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A Tale of Two Cities: From Detroit to New Orleans

By Madhavi Reddy, CDAD Strategic Framework Manager, on her trip to NOLA

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, I recently was able to travel to New Orleans with a group of grantees for a learning visit. The purpose of the visit was to learn from folks in New Orleans about their work in the years since Hurricane Katrina. The devastation experienced by New Orleans may not be an exact match to what is happening in Detroit, but there are strong parallels that can be found in each city’s rebuilding/revitalization efforts. We heard from folks working in community organizing, worker justice and education reform.

Both cities are strong African American majority cities. Both have had enormous cultural impact on the country and world. Both cities have a cool factor that others just don’t have. New Orleans gave us Jazz.  Detroit gave us Motown, techno and punk. Both cities have a palpable feeling of resilience. The people are friendly and they know how to get things done.

But there are other things these two great cities have in common. Both cities are impacted by policies and decisions that were decades in the making. Both cities have a large diaspora of people who used to call them home. Both cities are navigating rebuilding and revitalization. Both cities have been called a blank slate.

Our visit started with a rare chance to learn about a little known part of American history. We got an incredible opportunity to have dinner at the Golden Feather restaurant in the Treme neighborhood and were treated to an enlightening presentation by Mardi Gras Indian Chief, Shaka Zulu. We were taken on a journey of words which wove the pre-colonial history of African peoples in New Orleans to today’s New Orleans.  We learned about sacred rituals, resilience and Mardi Gras krewes.

During our community engagement discussion, we learned that in the days following Katrina, city planners proposed decommissioning certain neighborhoods. New Orleans has had three master planning processes with varying degrees of resident participation. Residents organized to fight for the very existence of their neighborhoods by working with organizations they trusted and organizing to push the City for a more equitable process for planning, including taking decommission off the table and creating opportunities for those who were displaced to participate.

Our conversations on worker justice reminded me that Detroit is lucky to have a history of organized labor that we can point to.  The worker justice movement in New Orleans has to build a culture where discussions about worker justice and employment standards are the norm. They spoke of legislation which has been devastating to communities.  This legislation is similar House Bill 4052.  They repeatedly warned us to not allow this kind of legislation to get passed in Michigan.

New Orleans is the only city in the country that has a 100% charter school system.  This has implications for the future of Detroit’s education system. After Katrina, many New Orleans public school teachers were displaced and could not come back.  Others were fired and replaced with less experienced teachers through programs like Teach for America. The work that education organizers are doing in New Orleans is complex and multi layered.  Education reform there involves: holding charter schools accountable to students and parents and communities, working with students to connect their lived experiences to systemic issues and resisting the school to prison pipeline by challenging zero tolerance policies and advocating for restorative justice programs.  New Orleans is the most incarcerated city in the world.

We ended the trip with a discussion about systemic issues which drive inequality in both cities.  We talked about how these drivers of inequality such as racism and classism manifest themselves in people’s daily lives through their lived experiences and the policies that enforce those systems.

After having some time to reflect, the main takeaways from my visit are:

  • Collaboration: we are going to have to get better at working together. The issues are bigger and the resources are too scare for any of us to do this alone.  We will have to build more collaborative tables and learn from those who do this kind of work well.
  • State-level organizing: some issues are bigger than Detroit.  We’re going to have to build alliances across the state if we are going to have impact on state-level policy.  This is an opportunity for CDAD members build stronger connections with CEDAM.
  • Planning and design: we need to ensure that the importance given to design and planning doesn’t take precedence over justice and human rights.  Good planning and design alone cannot create equity or healthy communities.  This is an opportunity to learn and ensure that all of our work is anti-racist and equitable.
  • The way we work: Are we willing to work with communities in ways that they want us to?  Are we willing to step aside to ensure leadership from the communities we work with are front and center?
  • Our industry is changing: we need to reevaluate our basic definitions of community development, organizing, engagement and planning.  Do our processes support community? Are we equipped to work in the current of Detroit’s landscape? What skills and knowledge do we need to do our work? This is an important opportunity to connect with CDAD’s System Reform work where some of this work is happening.

In New Orleans I felt a sense of camaraderie. Of kinship. The folks we met are working tirelessly for equity and justice.  People in Detroit know a little something about that.  They are working with few resources.  We know a little something about that too. They know how to get things done.  So do we.  Having a chance to reflect on that trip, the truth is, I don’t know how I feel.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversations we had.  I know we have a lot of work to do. Together.

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