Aug 30 2007

Katrina and Women

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GUESTS: Sara K Gould, President of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and Almetra Franklin, CEO of St. Mary’s Community Action Agency, Louisiana Housing Alliance

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the gulf coast, the devastation left in its wake ignited discussions on race and even class in the United States. However, even as women were disproportionately affected by the storm, few experts connected gender to the debate. Many major Katrina related issues such as housing, redevelopment, and environmental degradation have taken their particular toll on low-income women and women of color. When speaking of the right to return and calling on the Federal Government to restore public housing, it is important to note that women-headed households accounted for 88 percent of public housing units lost in New Orleans before the storm hit. The majority of jobs lost due to Hurricane Katrina were overwhelmingly held by women and after the storm, women’s median income in New Orleans is significantly lower than that of their male counterparts. In Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch’s new report One Year After Katrina, Shana Griffin a Nola women’s organizer and national board member of incite, states that “it is important to not only offer services to the invisible women in the gulf but also challenge the conditions that limit our access and our opportunities, such as poverty, racism, gender-based violence, imperialism, and war.” Despite the hardships faced, women activists in the Gulf Coast region have been engaged over the past two years in the task of reviving their respective communities. Multi-pronged strategic grants from the Ms. Foundation for Women have been helpful in supporting numerous community-based Gulf Coast organizations predominantly lead by low-income women and women of color. Through supported efforts women in the Hurricane affected regions have been able to recover owned incomes as well as win women important seats on planning commissions.

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Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Joining us to talk about where the women of Nola are at two years after Katrina is Almetra Franklin, CEO of St. Mary’s Community Action Agency and the Louisiana Housing Alliance, and Sara K Gould, President of the Ms. Foundation for Women. Welcome.

Sara K Gould: Thank you.

Almetra Franklin: Thank you very much.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Well, Almetra, can you share with our listeners where you are from in New Orleans and what the women you live with are grappling with in your community.

Almetra Franklin: Actually, I’m from a rural community outside of New Orleans, about ninety miles. It’s St. Mary Parish and it is actually the municipalities of Franklin, Morgan City, Patterson, all within that jurisdiction. A lot of the women that came from New Orleans are now in St. Mary Parish. They have chosen to stay here. A lot of them want to go home, but there are no provisions for getting them and their children back into their home areas.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think one of the things in looking at what Shana was talking about is that you can’t really look at the way services are being offered to support women without first addressing the fact that the women were invisible. How did you feel that women in the Gulf were made invisible throughout the whole Katrina process, both immediately after the hurricane hit and in the corresponding months?

Almetra Franklin: Well, one of the things that I found most disturbing about the plight of women and children was that there were no specific projects available to them other than from nonprofits. As they start to work through FEMA and The Road Home and the Louisiana Housing Authority and all of the different projects that were set up, they were mostly directed toward two-parent households, and the plight of single parents, mostly headed by single African American women, were never a target group.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: That’s right. I also think that, mostly immediately after Katrina, when people were trying to find refuge, I think that there were lots of incidences of violence that happened towards women, whether it was by the National Guard or the police or even within the Superdome. How do you feel like some of that violence was tracked and has there been any accountability afterwards? And what are the women asking for in terms of accountability and support for healing afterwards?

Almetra Franklin: I tell you, we heard a lot of that and a lot of the ladies that we did the [inaudible] management with they discussed it, some of them were traumatized by that, but because they had a more immediate need that was survival, having housing for their children, making sure the children got in at a good school and that they got jobs or had some source of income coming in, that was not our first priority with the women. Our first priority with the women was making sure that they had shelter, that they had a place to stay and that the children were able to get into school. However, the second part of that was that we tried to provide some counseling for some of the ladies and develop support groups where they could talk about some of the experiences that they had. Like one lady told me she had not been able to sleep at night, because she remembers seeing a baby drown during the time she was trying to get out of the hurricane path.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I want to turn to you Sara. You are President of the Ms. Foundation. I want to talk about, how did the Ms. Foundation get involved in supporting the women in the Gulf, and what were some of the challenges you faced in being able to give the people that needed the resources right at the point of need?

Sara K Gould: Well, the Ms. Foundation responded immediately the weekend that the levies broke, and New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was in such an unconscionable situation. Because it is very related to our mission, it’s core to our mission to be working with and responding to those most in need, and particularly women of color and low-income women and we work at the intersection of race, class and gender. So we began to raise money immediately and we reached out to our grantees in the region, those we already had, and got some emergency funding down to them, including organizations working with women on HIV and Aids, working on sexual assault, domestic violence. The shelters, of course, in New Orleans and in other places across the coast were devastated and were out of business, so there was much that needed to be responded to immediately. We thought that our longer term niche was in recovery and rebuilding. And we had a vision that, when an area and a region has been so decimated that, perhaps, it opens up space for there to be new kinds of conversations and new voices that have not been at tables before, able to come forward. And that has been pushing our work for the last two years; we have now granted about two million dollars on the Gulf Coast to a variety of organizations that are working on issues from daycare to housing to representation and civic participation in general. And I wanted to make one comment on the invisibility of women. Of course it goes back to before the hurricanes. Women are invisible and African American women, low-income women and other women of color are even more invisible than white women in our society because of this intersection of sexism and racism and all of the other barriers that are put in the way in our democracy towards real equal participation, towards working towards a more equal representation and participation for everyone.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: And I want to just repeat the fact that I think that it is really invisible to the media and invisible in terms of the policy makers, but not invisible in terms of New Orleans and really in our larger society. And I wanted to self-correct on that because, in just going back to the statistics, it was amazing that in so much of the covers that happened in terms of the housing that was lost, that there were very few main-stream media outlets that noted that 80% of the public housing units that were lost were lead by women. To me, I think that’s just as unconscionable. And I want to go back to you, Almetra. How have you seen women being able to come to the table differently in the reconstruction process, and has that changed, and what do you think are some of the challenges that women are facing?

Almetra Franklin: Well, one of the things that I saw that I had not seen before is women being more vocal. Before, you know, even with the Head Start Program and the housing movement not only in my work area, which is, again, mostly rural, but throughout the state, women were not coming to the table per se to discuss those issues about housing and the need for housing and how we need it to ramp up and really have a section of houses that was dedicated to ladies, to single households, to mothers with children. But women have really been coming to the table. I think Katrina really forced the issue with women and it made them understand that, I am going to have to speak up for myself and for my children.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Almetra, for people that want to support women in the Gulf and who don’t really know what it’s like in the Gulf, how can people best support the work that you are doing? And, once again, if you can give us some stories about what women are dealing with and their challenges. I think that would really help paint the picture for our audience.

Almetra Franklin: A lot of the ladies that we work with who came out of New Orleans and the surrounding areas are still having a really rough time locating permanent housing. We still have a lot of these families who are in the FEMA trailers. There are currently some issues with the trailers about formaldehyde and the safeness of those trailers. We are trying to move those families back to New Orleans who wish to go there, but there is no housing there. Let me say that.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I mean, it’s incredible that, two years after, you still have people living in temporary housing.

Almetra Franklin: Exactly right. And for the ladies who have chosen to relocate to rural communities, or communities like mine, there is no housing available because we had an influx of additional residents in our area that caused the already strained housing market to just burst open. Therefore, what we are trying to do is develop housing that can assist these families. Public housing authorities have units that have been boarded up and closed up, what they have done and put on their agenda is to rehabilitate those units and open them up so that these families would have the opportunities to have at least some sort of normalcy in terms of housing. Living in a FEMA trailer is not a normal scenario for a family.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: That’s right. And you had mentioned about the shift of people being displaced into the rural parishes outside of the city, what has that been like culturally? Is it a cultural shift, is it an economic shift?

Almetra Franklin: As I always tell my clients, it’s like for those that are not used to being in this rural setting, it’s like a culture shock, because in the inner cities, they were able to catch the bus system, to walk to many of the services that they needed, but because we are in a rural area, everything is so spread out and the amount of transportation that is available is very limited. Therefore, we had to address that issue. How are we gonna get our clients from point A to point B? And we even had to do some innovative stuff like, for an example, we have a program called [inaudible] for cars, where those working mothers who decide they want to go through a financial literacy project, at the end of six months, they can get a car. It’s a used car, but it’s a relatively good car. It’s a donated car to help them to get around and be able to go do things with their children, extracurricular things with the children, to even seek out spirituality if they want to go to church on Sundays. They will have a form of transportation. Because again, in the rural community, what you see in the city is so different.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Sara, I wanted to go with you, because I wanted to really see, how are you trying to link the different strategies of your funding in the Gulf in terms of going from policy strain and structural change to the kind of internal transformative work and have you been successful and what are some of the challenges around that?

Sara K Gould: There are many challenges around it, because of course women like Almetra are working day in and day out on the most pressing needs and also at the same time trying to think of how to solve problems for the future. We have combined in our work both the grant making to get money out to leaders and to organizations with some gathering and bringing people together for certain kinds of activities, for instance two or three weeks ago we brought together some of our grantees to learn about making radio documentaries so that they could get these stories out that you speak of that are so powerful. And all the stories that if we had the time, even more time to listen to Almetra, she could tell about herself and the women she has been working with. So, we have combined our grant making with other kinds of activities and I’m in New Orleans right now and two nights ago went to a gathering organized by one of our grantees, the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation, led by Melanie Campbell, and we have supported them to be gathering women throughout the region in the three states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. About 60 or 75 of those women were brought to New Orleans for these couple of days of commemoration. And two nights ago, they had a celebratory dinner, honoring all of these women for the role that each one of them has played, which was articulated during the dinner. It’s overwhelming, but it is a process of healing, of emotional healing and of spiritual healing and moving forward on a day-by-day basis to try to confront all of the issues and problems that exist, to deal with the anger that you have and to keep a sense of hope at the same time.

Almetra Franklin: And I just want to jump in and say that for us, being a Ms. Foundation grantee, the dollars that they provided us was really a godsend. I tell you, you know, we get some state and some federal funding for some specific programs, but nobody had ever laid anything out there to direct those dollars toward assisting women in those ways that are non-traditional, like making sure that the families have transportation, that they have somebody to come in and do counseling with them, and even to get them to the table. For an example, we took some of the ladies with us to Baton Rouge, to a committee that was being held in Baton Rouge with the legislators to talk about the failure of the rebuilding of New Orleans. And some of those ladies had never been to the capital before, they did not know what a committee session would look like, but they got the opportunity to see first-hand the workings and even how policies are made and how those policies affect you and your family. It’s that kind of empowerment the Ms. Foundation is allowing our agency to do with the grants that they make to us. And not only the grants, but they provide us with marketing and advertisement that put our agencies out there so other funders can know that we are here, that we are doing this work, but we need dollars to support our efforts.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: And I think it’s, you know, unfortunate, but I definitely think it’s one of the realities of organizing in the United States, that foundations are picking up a lot of the gap where actually the government and state services and other agencies really should be showing leadership. And I think that part of whatever organizing strategy we have, while it can be foundation-based, we still need to be self-determined and really hold our government accountable, because our taxes are paying for something, and it’s clearly not for us.

Almetra Franklin: And that’s why directing attention to policies and policy issues is so important to us. And again, to some of our legislators and the people who are making these major decisions, a lot of these women are just faceless and nameless, but we can bring their story to the table. We can bring their voices to the table through organizations like ours and other grantees that are out there working and are trying to make a difference.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Well, Almetra, we are going to have to wrap up this segment, but, before we do, I wanted to leave our listeners with a forward look at some of the policies that you are working on to support women’s rights in the region. Is there one or two you could reference for our listeners before we close?

Almetra Franklin: Sure. The big thing with us right know is housing. We are concerned about women having adequate housing and affordability means everything to the people we serve. We are working with the Louisiana Housing Alliance and the Louisiana Housing Authority, to develop a housing trust fund for Louisiana and a part of that trust fund would be directed to women who are heads of households, who have children in the house, who want to become home owners.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Alright, and can people visit you on the web? Is there a website were people can see the work you are doing?

Almetra Franklin: My website is under construction right now. It was so old and outdated that we had to take it down to put some of the good things that we had available. So it’s under construction right now, but I expect that in the next about three weeks it’s gonna be up, but just let me get that website out there. It’s

Sara K Gould: And let me put out the Ms. Website where you can hear these radio documentaries and read more stories of the grantee leaders like Almetra that we are funding. That is

Almetra Franklin: And it’s a wonderful reference for us and for our clients, because when they can’t get to our website, we tell them go to and you can see some of the work we are doing there.

Special Thanks to Claudia Greyeyes for transcribing this interview

One response so far

One Response to “Katrina and Women”

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