[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
Nearly fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast of the United States. In a matter of days, more than 2,000 people died or went missing, and at least 1.5 million New Orleans residents fled the city to wait for the water to recede. Almost 500,000 people remain in diaspora—nearly one in three pre-Katrina New Orleans residents—the majority of whom were part of an historic African-American community that has been part of the city for generations. For these and other historically marginalized peoples along the Gulf coast, the impact of Katrina the natural disaster was multiplied by the unnatural and ongoing disasters of racism and other forms of systemic oppression already present in the region. These complex and overlapping issues made responding to Katrina an extremely challenging process, the impact of which continues today.
This article is based on primary source documents and secondary evaluations of MCC’s response to Katrina, which began in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. As per MCC’s memorandum of understanding with Mennonite Disaster Service, in which MDS responds to disasters in the United States and Canada and MCC responds to disasters elsewhere in the world, MDS undertook the initial Mennonite disaster response to Katrina. Yet it soon became clear that Katrina’s devastation was unprecedented. MDS invited MCC to respond with material and financial resources in partnership with MDS and other agencies. These groups provided a timely response that local partners said effectively met immediate human needs. Later evaluations, however, raised questions about the long-term impact of the humanitarian response. A review of these evaluations reveals how Katrina offers an important yet challenging lesson on how default patterns and modes of institutional operation can at times contribute to furthering harm in a community instead of contributing to its healing.
In the case of MCC’s response to Katrina, a gap between good intentions and actual effect emerged. Evaluations suggested that during the early stages of Katrina, MCC struggled as an institution to contend with deficiencies in its cultural competence and with its internalized racism. In particular, MCC diminished the role that local people of color in affected communities could have in shaping the response. Evaluations found that decision-making that shaped MCC’s response was generally nested in MCC offices far from the community, directed by staff and leadership who were predominantly white, Mennonite and male, rather than with those who had the most at stake in carrying out a response that was fitting to the scale and type of disaster that Katrina was.
After the initial phase, MCC U.S. Peace & Justice staff formed a group called the Katrina Listening Process (KLP) to address the deep and emerging concerns over the devastation of Katrina and MCC’s response to it. The KLP’s vision was to “create mutually authentic and healthy relationships by following the wisdom in local communities in shaping this and future projects . . . and to lovingly challenge the institution to respond in accordance with its commitment to become an anti-racist organization.”
In subsequent months, the KLP carried out interviews and consultations in New Orleans and other Gulf communities. KLP members heard stories of communities of color affected by Katrina, many of whom noted how external material and financial aid during the crisis weighed heavily on their communities. While many interviewees expressed appreciation for the immediate resources, they also acknowledged that the overwhelming influx of people and resources amounted to what one hurricane survivor called “generosity chaos,” noting how the response increased the burden on their communities. Another survivor commented on the difficulty of dealing with the trauma of losing one’s home, community and land, while also managing the trauma of newly arrived outsiders who sought to help. What was missing in the response, these interviewees said, was an abiding commitment to receive direction from affected communities, and, specifically, to address their concerns about the systemic displacement and dispossession unfolding right before their eyes.
What these affected communities saw as critical to an appropriate humanitarian response was not merely the provision of material and financial aid, but the need for intense advocacy and organizing around core issues of systemic oppression. In the aftermath of Katrina, African-American communities faced the tangible erasure of their community, a reality in which their very homes and neighborhoods were being wiped out. They were concerned about the prevalence of police activity that led to the random arrest and detention of community members. They had anxiety about the increasing interest among newcomers in rebuilding and “revitalizing” a community that was historically their home, a concern that rebuilding would mask gentrification, if not the economic and cultural blockade of historic New Orleanian return. These concerns sadly ended up being well-founded. Good-intentioned responses but wrongly directed actions contributed to systemic forms of erasure and dispossession.
This of course does not mean that the entire story of MCC’s Katrina response is one of harm. The KLP did result in some thoughtful redirection. A discernment process was established, for instance, that would enable local community members to provide input into the unfolding MCC response. Systemic issues were identified and named, shifting the response from meeting immediate needs to following partners who confronted them. Thoughtful staff carried out further listening and sought to craft an anti-racist response. MCC’s Washington, D.C., office became active on some issues connected to Katrina, such as advocating for greater access to low cost, affordable housing. Nonetheless, the KLP did not have the enduring impact that its participants imagined it would. Many who were part of the process felt that MCC dedicated too little effort to the work of listening and reshaping institutional patterns. Evaluations show that the KLP closed without a clear sense among its members that MCC as an institution had learned from its mistakes.
Despite its limited effect, the KLP offers lessons that MCC grapples with today. It reminds us, for instance, that communities most affected by disasters intimately know what they need. Local knowledge and expertise, especially among the most oppressed and marginalized segments of a community, represent the genius and imagination that are critical for community resilience. One might imagine how a response may have looked, for instance, if poor, African American matriarchs from one of New Orleans’ powerful and historic communities were taking the lead in determining desired outcomes of humanitarian responses at the beginning.
To adequately listen to the knowledge of marginalized communities depends on MCC’s capacity as an institution for authentic relationships with local communities, including communities of color. The KLP shows that when an organization is preparing for a long-term project or responding to an emergency crisis, healthy, authentic, anti-racist and actively nurtured relationships matter—critically. Relationships enable the listening that is essential for the most crucial elements of an effective response—and listening is even more critical in the context of disaster.
The KLP also recognized that without internally transformative, ongoing work rooted in a deep commitment to anti-racism, challenging old patterns and habits that under pressure cause harm proves difficult. Lenses and skill-sets for working in anti-racist ways need to be widely shared across MCC. In short, the capacity for anti-racist accompaniment depends to a large extent on MCC’s willingness to struggle with its own cultural patterns and habits of internalized and institutional racism. In the absence of such a struggle, there remains inevitable risk of doing harm.
Finally, the KLP shows precisely why institutional memory and the lessons of the past matter. MCC had a unit off-and-on for nearly twenty-five years in New Orleans, carrying out anti-racism work. This history, however, did not extensively shape MCC’s response to Katrina. As another evaluation observed, institutions like MCC must prioritize story-keeping. Lessons of the past must be preserved so that future workers might meaningfully reclaim and learn from them, and thereby better see the pitfalls of patterned paths and institutional habits in the future.
When the next disaster strikes, will MCC respond differently? Some of our learning indicates that we may. One must be mindful, however, of the ways that historical critique is easier than contending with the present. The KLP offers a reminder that a truly anti-racist organization must continually struggle to change. To that end, the KLP and other learning processes like it represent the internal criticism that is necessary for MCC to persist in a difficult struggle towards becoming an institution capable of anti-racist work.
Andrew C. Wright is program director for MCC Central States.
Chambers, Robert. Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last. Second Edition. London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1999.
Crutcher, Jr., Michael E. Tremé: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
Enarson, Elaine. “Women and Girls Last? Averting the Second Post-Katrina Disaster,” Social Science Research Council. June 11, 2006. Available at https://items.ssrc.org/understanding-katrina/women-and-girls-last-avertingthe-second-post-katrina-disaster/
Gavin, Alice. “Reading Katrina: Race, Space and an Unnatural Disaster,” New Political Science, 30/3 (September 2008): 325-346.
Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador, 2008.
Woods, Clyde A. Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Eds. Jordan T. Camp and Laura Pulido. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2017.