An edited version of this post was published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) in the Summer 2015 edition of its Responsive Philanthropy newsletter.
A CITY OF TWO TALES
Local responses to the upcoming commemoration of Hurricane Katrina have been decidedly mixed. Some who lived through the storm and its aftermath are anxious. They expect many of the images and stories in the media to be painful. They have their own memories of homes and neighborhoods destroyed and loved ones lost. Some harbor a grief that has never cycled through its stages or been properly resolved.
Others see an opportunity to show the city in its glad rags, having come so far in so many ways from the destruction that millions witnessed on their television sets. Ironically, a new levee system makes New Orleans one of the best-protected coastal cities in the United States. There’s a strong ecosystem for entrepreneurs. The city is open for business.
Certainly one of the casualties of the storm will be a nuanced account of what happened in the ten years after Katrina made landfall. As Thomas Kuhn famously remarked, there are no theory-neutral observations. Each of us will see these events through the filter of our own worldviews, our “theories” of how to interpret the mundane and the extraordinary. Our assessment of the progress New Orleans has made since 2005 will be shaped (some might say “distorted”) by our own agendas. As the tenth anniversary of Katrina approaches, many of the stories served to us will be in the style of Dickens, brimming with rogues and children in rags. Others will be triumphalist tales with titles like, “The Five Things Successful People Do After An Unprecedented Catastrophe.”
Let the reader beware. My own prejudices and obsessions will become apparent soon enough.
THE PHILANTHROPIC RESPONSE TO KATRINA
The official Katrina@10 observances will rightly commemorate the individuals who lost their lives and livelihoods in the storm. During these somber occasions we’ll mourn the citizens who left the region and never returned, and we’ll count our own lucky stars. We’ll also take the opportunity to thank once again the individuals, families, foundations, church groups, businesses, and others who contributed so much to the reconstruction and rebirth of New Orleans. There are still thousands of volunteers who return year after year to put up houses or paint ramshackle schools. I’m still moved when I see them, walking back to their hotels from their labors. The locals toot their horns at them and wave in appreciation.
I’ve been a frequent critic of the philanthropic sector. I’ve poked fun at pompous CEOs and bloviating program officers. In the spirit of self-improvement, we can legitimately raise the question of whether or not, in response to Katrina, organized philanthropy did the right things in the right measure. We can justifiably ask what $3 billion in private contributions accomplished for New Orleans’ most vulnerable citizens. I’m happy for the field to engage these questions, but prefer that this happen some other time, perhaps, in some other essay.
More pressing, I believe, is the question of why, when current realities are as harrowing as anything we might have witnessed ten years ago, we lavish so much attention on the past. If a normally constituted human being had eight fingers instead of ten, we’d have finished our commemorations two years ago and have a good head start on forgetting, once again, the lessons of 2005.
A TALE OF TWO ZIP CODES
Rather than drag the reader through the entire chamber of horrors, let me focus on a representative statistic,* published three short years ago in a report titled, Place Matters for Health in Orleans Parish:** “Life expectancy in the poorest zip code in the city is 54.5 years, or 25.5-years lower than life expectancy in the zip code with the least amount of poverty in the city, where it is 80.”
I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which of these ZIP codes is predominantly black and which is predominantly white.
And I invite the reader to slow his or her headlong rush through this article and allow that one statistic to sink in a bit. Twenty-five and a half years. The difference in life expectancy between males and females in the United States is currently about five years. This should be enough to get our attention. Perhaps like me you’ve wondered why this difference in life expectancy hasn’t generated more hand-wringing, more conference panels, more calls to action. A ten-year difference in life expectancy would be nothing short of a national scandal. A fifteen-year difference would be unthinkable.
But twenty-five and a half years? Here we have a kind of Katrina unaccompanied by torrents of rain. Here’s an implacable flood driving the poor in our city to deaths that are obscenely premature.
The Negro spiritual bids us to
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water
What an image for a city that still experiences the trauma of too much water! What an act of faith our obedience requires, for we’re told that it’s God’s angel who troubles the water, and it’s this act that brings healing to those who wade in.
What kind of healing do we need to feel the full weight of that solitary number: twenty-five and a half? What can foundations do to help trouble the water a bit, to quicken our pulses at the idea that our neighbors might be dying twenty-five years before we do?
Ten years ago, I watched events in New Orleans unfold from a safe distance. I was living in Washington, DC, at the time and my fellow Washingtonians and I clucked our tongues at the images on our TV screens. Some of us remarked that ‘there for the grace of God goes Washington, D.C.’ We shared a sense that black lives appeared to matter as little in our nation’s capital as they did in the American South.
Is there perhaps some way that philanthropy can help us remember the present more vividly than we recall the past?
A CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER
If you work at a foundation, if you have the privilege of funding the good people who help us remember the present, please know that much is expected of us. A higher consciousness, a greater sense of urgency, a more robust response to current suffering and injustice.
Years ago, I sat with a group of academics, one of whom described the research he had just conducted on the role of philanthropy in the Civil Rights Movement. His primary conclusion was that foundations had initially been circumspect and very slow on the draw.# They came around eventually, as they did with many progressive movements, when all the difficult work had already been done. And even then, they played a minor role.
I, the self-appointed spokesman for organized philanthropy, was indignant. I knew personally of many foundations that had taken risks to advance the cause of social justice. Here in front of me was yet another uninformed foundation-basher. But still his thesis gnawed at me, and the more I tried to negate it, the more clearly I saw how the exceptions proved the rule.
The Movement for Gender Equality, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring—we let them spend their rage and bury their dead. After that, we convened them and funded those who knew how to speak to their betters. This was photo op philanthropy, the kind that smiles for the camera as it places one foot on a trophy that others had the courage to bag. Perhaps this will happen with the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps it too will devolve into an endless series of convenings in cold hotel meeting rooms, a polite request to stop the killing, an infographic or two.
The foundation response to Katrina was very different. It was not at all photo op philanthropy but rather something sacred. It might not have been perfectly strategic (whatever that means), but it came very much from the heart and therefore had its own kind of perfection. I know the overwhelming majority of my fellow New Orleanians share my gratitude for the generosity of so many.
The problems with organized philanthropy—the work of foundations and the like—are more systemic; they extend far beyond our attempts to respond to any one disaster. These problems explain why it’s the Pope, rather than a foundation president, who’s deemed by Fox News to be the most dangerous person on the planet. Understanding this slight to our field should presently be occupying the greatest minds in philanthropy.
For now, dear reader: If you’re moved to do so, make your pilgrimage to New Orleans this summer. Give us an opportunity to thank you again. We can mourn together for the dead. And, most importantly, arm in arm, we can find a way to honor the dignity of those who are thankfully still with us.
* For a broader picture of “Inclusion” in the New Orleans metro area, see The New Orleans Index at Ten: Measuring Greater New Orleans’ Progress Toward Prosperity, available from the Data Center website.
** Prepared by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Orleans Parish Place Matters Team in conjunction with the Center on Human Needs, Virginia Commonwealth University Virginia Network for Geospatial Health Research. The full report is available at https://www.orleansplacematters.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/CHER-Final-text.pdf.
# There were some notable exceptions. Cf. https://ncrp.org/campaigns-research-policy/36-campaigns-research-a-policy/1081-freedom-funders-philanthropy-and-civil-rights-movement.