Saturday, August 16, 2008

Background and some personal notes

Brief background about UCLA Law School and New Orleans Reconstruction

When I arrived at UCLA Law School I met Elly and we bonded over the stress of New Orleans reconstruction and naively decided to plan, organize and coordinate the trip to New Orleans this summer.  I am originally from New Orleans and had worked in New Orleans before going to law school.  Immediately after the storm, the predominantly African American and Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans was slated to be a landfill by Mayor Nagin.  When all diplomatic means to shut down the landfill and explore environmentally friendly alternatives had failed, UCLA Law students, Linh Ho ‘07, Rosalind Chan ‘08, and Thuc Nguyen ‘08 were involved in organizing the youth and elderly in the community to stage a direct action against further dumping in the community.  I was very impressed with their work and it became clear to me that law students could play a very unique role in the New Orleans reconstruction process.

Even before Linh, Rosalind and Thuc, UCLA students had organized themselves in 2005 and 2006 to go to New Orleans and work with alum Jen Lai, a youth organizer in the Ninth Ward when the storm hit. When the storm hit Jen returned to UCLA and recruited students through CRS and PILP to organize a trip to go to New Orleans and help with the reconstruction.  Among other success stories, the efforts of the students and Jen contributed to the creation of a Worker’s Center for Racial Justice where Elly had worked before going to law school.

In Spring 2007, another group of students went to New Orleans through a volunteer organization called the Student Hurricane network.  The network has limited capacity and  can be a great resource for general student volunteer service.

In Fall 2007, Elly and I met up and decided that we wanted to help carry on the UCLA Law School and New Orleans reconstruction partnership and also to institutionalize further the relationship so as to establish continuity and accountability by student volunteers in the reconstruction.  Elly and I had strong professional relationships in New Orleans and we leveraged our resources (housing, organizational relations) to seek funding from Dean Schill.  Dean Schill was very generous and helped close the funding gap to make the trip possible.  Further, Elly and I sought support from professors to brainstorm ways to formalize the UCLA Law School student effort to reconstruct New Orleans, focusing specifically on the development of the Worker’s Center for Racial Justice and support for the efforts of legal agencies on the ground, including the Louisiana Justice Institute.


Organizing people, places, events, etc.

Planning and coordinating a trip for sixteen students as a 1L is a time consuming and demanding process.  At this point I think it is important to thank some very key players in the process;

*Tracy Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute, Reverence Vien Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church and other speakers met with the group and shared their insight about challenges in the reconstruction of New Orleans after Katrina

*Elly set up work placements for a majority of the students

*Citadelle help organize the student meetings during the school year. 

*With the help of Robin Barnes of Seedco Financial Services, Xavier University generously provided us free housing for the two weeks (it would’ve cost us over $3,000 otherwise)

*Jarin Jackson's mom opened her home to us and fed us delicious comfort food

We were able to plan some things in advance, some things we could not, and invariably we did not cover everything.


“If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu”Post Katrina New Orleans Reconstruction: An urban development ideological battleground

After the storm I served as the business development director at a community development corporation in the Vietnamese neighborhood in eastern New Orleans.  This summer, I went back to work for the City’s Office of Recovery Management and help put together a proposal for citywide small business development.  Throughout I was engaged in various grassroots organizing efforts and worked closely with the state of Louisiana and city of New Orleans to develop and implement economic development projects.  The following are some of thoughts based on my experience.

After Hurricane Katrina, one thing went without question in the big easy, New Orleans will rebuild.  This commonality unified the city after the storm but the reality of scarcity of resources for the reconstruction of New Orleans quickly sunk in.  Folks in New Orleans have very distinct visions about what to rebuild and how to rebuild.  As you can probably guess, the division of opinion is usually along socio-economic and racial lines.  Do we rebuild based on the areas most heavily devastated or the areas that sit on highest ground?  If they all sit on even ground, do we first rebuild the areas where more people reside or the area with a higher property tax base?  How do we manage the billions of cubic ton of hurricane debris?  Do we and how do we rebuild affordable housing?  The city was almost entirely devastated and this list goes on to ask about almost every basic city infrastructure you can imagine.

For better or for worse, throughout the past three years of reconstruction in New Orleans, those individuals and communities with money and/or state and city political influence have determined the answers to the above questions. And as one wise New Orleanian once said to me, “If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu”.

At the height of battling for resources, I witnessed two minority communities in New Orleans fight at the state senate level about which hood should bear the burden of storing the city’s billions of tons of hurricane debris.  Meanwhile, a more affluent neighborhood, not faced with the same city debris policy, organized itself to pull down over four million dollars (almost twice the average amount for other neighborhoods) for streetscape redevelopment. 

Another example of a clash in ideology in New Orleans redevelopment dates back to a meeting I had when I first returned to New Orleans to serve the Vietnamese community.  At a citywide visioning event, a purported philanthropist requested for a meeting with me.  When I met with him he proposed a plan to develop a sewing factory in our community.  I was open to the idea of job creation and exports but as I inquired further, he proceeded to tell me that he has factories in China and Taiwan and he knows that Vietnamese woman have dexterous hands and can work very fast.  His comment was insulting on so many levels.  Firstly, there was total disregard to this specific Vietnamese American community, their entrepreneurial spirit, and their other capabilities.  More personally, he seemed to have forgotten that I am a Vietnamese woman and that I have no interest in sitting at a sewing machine for his profit.  I relayed this story to a friend from the lower nine who commented that it would be same as going to the lower nine and proposing to develop a cotton field because ‘blacks have strong backs’.

When I returned to New Orleans this summer I learned that the same philanthropist is the co-founder of a major private sector organization that is partnering with the city of New Orleans.  He currently serves as the leader of race relations.  This same group has bought out huge parcels of land in he city and will build exquisite riverwalks for the tourists and wealthy of the community and manufacturing plants in the minority communities. Community culture is being appropriated for tourism, while the up river money continues to feed the hands of anyone willing to see economic development without a social context.

Many have appropriately titled New Orleans a tale of two cities.  And with the limited resources, it seems that these two cities are battling out ideological differences that will shape the future of New Orleans. 

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