Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge Hurricane Recovery Efforts Build Right Relationships
Immediately following the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast and the inadequate relief response of federal, state, and local agencies, the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge (UCBR) established a Hurricane Relief and Social Justice Project. They hired a project director and began connecting volunteers with service providers and rebuilding projects.
The scope of relief needed was broad and the institutional hurdles huge. Those hurdles included institutionalized racism, and as the congregation grappled with the inequities of hurricane relief on the gulf coast, they broadened their efforts to include advocacy. UCBR intentionally partnered with community groups led by people of color including ACORN, All Congregations Together (ACT), Neighborhood Housing Services, the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, and People's Hurricane Relief, with the goal of acquiring adequate resources to aid a just recovery in the Gulf region. In addition to advocating for resources, it became clear that they would also need to organize for policy change to make a just recovery possible.
In order to prepare and mobilize the congregation, the UCBR Social Concerns Committee launched an educational program in January entitled "Race, Class and Katrina." The three-part series had participants examine conditions in the New Orleans metro area both before and after Katrina as well as institutional response and recovery. Participants read Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Michael Eric Dyson and Race Matters by Cornel West. They listened to a sermon, delivered by John Dominic Crossan at the Baton Rouge church, which focused on the difference between distributive justice and retributive justice. The final session focused on envisioning and realizing social transformation. It was followed by a two-hour advocacy training the following week.
Baton Rouge is what's known in the Gulf Coast area as a large 'receiver community.' With so many evacuees landing in Baton Rouge, there is a zero vacancy rate for rental property; home property values have 'shot through the roof'; and the need for affordable housing is severe. This housing crisis has been identified by New Orleans community organizations as a major issue hampering the restoration of the Jazz city, a huge impediment to residents' right to return to their homes. The obstacles are numerous: from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)'s decision not to reopen public housing—and in fact to demolish much of it—to the red tape homeowners have encountered in dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and insurance companies; the lack of capital coming into the Gulf region; and the inadequate governmental response to disaster and recovery needs. African Americans and other communities of color have been the hardest hit by all these circumstances and they, and many others, believe their experience is an illustration of how institutional racism operates.
"Affordable housing was at the top of everyone's list—faith groups, community organizations, and service provides partners, " says Rev. Marilee Baccich, director of UCBR's relief project. "So when Public Allies of Louisiana offered to place an advocacy staff person with our project we all jumped at the chance." They hired William Winters, an Americorps volunteer, to coordinate their advocacy and organizing efforts toward obtaining affordable housing.
Two members of the Baton Rouge congregation are part of the East Baton Rouge Parish Long-Term Community Recovery Team. They, and Winters, helped organize an Affordable Housing Summit on February 1 that brought advocates, service providers, government agencies, and private financiers together to tackle the vast problem. The summit included several important break-out sessions. One focused on bringing national sources of funding to private developers to aid in the recovery; another coached participants on ways of developing legislative policy solutions to support a just return of residents to communities (such as mandated inclusionary zoning for required percentages of rehabilitation of current housing stock, and new construction dedicated to affordable housing). The results of the summit are being brought to the Mayor of Baton Rouge at the end of this month.
Next steps for the organizers include going to a sub-committee of the Louisiana House of Representatives to advocate for the establishment of the inclusionary zoning policy and building grassroots support for recommendations made to the Mayor. Members of the congregation are participating in a broad variety of ways: from helping plan strategy to organizing visits, writing letters, and making phone calls to their Representatives. With Winters' help they have established the UCBR Advocacy Alliance and an advocacy email list. Bruce Blaney, chair of the social concerns committee, describes the work this way: "We are showing up as allies in solidarity not charity. Working in partnership has taught us to be followers as well as leaders. And it has created an opportunity for us to be in right relationship with marginalized communities."
Rev. Steve Crump, the congregation's minister, says the congregation's long-time participation in the multiracial congregation-based community organization Working Interfaith Network (WIN) prepared them to be good allies to communities of color. "For many years we have participated in multiracial organizing as people of faith. We've lobbied for funds for public education, youth programming, and most recently, community policing."
Winters, when asked about his experience working for and with the congregation, says, "I see great potential in the UCBR community for envisioning and creating positive change. I look forward to continuing my work with the congregation on social and racial justice matters."
Troi Bechet of New Orleans' Neighborhood Housing Service reports, "UCBR's Weekend Warriors, and the volunteer teams they coordinate, are helping refurbish a house that will serve as a cultural community center for the city's 7th Ward. They have also been instrumental in getting Genesis Missionary Baptist Church re-opened. Genesis serves a predominantly low-income African American community. The church will be providing a camp this summer—a sorely needed community service. And the church serves as a venue for the arts while residents of the 7th Ward, formerly a haven for artists in the city, await the building of a community center. Bringing back venues for our culture—second line [parades], Mardi Gras—has been a healing act for our community. The partnership with the Unitarian Universalists has really helped us move forward."
Many states in the U.S. have state policy zoning requirements which promote affordable housing but Louisiana does not. Louisiana activists are basing their proposed legislation on a Massachusetts policy, MA40B. Other state affordable housing policies include the expansion of the low-income housing trust fund (PDF); changes in the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency rules; and the establishment of a statewide planning policy for inclusionary zoning that will encourage or mandate affordable housing construction.