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Organizing for a Just Recovery in the Gulf Coast
General Assembly 2007 Event 4021
Susan Leslie, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Congregational Advocacy and Witness director, introduced Community Based Organizing advocates Mary Croom Fontenet, Reverend Steve Crump, and Reverend Tony Johnson in this Saturday morning gathering of interested activists, organizers, relief workers and residents of the Gulf Coast. In her opening remarks, Leslie described the necessary work of Community Based Organizations (CBO's) in the Gulf Coast region and nationwide. Although they are relatively low-profile organizations in the national consciousness, the one hundred sixty CBO's are doing significant advocacy and justice work. The morning's speakers are all involved in local community organizing.
The first speaker, Mary Croom-Fontenot, is a resident of New Orleans' lower Ninth Ward, and director of All Congregations Together (ACT), an interfaith CBO. Before she began her presentation on advocacy and organizing, she told of her own personal experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and expressed gratitude for the relief workers, the volunteers and the donors who made much of the physical recovery work possible. "You have been our legs when our own legs were pretty shaky," she said. Her announcement, that she would be (finally) returning to her own home next week, was met with enthusiastic applause. She described the current and ongoing work of her organization as identifying leaders from the local community to address the issues within that community.
Ms. Croom Fontenot asserted that houses of faith are the first responders to any crisis in the community, and that their ongoing role fills a vital need in providing advocacy for moral and ethical imperatives before a crisis and "when, not if", she says, "the crisis occurs." In New Orleans, "The Right to Return" and the attendant issues of fair housing, education, physical and mental healthcare are being raised by these coalitions of faith communities. Croom Fontenot said she believes that the advocacy and justice work in the wake of Katrina was made possible by the interfaith relationships that have been created over the sixteen years since ACT has been in existence.
Reverend Steve Crump, is the minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, home of the UUA/UU Service Committee's Hurricane Relief/Recovery & Social JusticeProject and winner of the UUA's 2007 James Bennett Award for social justice. He described his experience with the Baton Rouge area Working Interfaith Network (WIN) as a portal for Unitarian Universalists to make significant contributions to the greater community and significant contributions to their own growth and transformation. "When we organize," he asserted, "we meet people we otherwise wouldn't meet, we go places we otherwise wouldn't go, and we know things we wouldn't otherwise know." Reverend Crump acknowledged workshop attendee and Unitarian Universalist Bob Doral, who had been named Catholic Charities Volunteer of the Year for his work in Katrina recovery, as an example of the connections and transforming work that become possible in relationship with others.
Reverend Tony Johnson is affiliated with the Community Church of New York City, and has spent most of the past year working in the National Alliance to Restore Opportunity to the Gulf Coast and Displaced Persons, addressing issues of fair housing. He compared the effects of Katrina to his personal experience in the working class town of Danbury Connecticut after flooding half a century ago. Storm displacement, although less sweeping than that of Katrina, followed a similar pattern. Apartment dwellers, the people living on (once) cheap land by the water and urban small business, were gone, eventually to be replaced by gentrification. The working class was pushed out by what Reverend Johnson referred to as "Urban renewal, also known as Negro removal." It took the city of Danbury forty years to recover from the political and economic decisions made in the aftermath of a local disaster.
A similar change is risked in the aftermath of Katrina, Johnson said, and he described ways in which the Gulf Coast Action Network is bringing groups together to address issues of access to education, housing, jobs and healthcare—all essential to the restoration of just and equitable communities in the Gulf Coast. He contends that there is "a disaster happening in every community." And then he asked, "Where are the levees in your home town?" for, as he further explained, there are disasters in every community. Some of them are natural, like hurricanes and floods, and some are man made, like privatization of public institutions.
During the question and answer period, the three panelists returned to their assertion that recovery is not just about gutting houses and rebuilding: it is also about doing the work of building just and robust communities. When disaster strikes and when the levees break, the people will be united in their response and political and economic exploitation will have no gaps in which to take root.
Written by Rebecca Kelly-Morgan; edited by Deborah Weiner