Organizing brings social entrepreneurship to New Orleans

As the storied neighborhoods of New Orleans flooded with sea water following Hurricane Katrina, local members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) illustrated how grassroots action and innovation help families create strength in times of chaos.

“Access to housing, jobs and good schools were all issues in New Orleans before Katrina,” says Stephen Bradberry. “After the storm, virtually every aspect of daily life became a struggle, particularly for low- and moderate-income families. And we needed to be creative in making sure their voices were heard.”

Association of Community Organizations for Reform NowBradberry is head organizer of the New Orleans chapter of ACORN, a national organizing network of more than 175,000 member households representing 75 cities, with additional chapters in Canada, the Dominican Republic and Peru.

New Orleans is home to ACORN’s national headquarters. Those offices, ruined by the hurricane’s ensuing floodwaters, have been temporarily relocated to Baton Rouge and Houston.

Developing new solutions to community problems — often referred to as “social entrepreneurship” — is a long-standing ACORN practice. The New Orleans chapter has successfully used such strategies in seeking the expansion of immunization programs for low-income children, as well as improvements to school safety throughout the city.

But the critical role of strategic organizing in helping communities identify and address unmet needs becomes even more evident after Katrina, notes Bradberry. Immediately following the storm, the chapter helped launch extensive — and oftentimes, creative — efforts to assist area families. Among them:

  • Text messages sent via cellular phones connected hundreds of local members to other network affiliates who had opened their homes to flood victims.
  • A message board on ACORN’s website provides members with information about missing friends and families, housing opportunities and financial strategies, such as seeking deferred mortgage payments on evacuated homes.
  • A caravan of New Orleans members traveled in October to the city’s historic Lower Ninth Ward — among the city’s most devastated neighborhoods — to post “Do Not Bulldoze” signs on potentially salvageable homes. (Some officials have called the area “uninhabitable” and are calling for its demolition.)

ACORN members in Houston — where many New Orleans residents were evacuated following Katrina — also helped refugees organize around their concerns and secure needed services. And chapters around the country called on government officials and relief organizations to more effectively recognize and respond to the immediate needs of affected families.

Bradberry is quick to note that while organizers like him may help facilitate such change, it is the communities that possess the power to make it come true.

“One person alone could not have accomplished these things,” he says. “But people came together, raised their voice as an organized community and made themselves heard. And that’s when change happens.”

“… people came together, raised their voice as an organized community and made themselves heard. And that’s when change happens.”

Stephen Bradberry

That collective voice and sense of entrepreneurship will remain key in the region during the coming months. The Katrina Survivors Association, recently launched by over 1,600 ACORN members, is seeking a formal review of relief efforts and the right for evacuees to return to their homes and secure personal property.

And a public forum, coordinated by ACORN members and scheduled for early November, will engage residents and national representatives from the urban planning, architecture and community development sectors in exploring equitable and appropriate strategies for rebuilding the city.

Bradberry notes that, as time passes and other news events vie for the attention of policymakers and the public, ACORN members will remind both of the long-standing contributions of low-income neighborhoods to the city. He says that much of what the country has come “to love about New Orleans — the music, the food, the culture — came out of our low-income neighborhoods.”

“It is only right then that, as we rebuild the city and discover its new future, the people who struggled here for so many years are fully engaged in the process and benefit from its outcomes.”

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