Lessons Learned from Katrina
by Terri Lee Freeman, President
Over the past week I have been riveted by the images of Katrina. Documentary after documentary, recounting what happened five years ago and what has happened since. The images of people in New Orleans who couldn’t evacuate, happily going into the shelter and protection of the Superdome; only for that happiness to turn to despair, desperation and grief in the days to follow.
Those haunting images immediately threw me back to the week of August 29, 2005 when, day after day, my guilt grew as I watched, from the comfort of my family room, my brothers and sisters, predominantly African- American and poor, struggle to survive, right here in America.
What we’ve learned after the fact, is that most American cities are ill- prepared for a large scale disaster, natural or man-made. We’ve learned that when government is absent, chaos ensues. We’ve learned that the media can be an incredible ally for those most in need and shine a bright light on injustice. We’ve learned that fear and desperation can on one hand make people do the unthinkable.
But we’ve also seen extreme tragedy bring out the very best in people. We’ve learned that the human spirit can be very resilient when provided the necessary supports. And, we’ve learned that race and class can still determine who gets what, when.
One of the documentaries I watched was hosted by NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams, in which he proclaimed that “…Katrina should spur us to have a national dialogue about race, class and petroleum.” Hmmm, so what’s happened during these past five years. Well, some folks might say the issues regarding race in this country have been resolved. After all, we elected our first African-American President. As for class issues, the recession has added more people to the unemployment rolls. The foreclosure crisis has increased the numbers that are homeless. And the large number of uninsured Americans continues to broaden the gulf between the haves and the have nots. And as for oil or petroleum, can you say BP?
I couldn’t agree more with Brian Williams, and in fact, for the past six years, The Community Foundation has sponsored a dialogue series which examines the nexus between race and education called “Putting Race on the Table.” The series has focused on the academic achievement gap and provided a forum to talk about national and local solutions. But we know that the issues of race and class are not limited to education, but are insidious and can affect every aspect of society – health, housing, employment, criminal justice and economic development. While we can’t stimulate a national discussion, we are committed to continuing the discussion on a local and regional level. In spring 2011, we will host a series of “Putting Race on the Table” tours in which we will talk to and learn from communities around the region, and examine the various approaches residents, with the help of nonprofit organizations, have taken to deal with issues of race and class. These tours will culminate at a forum held in conjunction with an exhibit titled “RACE: Are We So Different?” organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
While we can’t prevent another natural disaster, we can limit the additional damage caused by racism, class-ism and ignorance. We can open the door to informed, civil discussion about issues that keep our communities divided. Over the coming months we will post more information about the “Putting Race On the Table” tours. Let us know what you think can be done, or what you are doing to increase understanding across racial, ethnic and class lines.