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Very Honorable Mentions 

Citizen activists are reshaping New Orleans as they lead efforts to rebuild it

The year 2006 saw so many people step forward for New Orleans that we found it necessary to point out some very honorable mentions for the title of New Orleanian of the Year. Our city is truly blessed to have seen the efforts of the citizen activists listed below. Our hats off to them all.

 


Reverend David E. Crosby, senior pastor, First Baptist Church of New Orleans


Before the storm, David Crosby worried that his church wasn't engaged enough with the community. The congregation had spent several years relocating the church, and Crosby planned to get more involved in the community in 2005. In cooperation with Habitat for Humanity, First Baptist was set to begin construction on 40 new homes in the Ninth Ward in August of that year.

Katrina brought $2 million in damage to First Baptist, and many in Crosby's congregation lost their homes. In response, Crosby expanded the church's home-building project.

Representing the integral role that faith-based organizations are playing in the city's rebuilding, Crosby's church and thousands of Baptist volunteers from around the country already have gutted more than 900 houses and built 31 homes in Musicians' Village. Crosby's group will continue its mission for at least the next five years, erecting 60 houses a year for low-income people.

"There's no religious test to have one of these homes," Crosby says. "Our model is the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help this guy by the side of the road and never learned what the guy's religion was."

Ruthie Frierson, founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans
Photo by Trisha Hardin

Ruthie Frierson had reached her limit. She returned to the city in early October after Katrina, and each day brought her, a top-producing real estate salesperson, more calls from devastated clients, grown men crying over their losses.

"The stories went on and on -- one was worse than another," she recalls. "At night, I found myself very depressed."

Frierson believed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was mostly responsible for the disaster, but she also blamed the Byzantine system of multiple levee boards. When a special session of the Legislature failed to consolidate those boards into one body, Frierson formed Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, a group of engaged volunteers who gathered 53,000 signatures demanding levee board consolidation.

In response, Gov. Kathleen Blanco called another special session in early 2006, and this time the Legislature passed a levee consolidation constitutional amendment. In September, voters approved the measure overwhelmingly -- and today the New Orleans area has just two levee boards, each with high professional standards for board members.

Frierson's group also played a major role in consolidating the city's seven assessor's offices into one. Frierson says this kind of activism -- politics not as usual -- is what will save New Orleans.


Peter Dangerfield, executive direc
tor, Total Community Action

Peter Dangerfield, executive director of Total Community Action (TCA), has been fighting poverty for decades. Last year didn't change his attitude, but it did change the landscape. Instead of having programs in place to assist the impoverished, Dangerfield had to resurrect programs to allow them to come home.

Working out of a Baton Rouge office, Dangerfield reopened five New Orleans Head Start centers -- providing free day care services so that economically disadvantaged parents can work. He also produced a DVD, Homeward Bound, that detailed all the recovery services available to people. Dangerfield ensured the DVD was distributed to evacuees and was shown throughout the city. Meanwhile, TCA continued to offer free tax assistance and other services, including a financial literacy survival program.

Dangerfield also initiated a house-gutting service for the elderly, a disaster employment program and an employment referral service for displaced New Orleanians.

While working tirelessly to help others, Dangerfield was diagnosed with a serious blood disorder last September. He hopes to return to TCA in 2007 to continue the TCA mission of connecting the poor with "family supporting opportunities."


Father Vien Nguyen, pastor, Mary Queen of Vietnam Church

Photo by Tracie Morris Schaefer

Father Vien Nguyen has taken on opponents as formidable as the biblical Goliath in leading his eastern New Orleans parishioners' fight to keep their neighborhood environmentally sound. Those opponents included Mayor Ray Nagin, FEMA, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Waste Management Inc. -- all proponents of a large landfill near the Vietnamese-American community that Nguyen serves.

Instead of a slingshot, Nguyen used the press and lawyers to battle the landfill.

While he has become a media star, Nguyen says the past year has been one of simply tending to his flock -- helping people with life's basic necessities. "If we are able to help and we don't do it, then we have failed," Nguyen says.

When FEMA reneged on a deal that Nguyen negotiated to provide trailers for his parishioners on church property, the pastor told his story in Gambit Weekly. Within days, FEMA found a trailer in the church lot for an elderly parishioner.

These experiences taught Nguyen that tending his flock sometimes means speaking out. "My people want to return, and sometimes their individual voices aren't heard, so we have to create this collective voice."


Malik Rahim, co-founder, Common Ground Collective


Asking Malik Rahim if he's angry prompts a rhetorical question for which there's no response but a nodding agreement.

"Am I angry? Huh. No one can tell me with all the billions of dollars allocated why people have to live in these kinds of conditions."

Rahim, a former Black Panther and local activist, has spent a lifetime trying to change those "conditions," but his efforts have never produced the results that his Common Ground Collective has achieved in the wake of Katrina. Fueled by his anger, Rahim co-founded the collective just a week after the storm, and with an army of volunteers it has provided hurricane victims with legal assistance, house gutting, health care, shelter and has even tackeled wetland restoration.

Rahim estimates that the group has helped more than 100,000 people in New Orleans, distributed more than $100 million in various supplies, raised $1.8 million in funding and given aid to people from nine Louisiana parishes. More than 11,000 volunteers from 60 countries have served in the collective, which received no city, state or federal funding.

"If we can do it," Rahim says, "think what would happen if the government was supporting us."


Jimmy Delery, facilitator, French Quarter Town Hall

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Jimmy Delery isn't kidding when he says New Orleans is in his blood. His family has lived in the city so long that there's a Delery Street. After Katrina struck, Delery remembered his family as he used his boat to rescue people from the flooded Ninth Ward.

"I've had two mentors in my life: my father and my uncle," Delery says. "The most important lesson they taught me is that every individual is important."

Delery says that lesson prompted him to launch the French Quarter Town Hall, a series of weekly forums that address the concerns of residents since their return to the city. Delery notes that Town Hall meetings are not affiliated with any organization, but are tailored for experts to answer questions about topics such as FEMA, wetlands and coastal restoration, contractors, legal rights and mental health care.

Besides arranging for speakers, Delery studies each issue so he can keep the discussion flowing, making sure key questions are asked. For Delery, it is only through this kind of honest discussion that solutions can be found to the city's problems.

"I want people to leave with more than they came in with," he says.


Anne Milling, founder, Women of the Storm

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Seeing is believing. Anne Milling was convinced that if members of Congress visited New Orleans and saw for themselves the devastation wrought by Katrina, they would grasp the magnitude of the disaster. The problem was getting them to accept invitations to come -- so Milling devised a new strategy.

"The approach was to hand-deliver a real invitation, like you would invite anybody to something," Milling explains. "I think it's a very Southern approach."

Milling formed a group of dedicated women -- Women of the Storm -- who traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30, 2006. The newly organized, non-partisan and 140-strong group descended upon congressional offices with a mixture of what Milling refers to as "brains and charm."

The personal touch yielded impressive results. From the just-ended 109th Congress, 56 senators and 128 representatives visited the region.

With a new Congress set to begin this month, Women of the Storm will be targeting freshman members as well as the new Democratic leadership. Milling says it's critical not to let Congress forget New Orleans. "We're going to need the help of the federal government for many, many years," she says.


Jay Lapeyre, chair, Business Council of New Orleans


When Ruthie Frierson decided something needed to be done about consolidating levee boards, the first person she called was Jay Lapeyre. The respected businessman and Business Council chair already had written a public letter to the governor urging levee board consolidation.

Lapeyre's letter became part of Frierson's petition asking Governor Blanco for a special legislative session to deal with levee board reform. Lapeyre had previously taken a low-key approach to public affairs, but the storm marked a change for him personally as well as for the business community.

"Post Katrina, the council agreed that now was the time for us to become activists and try to focus on the community," Lapeyre says. "We pushed for honest, transparent and accountable government. The levee boards clearly did not fall in that current definition."

After passage of levee board consolidation, Lapeyre chaired the nominating committee for the new levee boards. Meanwhile, the Business Council backed consolidation of New Orleans' seven assessors' offices and now plans to push for additional public school reform.

Lapeyre says the Business Council's initiatives are grounded in a belief that what is best for the community is also good for business.


Matt McBride, drainage activist

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Matt McBride wouldn't mind returning to the relative obscurity he enjoyed before Katrina. Instead, he's the media's go-to expert when questions arise regarding the city's drainage system or the latest misstep by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"I'd be very pleased to go back to a nice nameless life, but we're talking about the survival of my neighborhood and the city, so it's hard for me to ignore," he says.

McBride, a mechanical engineer, became alarmed last March when he discovered that closing new floodgates near the lake to protect against storm surge would cause his Broadmoor neighborhood to flood. He phoned top officials in the Corps of Engineers, asking about the system's design.

Three days later, McBride told national media organizations "the system is designed to cause flooding."

Since then, he has quit his job and is a full-time activist for the city's drainage system. McBride has held numerous press conferences, buttonholed public officials and developed a following via his blog, www.fixthepumps.blogspot.com.

"These are just bureaucrats and engineers who are used to working in anonymity," McBride says of the Corps. "Maybe having someone on their backs will make them think twice about how their work actually influences the public."

Jerome Smith, children's advocate; director, Treme Community Center Since the age of 10, when he tore down a screen in a streetcar separating whites from blacks, Jerome Smith has fought for people's rights, especially those of children. For years, as the director of the Treme Community Center, Smith taught kids about their culture through his Tambourine and Fan club. The club organizes second-line funeral parades and produces the annual Super Sunday Mardi Gras Indian gathering.

Nowadays, Smith is focused on trying to get children back home.

He has been vocal in his protest against the HUD plan to demolish the Lafitte public housing project, which housed more than 800 Treme children before the storm. Tracie Washington, one of the attorneys challenging the HUD proposal, says Smith has been an invaluable resource for contacting former housing project residents and representing his former neighbors.

"When you come with a posse and a man like Jerome Smith," Washington says, "people stand up and listen."

Smith says he will keep bringing up the issue of Lafitte's missing children until it becomes part of the national agenda.

"There's no such thing as post Katrina for these children," Smith says, "This [displacement] is more devastating than [Katrina's] rain or wind."

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