created and funded sixty local Redevelopment Fellowships and used them to recruit and train twenty-four young experts from around the country and thirty-six already working in the region, placing them in seventeen organizations that were working to rebuild New Orleans. Many of those fellows are still working in New Orleans in areas like housing, community building, economic development, and government. In fact, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with several of them when I was in New Orleans for the Katrina anniversary, and they all spoke passionately about what they had learned and the incredible network they had developed as a group.

PND: Have you been encouraged by the response to the initiative?

JR: The response has been overwhelming. We've received thousands of applications from all over the world to be part of the 100 Resilient Cities network, and we currently have sixty-seven member cities — from Mandalay to Medellin, Athens to Amman and Chicago to Christchurch. In early 2016, we will select the final thirty-three members.

The response from the private sector has been incredible, too. Through the initiative, participating cities have access to a curated suite of resilience-building tools and services provided by partners from the private, public, academic, and nonprofit sectors, giving the cities access to the resources they need to implement their resilience strategies and become more, well, resilient. We have companies like Microsoft, ARUP, Palantir, Ioby, Veolia, Deutsche Bank, and Swiss Re on board, as well as organizations like the Nature Conservancy, Ushahidi, Social Finance, and Sandia National Laboratories.

The innovative work these cities are undertaking not only will change the lives of those living in participating municipalities, but in other cities around the world. For example, 100RC has created an opportunity for member cities like New Orleans and Rotterdam to share cutting-edge ideas about the most effective ways to live with water rather than fight it. Those ideas can be shared with Norfolk or Surat, both of which are members of the 100RC network, as well as other cities around the globe that are confronted with the perils of sea-level rise.

And it's not just cities where we are seeing traction. The Rockefeller Foundation is supporting Resilience Academies across the U.S. with the aim of strengthening knowledge around resilience and funding the proposals of the sixty-seven eligible states and localities applying for assistance through HUD's $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition.

It boils down to this: For every $1 we spend on planning and preparing for disasters in the U.S., $4 is spent on recovery efforts. That's a model that is not financially, environmentally, or socially sustainable. Simply put, if we invest more in planning and preparation on the front end, we will save a lot of money and lives on the back end. And if we invest smartly, we can both mitigate future crises and create jobs and opportunity today — that's the resilience dividend. We can't afford to wait.

Mitch Nauffts and Matt Sinclair

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