|NATIONAL | fall 2006
Homegrown women activists bring hope to New Orleans
A year after hurricane Katrina battered Louisiana, it’s still difficult to map the needs of the city of New Orleans or to quantify its progress toward recovery. But one thing is for certain, according to Suzanne Dietzel, director of the Women’s Resource Center at Loyola University New Orleans: Grassroots activism and leadership by women have been responsible for measurable progress in restoring quality of life in New Orleans.
She cites, for example, the work of Pam Dashiell, an activist in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood who’s working to close the MR-GO canal—a waterway that significantly contributed to that area’s flooding. And that of educator Cherice Harrison-Nelson—a Mardi Gras Indian who is working to preserve her African American group’s elaborate, 200-year-old costuming and parading traditions.
Then there’s Becky Currence, a member of Women of the Storm, a group started this past January. At that time, the city was, in effect, being snubbed by the U.S. government— few senators or U.S. representatives had come to visit, which Currence and her group felt was essential in understanding the extent of the problem. So they invited them. At last count, 55 senators and 100 representatives have taken the Women of the Storm up on their offer.
She recalls the reaction of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who took their tour after publicly questioning whether the city should be rebuilt at all: “I’ve seen things here I never expected to see in my country in my lifetime,” he told the women. Women of the Storm have also visited Washington, where they screened a Louisiana-produced documentary, Washing Away, on the threat posed by the erosion of the coastal wetlands (which provide a storm surge barrier).
Many frustrations remain, of course. One notable setback has been the dissolution of Newcomb College as a degree-granting entity. The 120- year-old women’s college at Tulane University—the first such school to be founded within an American university— was reconstituted as the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College Institute in the aftermath of the storm. (Many believed that Katrina was used as an excuse to make the change, which received much criticism from alumnae.) According to Crystal Kile, education coordinator at Newcomb’s Center for Research on Women, the months of uncertainty following the announcement of Tulane’s decision in December of 2005 interfered with potential post-Katrina projects.
“We didn’t have the time or resources to educate our vast and powerful network of alumnae and get projects going,” says Kile. “[Instead] the energy went to the threat against Newcomb.” Kile finally feels able to mobilize students for the ongoing relief effort, and they’re working with Eve Ensler’s V-Day Foundation, who will produce a massive V-Day 10th-anniversary event at the New Orleans Superdome in April 2008.
“In the end, day-to-day life is just a huge thing,” says Dietzel of New Orleans today. “School. Shopping. Getting groceries. Keeping your head above water. The biggest accomplishment is really just a series of small ones—it’s that moment when a woman says, ‘I’m taking this into my own hands.’ And that has happened here, across race, class and generations, from uptown matrons to Ninth Ward teenagers.”