Everyday Heroes

After the 2005 hurricanes, a wealth of new, independent, young leaders emerged from the ruins, with the potential to transform the Gulf Coast and the nation -- if the systemic barriers of gender and race can be eradicated.

This new generation of young leaders acknowledges and appreciates the contribution of civil-rights activists of an earlier era and are thrilled that the disaster has prompted them to become active again. But in the course of their conversations, they were able to identify conflicting generational and gender dynamics. The new leaders are mostly young and female, and the majority of the civil-rights leaders are older and male. There are several strategies that can help them move beyond the challenges of traditional gender roles and generational hierarchies: leadership opportunities in existing organizations; resources targeted specifically to their leadership development, as they are often too old for youth-training support and too young to benefit from senior-leadership investments; and relationships with business leaders, elected officials, and other nonprofit organizational leaders who invest in new leadership and organizations.

While leaders like Pichon-Battle and Welchin are “professionals,” many exemplary “organic” leaders (non-professional, trusted community figures) play a critical role in post-disaster community-building. Our local partners coined the term “Ms./Miss Mary” to refer to these organic leaders. A Miss Mary is an individual who may work and exist outside of an organization. These leaders are trusted within a community because they do not work for money and are deeply rooted in their communities.

Onie Norman is a Ms. Mary. Norman has been doing community work for more than 30 years in Arkansas. In 2002, She and a group of volunteers from Dumas, Ark., started the African American Women’s Network so that African-American women could network and participate in community-building.

The African American Women’s Network organizes conferences, discussion groups, and projects to build community and power. Their core values, shaped by their personal and social experiences, are rooted in their perspective that women are the foundation of the community and the family — “…We mold the children and transfer our values,” says Norman. They believe that women in rural communities need to know that they have power and can be empowered in the process.

When Norman first became involved in community activism as a young woman, she received encouragement and support from an older woman who continues to guide her in community-building and leadership development today. “She worked with me and included me in going to meetings with the city council and school officials,” says Norman. “The more mature women would tutor the young women on how to dress and present themselves. They taught us to always maintain dignity and respect for self…never allow someone to make you feel as if you were less.”

Individual dignity, self-respect, and collective self-empowerment are intertwined. Leaders like Norman talk about the need to help communities confront their fear of challenging policies, practices, and decisions that harm them, given the violently repressive history of the region, the concentration of wealth and political power in a few hands, and the resulting vulnerability to retaliation.

Many black women leaders created new nonprofits after the disaster in response to some of these challenges. Examples include:

•Saving Our Selves (SOS), a coalition formed to provide relief, restoration, and community-rebuilding support to the Gulf Coast region with offices in Mississippi and Georgia. SOS focuses on leadership and capacity development on health care, affordable housing, education, sustainable jobs, and a safe environment.

•Ninth Ward’s Neighbors Empowerment Network Association, a community-based organization led by Lower 9th Ward residents to provide direct assistance to community residents rebuilding their lives after the hurricanes.

•New Orleans Network, which no longer exists, provided information about organizations, a community calendar, and announcements to foster communication and network-building among groups.

They all struggled to attract resources to build their organizations. The reality in the Gulf Coast is that these are the people doing the everyday work of gutting houses, rebuilding schools, and taking care of the elderly and the sick. By and large, these leaders come with a vision of collaboration, networking, and relationship-building.

The Path Forward

Despite the dynamism of local work and leadership documented in our project, there are significant community-building capacity issues in each of the five states. The relationships, networks, and alliances that are necessary to draw attention and get results do not always exist or may lack adequate geographic coverage. Despite the number of successful and impressive groups in the region, peer-to-peer learning opportunities are virtually non-existent, and people are unable to share their knowledge, experiences, and strategies regionally.

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Mafruza Khan is deputy director of the Center for Social Inclusion.

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