'One of the things we realized, in a very deep way, was that we don't really understand what each other does," says Sarah Elise Lewis, a director of the community action group Common Knowledge. "Beforehand, I might have said that the Urban Conservancy has something to do with certain development, and Stay Local! has something to do with local economy. But I [didn't] really know exactly what they do."
In February, Lewis and Common Knowledge cofounder Karen Gadbois attended "The Prophetic City," a leadership retreat for New Orleans nonprofits sponsored by the Charlottesville, Va.-based Blue Moon Fund. Realizing the mutual need for collaboration "the need to get together and share with each other what we do, and to share the lessons that we're learning with other people in New Orleans and with other communities around the country," Lewis says Common Knowledge teamed with the Urban Conservancy and five other local organizations in May to form the New Orleans Institute. The collective's debut event, a free symposium on resilience and innovation titled "New Orleans Speaks," is set for Saturday, Oct. 25, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the University of New Orleans' Kirschman Hall (2000 Lakeshore Drive).
'One thing that a lot of us have in common is that we've received funding from Blue Moon, who saw our strengths and our weaknesses," says Dana Eness of the Urban Conservancy. "For some of us, they're the first national [sponsor] to take a chance on us. We're startups, we're unknowns, we're risky ventures. They really got us. They figured out what we're doing."
Eness says the model for the initial symposium came from the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference, held annually in Monterey, Calif. Among the 15 scheduled presenters at New Orleans Speaks is Gadbois, who will address social media, social activism and systemic change. "I had no idea what social media was," she admits, laughing. "I just read the definition: "primarily Internet-based tools for sharing information among human beings.' I like the idea that you would have to include that."
Gadbois, whose blog posts documenting home demolitions became an integral part of a federal investigation into New Orleans Affordable Housing (NOAH), says the basic tools of social media are now available to everyone. "My first introduction to a blog was while we were evacuating (for Hurricane Katrina)," she says. "The blog itself was what I call a memory project to document properties before they got demolished. Because of our ability to run around, photograph, document, blog and use (the photo-sharing site) Flickr, we kind of had a two-prong attack on getting the word out."
In August 2007, Gadbois recalls, a Wall Street Journal reporter Googled "demolitions in New Orleans." He found the Common Knowledge Web site (www.squanderedheritage.com). "Because we had faithfully documented this thing for an exhaustive amount of time, we were the first ones," Gadbois says. "Everyone's focused on the larger issues of recovery, like (Recovery Director Ed) Blakely's unfortunate comment about the cranes. But the smaller issues are where you find the details. That's been our motto. That's how it led into the NOAH discovery Sarah did a public records request and we started looking at the properties."
In addition to Eness and Gadbois, other presenters include Tina Marquardt of Beacon of Hope and Nathan Rothstein of New Orleans Young Urban Professionals (NOLA YURP). LaToya Cantrell of the Broadmoor Improvement Association will moderate a resilience roundtable in the morning session, and Miji Park of Idea Village will preside over an innovation discussion in the afternoon. There are also dramatic presentations and spoken-word performances scheduled throughout the day.
Institute members hope that, like TED, the symposium will become an annual tradition, drawing interest and participation from community leaders around the country. "I think the lessons about the urban condition that we're learning in New Orleans as a result of Katrina are things that exist in other places," Lewis says. "Everywhere has housing problems and health-care problems and education problems."
Lewis also stresses that the community will determine the direction taken for future New Orleans Institute events. "This is a jumping-off point for soliciting people to come onboard," she says. "Like, we built this boat come get on and tell us where you want to go."