Gulf Coast Recovery & Advocacy
General Assembly 2008 Event 3046
Moderator: Gretchen Alther; Presenters: Quo Vadis Breaux, Derrick Evans, Shelley Moskowitz, Lisa Swanson, Rev. Jim VanderWheele
Gretchen Alther, Associate, Rights & Humanitarian Crises, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), framed the session by reminding us of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita which devastated environments in two states, emptied a major city, displaced 1.5 million people, and killed over 1,000. The aftermath has exposed the underbelly of our society by demonstrating how race and class affect people's ability to recover. The latest shameful episode int his sage involves the eviction of thousands who have been living in FEMA trailers, due to safety problems with the trailers.
Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have been generous, raising more than $3 million for recovery aid. This money has been distributed to the three UU churches in the New Orleans area and to over 40 area organizations helping people to return and to have a voice in the recovery. In nearly three years since the hurricanes, over 2,000 volunteers have made their way to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild.
Derrick Evans, of the Turkey Creek Community Initiative in Mississippi travels around the country in a FEMA trailer he calls the KatrinaRitaVilleExpress. He brought the trailer to the parking lot at General Assembly to bring attention to the ongoing plight of hurricane victims in two states. Housing, he said, was separated from environmental or justice conversations well before Katrina and Rita, a situation which the hurricanes only made worse. The problems in housing, economic and environmental justice, and education, highlighted by the ineffective recovery efforts were already widespread. He likens the debacle to an "epic biblical-type crisis." However, he felt it can become an instructive experience for us all. "We have been called," he said, "to deal with all the contributing issues concurrently." He reminded attendees that efforts need to keep the focus on New Orleans as a federal problem, not a local one.
Rev. Jim VanderWheele of the Community Church UU New Orleans, spoke about the three New Orleans UU churches forming a type of train., one which "has three cars, but more will come in the future." Continuing the metaphor, he said, "It's a 2-track train, rebuilding their churches and doing social justice work." VanderWheele described the widespread efforts of this work, which had included: medical and mental health care, assistance to the homeless, supporting affordable housing for renters, delivering furniture to people with housing, supporting the Rethink Schools program and promoting green classrooms and the use of fluorescents, and hosting monthly peace rallies and gatherings for local social activists to meet and coordinate efforts.
VanderWheele credited the UU Church of Baton Rouge for offering so much help to New Orleans churches, along with the growth in interfaith organizations. He stressed the importance of neighborhoods maintaining integrity through neighborhood associations. In this vein, he helped establish the non-profit Center for Ethical Living, providing opportunity for social activism groups to work together.
Quo Vadis Breaux, now Executive Director of the New Orleans Rebirth Volunteer Center, has been working with UUA/UUSC as Gulf Coast volunteer coordinator for over two years. She described how the itinerary for a volunteer rebuilding group has been designed. Most groups come for a week, from Saturday to Saturday. During this time, they visit New Orleans ' downtown, eat a fancy meal, and attend a church service. Then they take a tour which shows people how much of the area remains utterly devastated. Over the week, they partake in rebuilding efforts, where they make a small but significant contribution to the rehabilitation of the region. They also receive education through a curriculum which lets volunteers appreciate the size and scope of the problems, through conversation and home-cooked meals. She said that 95% of the volunteers find it a transformative experience, and many have returned for more than one week's work. The volunteer center is now renamed as the New Orleans Rebirth Center.
Shelley Moskowitz, Manager of Public Policy for UUSC, started by saying she was honored to be on the panel with such heroes as these present, who have helped so many people. Moskowitz described what Gulf Coast advocates are up against in the policy realm. She likened the situation to a shell game: your congressman says you need to talk to the governor, who says you need to talk to FEMA, who says you need HUD, who says talk to your congressman. Gulf Coast advocates have lately been told by members of Congress that they have "Katrina fatigue," that they are tired of hearing about the needs of New Orleans and Alabama. Unfortunately, victims are living their fatigue daily, and lack the option to turn their attentions elsewhere. Recently, Moskowitz noted with satisfaction, Congress held joint HUD and FEMA hearings on Capitol Hill. One NOLA victim testified "We're tired of hearing we need to 'pull ourselves up by our bootstraps'—we don't have any boots." Moskowitz felt the hearings would lead to decisive, if not belated, federal action. Her office at UUSC is focusing on affordable housing in their advocacy work. She assured the audience, "We didn't forget, it's not over, and we expect Washington to be responsive."
Over the past three years, recovery funds have been disbursed jointly by the UUA and UUSC. However, these two groups are now handing over authority to the New Orleans Rebirth Center. At the workshop, Rev. Meg Riley, Director of Advocacy & Witness, UUA, and Kim McDonald, UUSC senior associate for education and action, presented a check to Breau, representing the remaining $125,000, to continue their work.
Gretchen Alther closed the session by invoking these words, "If the test of a society is how we treat the most vulnerable among us, we have a long way to go."
Reported by Toby Haber; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.