Orleans. It’s a huge challenge and a remarkable opportunity. But experience
tells us that the issue won’t be physical reconstruction, it will be how we
re-construct communities. That will be the subject of maneuvering, debate and
Many are commenting on how to re-build New Orleans. It’s a huge challenge and a remarkable opportunity. But experience tells us that the issue won’t be physical reconstruction, it will be how communities are re-constructed. That will be the subject of maneuvering, debate and public policy. But will it be inclusive and create even better, stronger communities than before the flood? That’s the question.
Writing in The Nation, Naomi Klein says, New Orleans could be reconstructed by and for the very people most victimized by the flood. Schools and hospitals that were falling apart before could finally have adequate resources; the rebuilding could create thousands of local jobs and provide massive skills training in decent paying industries. Rather than handing over the reconstruction to the same corrupt elite that failed the city so spectacularly, the effort could be led by groups like Douglass Community Coalition. Before the hurricane this remarkable assembly of parents, teachers, students and artists was trying to reconstruct the city from the ravages of poverty by transforming Frederick Douglass Senior High School into a model of community learning. They have already done the painstaking work of building consensus around education reform. Now that the funds are flowing, shouldn’t they have the tools to rebuild every ailing public school in the city?
Involving members of the community in the reconstruction of the community will provide insight and creativity that was obviously missing prior to the flood. Grassroots community development is the method used by international non-profit organizations such as Church World Service to reconstruct communities outside the United States not only when catastrophe strikes but also when the organization confronts the ongoing crisis of poverty. Grassroots empowerment results in amazing things.
I’ve seen villagers who can’t read or write band together to create development plans that empower whole communities. I recall a poignant conversation on the island of Madasgascar a few years ago when a senior leader dressed in a tattered purple T-shirt and well-worn trousers explained to the the benefits of having a road cut through the mountain pass that made it impossible for the village to get its garden products to a local market.
The road, he explained, made it possible for villagers to safely walk to the regional town where there was not only a market but also a health clinic and schools. he explained how isolation has kept the village poor and unhealthy.
But his most important point was that the children suffer. Lacking health care, education and running water, he said, they don’t have a good start in life. His goal was to build a school so that future generations would be better prepared for surviving in a changing world.
Later in the day, he walked me to a new building under construction and proudly showed me the new school about which he had dreamed.
What does this have to do with New Orleans? I suspect that the leaders who could help create a new, vital, inclusive and functional community already exist within the people of the city. But many of them are poor and have been shut out of the halls of power. They don’t have the ear of the mayor or governor and it’s more than clear they don’t have the ear of the national administration.
But their knowledge of the pitfalls of the failed educational and health systems, along with their experiences with city and state services provides an invaluable experience base and deep research about human needs in the city. Given the appropriate support and professional backup in city planning, and working in a truly participatory process with others concerned for the city, they can be trusted to rebuild a human community that will be far more inclusive and functional.
The leaders of the national administration have demonstrated their incapacity at community-building in Iraq. They compounded the perception of their incompetence with the evacuation of New Orleans. Trusting the people and empowering those with the greatest stake in rebuilding the city, those who lived there, is not such a wild-haired idea. In fact, it may be the most practical and sensible one that is being advanced today.
Lately, I’ve come to the belief that one of the most significant contributions the mainline communions can make to the current national dialogue is their commitment to inclusive, participatory community. The United Methodist Church, for example, started with small study groups that were methodical not only in their Bible study but also in their outreach to the poor. They were instructed by John Wesley, the denomination’s founder, how to go about this outreach and even how much to contribute to the needs of both the ill and the poor.
The expertise of urban ministers in central cities is an invaluable body of knowledge as well. I’m coming to the belief that the church is well positioned to participate in this process of community-building and, given its expertise in grassroots empowerment, may be better suited to leading the conversation than many political and civic leaders.