In the ongoing struggle to fix the social, economic and political ills that plagued New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, the city is a more accepting and cooperative place than ever before, a panel of business and community leaders said Friday to an audience of young professionals from around the country.
In the final panel discussion of the Urban Next Summit, a two-day conference for young professionals hosted by CEOs for Cities and the local nonprofit NOLA YURP Initiative, panelists offered the audience lessons learned during the unprecedented wave of civic engagement and cooperation that followed Katrina.
Participants tried to evoke the sense of excitement and possibility that emerged after the hurricane, when New Orleanians attended weekend after weekend of planning sessions to determine how their neighborhoods should evolve as they were rebuilt. Panelists said that sense of engagement can be transplanted to other cities.
“One of the obligations for us in New Orleans is to get the word out that this is not a New Orleans problem,” said panelist Robbie Vitrano, president of Trumpet Advertising. “These are issues that every city is facing. It would be valuable if people looked at and came and interacted here. In that way, another community becomes a catalyst for thinking differently in your own community.”
Nolan Marshall III, associate director of the nonprofit Common Good and president-elect of the Young Leadership Council, said many residents have reached the point where civic participation no longer dominates their social lives, as it did after the storm. After attending so many planning meetings, he said, people are “planned out.”
However, that meeting mania gave citizens a solid understanding of the city’s bureaucracy, helping to make the job of community organizing more streamlined and focused, said Mai Dang, a community organizer for the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corp.
The citywide participation in planning and rebuilding also helped neighborhoods connect and find commonality across racial, religious and socio-economic lines, Marshall said.
“The conversations about how to rebuild are going on in all these communities, the organizing is going on in all these communities . . . but the steps they’re taking are all the same, which really surprised me,” he said, referring to New Orleans’ storied provincialism.
“New Orleans is a city that is beginning to realize that we are a lot more alike than we are different,” said Vera Triplett, director of the University of New Orleans-Capital One charter schools. The city has also become more accepting to newcomers, a development that could better attract new residents and businesses, he said.
“I hear people saying to someone who’s lived one, two years, ‘Oh, you’re a New Orleanian.’ Before the storm, you could live here 10, 20 years, if you weren’t born here and raised here, you were not a New Orleanian,” Marshall said.
Molly Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3448.