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Harnessing the Power of Philanthropy to Build Just, Equitable, and Resilient American Cities — Starting With the 'Big Easy'

October 16, 2015

Katrina10_blueNearly two months ago, all eyes were on New Orleans as it marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. News crews, policy makers, and organizations from across the social change sector paused to reflect on the progress made over the past ten years — and the work that remains to be done. As funders seeking to make lasting change in the world, we know that true change demands persistent effort over the long term. Many of us have been working in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, and a decade later we are coming together to reaffirm our support for the region and re-dedicate ourselves not just to short-term rebuilding but to enhancing the region's long-term resilience. We know that philanthropic investment is as vital to the region today as it was a decade ago, and we challenge our foundation colleagues to join us in making an enduring commitment to building a just and resilient New Orleans.

The challenges New Orleans faced in 2005, and still faces today — sea level rise, climate change, economic inequality, a dysfunctional criminal justice system, educational achievement gaps — are challenges that many American cities will need to address over the coming decades. Our investment in New Orleans is about more than this one remarkable city: it is an opportunity to identify solutions to twenty-first-century problems that are effective and can be implemented across the United States.

Perhaps no American city exemplifies resilience like New Orleans. Ten years ago, Katrina devastated the city, killing over a thousand people, displacing a million more, and causing $150 billion in damage in the surrounding region. Since then, the city has been battered by other hurricanes as well as a devastating oil spill that wreaked environmental havoc on the wetlands which act as the city's first line of defense against storms. Those events amplified some of the most deeply entrenched social, environmental, and economic challenges facing the city.

As the problems grew and New Orleans' role as a bellwether city became clear, some of the nation's biggest foundations — including the Ford, Kellogg, Kresge, Surdna, and Walton Family foundations, in partnership with local funders — turned their attention to the region. What they saw was not only the many challenges confronting the city but the ethos of resilience that unites New Orleans and New Orleanians. Our philanthropic investments in initiatives ranging from affordable housing and efforts to close the opportunity gap to coastal restoration and prison reform have been magnified by the unflagging spirit of the people who live and work in New Orleans, as well as by the generous commitments of local funders.

While each institution has a unique focus, years of working across issues and sectors in this unique city have brought us to three important conclusions:

Funder collaboration is critical to creating lasting and comprehensive change. That's why several foundations recently came together to form the Greater New Orleans Funders Network — a group of foundations that collectively has invested nearly $570 million in the region since 2005 in support of rebuilding efforts. Local and national foundations working together toward a better future for New Orleans means that our investments in the city will be more targeted, more complementary, and more effective.

New Orleans has an opportunity to move beyond recovery to become a thriving city guided by equity and justice. For the first time in recent memory, New Orleans has the political will, evidence-based plans, commitment to public engagement, and dedicated funding it needs to transform itself. The State of Louisiana has created a fifty-year, $50 billion Coastal Master Plan to address the fact that it is losing more than a football field's worth of land to erosion every hour. The nearly $7 billion dollars the state will receive from penalties associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will serve as a down payment on the plan to repair the ecosystems that sustain the region. Over the next year, the state will provide opportunities for scientists, environmental experts, and coastal residents to get involved as it refines the plan and works to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.

At the same time, the City of New Orleans is overseeing the greatest number of capital investments since its founding. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has pledged to implement a comprehensive, cross-sectoral strategy that will improve the city's long-term outlook and create thousands of jobs. The plan includes an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars to transform the city's water management infrastructure, modernize its airport, expand the streetcar system, and redevelop commercial and residential corridors.

We need more partners from the philanthropic community to join us. To advance equitable and inclusive growth, the people of New Orleans need platforms and tools that allow them to participate in ongoing planning and decision-making processes. To protect and preserve the city's future, climate resiliency must be factored into its growth plans. To provide real opportunity to residents, the city needs more reliable public transportation, quality child care, affordable housing, and good jobs. And to reverse the historic patterns of injustice at play in the city (and across the country), criminal justice reform, gender and race equity, and income equality must be major parts of the equation.

All these factors are essential to New Orleans' growth, and all will require greater investment and collaboration among and by funders. We created the Greater New Orleans Funders Network to begin that effort; now we're calling on funders across the country to join us. Philanthropic investment can be one of the keys that unlock New Orleans' potential. By tackling the issues facing the region in an integrated, coordinated way, we can help address the long-term challenges that threaten the city's future. And what we learn from this work can be used to address challenges in other cities and regions. An investment in a more just, equitable, and resilient New Orleans is an investment in a more fair and equal nation.

Montgomery_ruesgaLa June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, represent the Greater New Orleans Funders Network, a coalition of local, regional and national grantmakers committed to equity and economic opportunity in the greater New Orleans region. The network is managed by Grantmakers for Southern Progress, a project of the Neighborhood Funders Group. Members of the network include Baptist Community Ministries, the blue moon fund, the Foundation for Louisiana, and the Ford, Greater New Orleans, Kellogg, Kresge, JPMorgan Chase, Surdna, and Walton Family foundations.

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