Thanks to the talents of videographer Jacqui Soohen, we now have video documentation of the time we spent in Renaissance Village--all set to the true rhythms of the Gulf. Check it out!
Monday, August 27, 2007
Monday, August 27: 8.10am EST: Coastal Women For Change (CWC)
Tuesday, August 28: 8.25am EST: Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights (MWC)
Wednesday, August 29: 6.10 am EST: replay of CWC & MWC
7.25 am EST: Renaissance Village
7.35 am EST: Moore Community House (MCH)
8.40 am EST: North Gulfport Community Land Trust (CLT)
Thursday, August 30: 6.10 am EST: replay of MCH & CLT
Make sure to tune in!
Saturday, August 11, 2007
It was a long day--but I think all of these newly minted radio experts would tell you it was worth it. Even given the late hour of our wrap up, and a hard deadline of a rental car return a two hour drive away in Baton Rouge for the teams from Ms. and PPH, we were able to joined together in laughter and applause as we listened, for the first time as a group, to the finished products of our week of labor.
I won't say too much about the content of these stories here, because they are best told, listened to, on their own terms, in the format in which they have been created. And soon enough, you will get to hear them yourself, either on the radio or on the Ms. Foundation website, where we're planning to run audio clips. Then, you can be the judge. But from my perspective, these finished stories were a revelation: hearing each of these voices that have become familiar shift themselves just enough to adopt the radio announcer's more formal delivery; listening as the stories unfolded with a narrative arc that would put most professional story tellers to shame--it was hard to believe it was possible at the outset, but what we've come away with here are productions that, in my opinion, it would be nearly impossible for the average listener to distinguish from the work of seasoned, professional journalists. What a coup.
Once we'd packed up all our equipment and said our many, many good byes, the teams from PPH and Ms. hit the road. We headed down the dark roads of Mississippi and on to Louisiana for the next leg of our trip. We were expected in Baton Rouge the next day, where we would be met by PPH leader Deepa Fernandes and begin the process once again of introducing a community to the power of radio, but this time with a difference: this time, we're working with kids.
And not just any kids, and not in any old location: this weekend we're working out of Renaissance Village, the massive emergency trailer park FEMA constructed to deal with some of those left homeless by Katrina.
Located in Baker, LA (about half an hour from Baton Rouge), Renaissance Village houses approximately 600 trailers, and looking around the Internet I find estimates of the total resident population that range from 1500 to 3000. That's a large spread, but either way, one thing you notice immediately upon entering is how deadly quiet this park is for a place that's filled as far as the eye can see with "homes": the only people you see regularly are the members of a small army of security guards who roam the grounds in their military boots and bulletproof vests.Though they are gracious enough when we entered, I find that their presence instills fear, not safety, in me. It's a feeling that won't leave me, the whole time I'm in the park.
Luckily, though, there's enough to keep me occupied to keep my mind (mostly) off the men and women with the big guns--namely, the children. There are four of them with us who live in the park, ranging in age from 12 to 16. We've also been joined by two young women from the United Houma Nation, a Native American tribe from Southern Louisiana that boasts nearly 18,000 members. They, too, were impacted disastrously by the storm, and they're here to learn the basics of interviewing, how to operate the mini-disc player and how to use the editing software so that the stories of their people can be told, too.
There's so much to say about each of these remarkable kids, and how much they and their families have had to put up with over the past two years, and it is my hope to be able to introduce you to each of them over the course of the next few posts. Right now though, it is time to get to work: they're heading out into the field that is their home to interview people about their experiences since the Hurricane. And I find that, more than anything else, I want to be with them. More soon...
Friday, August 10, 2007
It's hard to believe we've been here for five full days--I think most of us feel that in some ways the time has just flown by, and in others it feels as if we've been here forever. The amount of knowledge the participants have accrued since they arrived has been astonishing; the level of hard work they've put into their efforts, a real testament to their dedication to bringing about change.
And when you remember that each of these activists has had to step away from the work they do at their own organizations in order to attend this training--no small feat when staff and budgets are small and the challenges at hand so many--I think you can't help but be doubly impressed by the fact they have shown up here day after day. But show up they have, and more: they have come with smiles on their faces and good will to spare. They have faced frustrations in learning this new technology, and fears about asking probing questions to total strangers. But none have them have backed away; no one here would think of giving up. Because there's too much at stake, they'll tell you. They know their stories--and the stories of their communities--need to be told.
Over lunch today I asked Jason from NGCLT about what he'd expected walking into this, and whether those expectations had been met. "I really didn’t know what to expect," he said. "Honestly, I sort of expected that other people would be doing the work and I’d be on the periphery. But sitting here looking at the story now, I realize that I am the right person to be doing it because I have the knowledge about the situation down here and the groups involved."
Jason was also surprised by how organic the process of piecing together a story can be. "I've learned that he story develops as you’re preparing it… I thought it was going to be this one thing at that was it, but that’s not the case. The stories evolve." And sometimes even continue to grow past their immediate conclusion: “We’ve already got another one or two stories we can follow up on just from the initial work we’ve done here,” he says.
The community building aspect hasn't escaped him, either. "Getting to know these other groups has been great. And it’s amazing to see how much our stories overlap." The impact of what they've created this week, Jason says, could potentially be felt for years.
"We’ve created such a great project here, and we need to make sure we follow up. We need to be reminded of what we’ve done, and [continue to] increase our skills. We need to remember to just keep doing it."
Back row, L to R: Jason Mackenzie of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, Lywanda White of Moore Community House, Will McElhinny of the Mississippi Center for Justice and Cass Woods of Coastal Women for Change.
Front row: Sharon Hanshaw of Coastal Women for Change and Anchanese Levison of the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
From what I can see on the front pages of the online addition of the major national newspapers, not a single one (from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle to the Chicago Tribune to The Philadelphia Inquirer) would lead you to believe that we're still dealing with one of the worst crises our country has every faced down here in the Gulf. And that is the perfect reminder, if you need one, of why what's being created in the back rooms of this unassuming house will be so important: it's a way of providing perspectives that the mainstream media can't (or won't) provide; it's a way of telling the story like it really is, and by doing so, reminding those outside of the region that the struggle continues, in very human terms.
Today the participants are for the most part holed up in the office, continuing the process of story boarding, laying down tracks, and in a few cases darting back out into the field to find more voices to flesh out their stories. The time in these close quarters clarifies another central truth about why doing this work matters--because as much as these trainings are about impacting the media landscape, they are also about building community among and between organizers and activists. True, many of the participants who are here this week came into the process knowing one another at some level. But it has been fascinating to watch as bonds between them deepen, information is shared, and alliances form.
At the Ms. Foundation, that's how we believe real social change happens: by giving community based organizations the support and strategic opportunities to allow these important connections to be made and networks to form. That, we know, is how movements are built. It has been moving and inspiring to be part of that building process this week, the evidence of which can be heard in the raucous laughter and teasing that erupts around the lunch table every single day, and in the brief conversations that inevitably crop up as one participant overhears a snippet of another participant's work, and feels compelled to share her own experience with FEMA, or in battling a certain legislator, or wading through the morass of insurance red tape.
So, yes, we have brought these women together to give them the skill of radio production, to elevate their voices, and help impact policy. But we also know that once we are gone what they will need as much as anything else to keep this movement alive is the gift of each other's partnership. From where I sit, on that front as much as any other, this training has already has the markings of a bona fide success.
Meanwhile, if you'd like a look at what regional press and bloggers and activists who have the anniversary in their sights are talking about, here are a few suggestions: Our friends from the Institute for Southern Studies are blogging about the unseating of Mississippi Insurance commissioner George Dale, after 32 years in office (an African-American man, Gary Anderson, upset him to become the Democratic nominee). They also link to Ana Maria from A.M. in the Morning, who blogs from Katrina "ground zero" about the region's search for normalcy. The Biloxi Sun Herald reports that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will be back in the Gulf next week, leading a group of 15 House members on a tour of the region, just as she did last year, before the first anniversary. And nearly 6 weeks after Grist blogger Wayne Curtis broke the story, the AP is now picking up on the fact that the water system in New Orleans is severely compromised.
Oh, and in case you're wondering what the President is up to in this critical period leading up to the 2nd anniversary, well, wonder no more: as of today, he's on vacation for the next month.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
To a person, the participants seemed to feel not only excited by what they’d experienced, but empowered by it, too. I think each of them had been a little surprised by how much actually goes into not only conducting an interview, but also recording it and checking sound levels and battery power, all at the same time—but it seemed to me that they were equally surprised at how good they all were at it, too, once they got the hang of things.
It was great to hear them sharing their experiences, and offering others advice based on their early impressions. One grantee was quick to share her finding that though it’s great to interview someone you know well, it also presents a challenge when it comes to remaining on topic—and in remembering that no one else will have the kind of information about the interviewee that often gets taken for granted between friends. In other words: make sure you walk into the room with good, specific questions, and be sure to always cover the basics. Great advice for any newly minted citizen journalist.
Then it was time to dive into the technical element of the day: learning to edit. It sounds daunting, and I’m sure it was to some extent, but the folks at PPH really seem to stick by the model of “you learn by doing,”—so within an hour of the start of their presentation of how it’s done, all of the participants were behind the wheel of a laptop, copying sound files, checking levels, and cutting and pasting the tracks they would need for their final pieces. And once they got started they didn’t stop: the entire afternoon was spent slowly and methodically constructing the narratives of the storm they will soon be sharing with all of us.
If the flashes of sound I heard looping through our temporary offices on Martin Luther King Boulevard are any hint of what’s to come, I think we’ll be astounded by the sadness and horror, but also the bravery and spirit that’s driving life down here these days. It is impressed on me more with each passing moment that I am down here, how little we who do not have to live this out understand of what “living” has become since this storm. I know that I, personally, could not envision what losing everything might really look like until just tonight, as I stood next to Sharon Hanshaw in the parking lot of the Imperial Palace Casino (a very different kind of Katrina survivor).
There, with the gravel crunching beneath our feet,
We stared a little while longer at what was not there. Then, together, we turned and headed into the casino for dinner.
Today, the headline of an AP article read: “New Orleans’ population continues to rise”. Only towards the very end did it reveal that those who are moving back are primarily returning to areas that incurred minimal damage during the storms. In contrast, it reports, in July, only 917 residents were living in the (primarily low-income, African American) Lower 9th Ward – 7 percent of its 2000 population. But in reading the article’s headline alone, or even the first several paragraphs, one could be led to believe that maybe, things were on their way back to “normal” in the city. The demographer on whose statistics the article is based is quoted as saying, “Everything is kind of happening in a natural progression.” “Natural” sounds an awful lot like “normal”.
Again, few articles—though a recent New York Times series, “Patchwork City”, provided a welcomed, substantive contrast—lead with the daily, life-threatening crises still lived by thousands throughout the Gulf Coast.
As such, there is little in the media to galvanize national public outrage. With surface-level, sporadic, and acronym-laden coverage, how are people throughout the country to know there is an ongoing human-rights crisis in the Gulf Coast? Let alone that grassroots leaders—many of them low-income women and women of color—are constructing solutions that address the immediate and long-term needs of their families and communities, and establish protocol that should immediately be incorporated into a bipartisan national agenda?
Surveying the news alone is demoralizing—and not because of the devastation reported in its pages, a worry that may be influencing editors’ decisions to avoid consistent, probing coverage of the disaster’s lasting impact. No, it’s the absence of devastation. And the voices of those most affected by the storms. In looking for articles on-line today, with Vicki’s (of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance) personal account of government neglect and horrendously inadequate FEMA housing heavy on my mind (see Elizabeth Hines’ post below), I searched for my own outrage mirrored in the news, for Vicki’s story, and thousands of others like hers, mirrored in the headlines. I don’t have to tell you that search was in vain…
But to end on a positive note: Ms. Foundation Katrina Women’s Response Fund grantees, Ms. Foundation staff, and the media-justice trainers of the People's Production House are here to do our best to change this. The radio-training participants—powerful, community-based women and youth activists—will do what they’ve been doing the last two years and more: take the microphone by the hand and insist that their voices be heard!
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
On our way into Vicky's trailer, Anchanese Levison of MWCHR--who will be interviewing Vicky as part of her radio documentary project--points out that on either side of the mobile home park where Vicky lives, there is construction: on one side, they are building high-end condos; on the other, a new parking lot for the airport, which is only a stone's throw away. The land left in the middle, where Vicky's trailer and a few dozen like it (many of them FEMA owned) sit, is all that's left of the wetlands that used to play a vital role in the ecology of this particular area. As a result, flooding in the trailer park is a constant threat. “It rains just a little bit one day and we have huge puddles for a week," Vicky herself offered up later on.. "The water has no place to go.”
But water and its ravages are something Vicky has had to get used to since Hurricane Katrina hit. The storm itself flooded her former home with 8 feet of water; after evacuating to
And in some ways, that is when the real trouble began. "After the first rainstorm in December of 2005 there was more water inside the trailer than outside, "Vicky says. "Water was just pouring in kitchen window. The whole trailer was totally flooded. Then the black mold developed."
That was more than 18 months ago. Despite the fact that Vicky has called FEMA religiously over the course of the intervening period, it was just weeks ago that they finally showed up to "fix" the leak in the kitchen window that caused all the damage. And as we are sitting there, we get the chance to witness firsthand the quality of FEMA's work: as clouds burst overhead, a slow but steady trickle of water begins to seep through the window casing, gradually flooding Vicky's countertop with rainwater.
“I used to think a four letter word that started with “F” was something else," Vicky says. "But not since Katrina.”
And still, in many ways, Vicky is among the lucky in this region. She has a place to live; she's been able to come back home. So many others like her, she points out, have been given neither opportunity. To demonstrate for us how fully low-income folks and people of color have been left out of the planning process, Vicky pulls out a 2005 publication from Governor Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. "I was at this meeting," Vicky, who is
“I don’t see an emphasis on bringing low-income folks back," she tells us with conviction. "I just don’t see it.” Not that that's stopped her from fighting to make sure their voices are heard. As a staff member at MIRA she is working every day, in coalition with MWCHR and other organizations, to make sure that the needs of immigrant and low-income communities get their place at the table, too. And as much as anything, she wants people outside of the
“The thing that hurts me the most is to hear that people outside of this area think that everything is back to normal," Vicky remarks, clearly emotional. "It’s what the mainstream media promotes, and what people in power who want to cover things up promote. But people need to know that things down here remain horrible. Working conditions are horrible. And living conditions are horrible at best.
“I want to appeal to the hearts of people to remember that ... [we] are human beings. And [we] have just as much a right to live in decent, safe conditions as anyone else.”
Matthew couldn't have said it better himself.
Not surprisingly, there is little to be found in a survey of the national media landscape that speaks to the reality experienced by millions of people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the
Meanwhile, legislative debates in
Currently, President Bush is balking at a federal “water bill” that includes (minimal) funding to help restore the
“…One can only imagine the rage that is greeting this week's news that President Bush plans to veto a $21 billion bill for flood control and coastal restoration, passed 381-40 this week with broad bipartisan support in the U.S. House. The bill's programs are national but of special importance in southern Louisiana, where it would fund a 72-mile levee and floodwall system and put $1.9 billion -- a fraction of what's needed -- towards coastal restoration.” (See: “Bush to New Orleans: Good luck”)
If Bush can’t get behind one of the least-politicized aspects of Gulf Coast reconstruction (there was little dissent in the House), how will he ever come around to promoting equitable housing, labor, and health-care policies—among others—that would bring Gulf Coast residents closer to a just and sustainable recovery?
Meanwhile, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (Republican) is running for reelection against the likely Democratic primary winner, John Arthur Eaves, Jr. Barbour is a huge ally of the Bush Administration and former chairman of the Republican National Committee who, because of his political ties, was able to garner a disproportionate amount of federal money compared to Louisiana in the wake of Katrina (even though Mississippi sustained less damage). But as grantees of the Katrina Women’s Response Fund will tell you, Barbour’s “success” story didn’t translate into success on the ground.
For a bit of background on the disparity between what Barbour secured for Mississippi and its impact (or lack there of) on people’s lives, read, “A harder look at Haley Barbour’s post-Katrina miracle,” by Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis, again of the Institute for Southern Studies.
Clearly, there is such a huge gap between the political machinations taking place at the federal and state levels, and what Ms. Foundation grantees are contending with on the ground. But our grantees—grassroots women activists—remind us that they are not standing by while federal and state policymakers ignore them. They are making change—policy change and social change—in their communities, and cities, happen. The stories they will share on the airwaves are a testament to this—to their burgeoning collective power, and the livable, equitable reality they are working to create.
Driving down old Route 49, where many varieties of the traditional shotgun house dot the roadside, you see hints that this election means something to folks: not one, but two, lawn posters dotting every other lawn; giant billboards announcing candidates of "change" rising high above the railroad tracks that separate the commercial strip from the residential areas. It wasn't by design, necessarily, that we ended up here on this date--but that we did is somewhat of a delicious turn of fate. It brings into even greater relief the importance of the work these grantees are doing--and the immensity of the challenges they face as they try to effect change in their home state.
assists low-income residents secure quality child care and family services, and nurtures local economic development.They're currently working on a women and construction project, which will train women and youth to enter the construction field; their media project will involve talking to women who are interested in construction about their training and what they hope to accomplish with their new skills. Karissa McClane and Lywanda White are here representing Moore Community House of Biloxi, which
- Our host for these meetings has been Jason Mackenzie of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, an organization that is dedicated to providing permanently affordable homeownership to residents in North Gulfport, MS. Since Katrina they've been helping people wade through the mess of insurance bureaucracy, and their media project will focus on land and development issues around the Gulf.
- Sharon Hanshaw and Cass Woods of Coastal Women for Change are here to work on compiling an oral history; they hope to interview seniors on the history of Biloxi, and how life used to be before the storm--both to provide background information to volunteers who have come to the region, and to offer an opportunity for the community itself to take pride in its deep and exceptional history. Coastal Women for Change was founded in the aftermath of Katrina to secure and revitalize affected neighborhoods, and provide them with timely information as the recovery process continues.
- The Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights is a worker advocacy organization that provides organizing support, legal representation and training for low-wage, non-union workers in the state of Mississippi. They are currently running a "Housing is a Human Right" Campaign to try to ensure that all Mississipians have access to adequate housing in the wake of Katrina. Staffer Anchanese Levison is here to put together a report on how housing policies are failing survivors of the storm.
- Will McElhinny of the Mississippi Center for Justice has joined us as well. MCJ was formed to advance racial and economic justice, and has been working in the aftermath of the storm to encourage attorneys to donate their services to the region pro bono. During this training, Will plans to interview a number of lawyers and paralegals who have come down to help since the storms, and compile a report that will run on their website to help encourage other attorneys to lend their skills.
Monday, August 6, 2007
We--the grantee partners and a few staff members of the Ms. Foundation for Women--have come together in the offices of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust here in Mississippi to learn the art of radio documentary in anticipation of the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and beyond. The goal? To elevate the voices of our grantees--those women and men who are working on the ground, every day, and who know better than anyone else what is at stake in the continuing recovery of the Gulf Coast region--and to give them the tools they need to bring the story of the storms and their aftermath back to a place of prominence on the national media landscape.
As Mitch Jeserich of the People's Production House explains it,
"The idea is not that we come here to tell the grantee stories--which is how mainstream media is run these days, and it’s a model that continues to fail people. The idea is that we put the microphones in the hands of people experiencing the problem, so that they are telling their own stories and getting them out on the media landscape. The goal is that you all--and the people in your communities--will be the ones to tell the story."Through five days of intensive training, our grantees will acquire the specific skills they need to take an idea from concept to polished piece: they will learn to storyboard, to interview and edit--and best of all, their finished reports from the field will air on Pacifica stations around the country, just in time to remind people that the effects of the storms are still being felt daily by millions of Gulf Coast residents.
It's a remarkable endeavor, putting these tools in the hands of the people who are living and breathing the devastation of Katrina, still. And luckily for us we're being guided in the process by a similarly remarkable group of experts: the team from the People's Production House--led by Deepa Fernandes and Kat Aaron (both of WBAI's "Wakeup Call" radio program) and staffed by Sacajawea Hall, the aforementioned Mitch Jeserich and Abdulai Bah. In just these first few hours of training, they have given all of us a great tutorial in the art of story telling, how to use a mini-disc recorder, and the basics of interviewing. (In fact, as I write this, the grantees are conducting the first interviews: with each other!)
As part of our time down here, I (Elizabeth Hines, a staffer at the Ms. Foundation) will be filing reports as frequently as possible about what we're learning, what we're accomplishing, and hope to give you a brief look at what's really happening down here on the Gulf Coast--showing you the multiple realities that the national media leaves out of the picture far too often. And my partner back in NYC, Irene Schneeweis, will also be offering us some context based on the coverage that is showing up in the national media.
So do stay tuned... Our grantees are doing truly amazing work, and our hope is that this blog, and the documentaries that come out of this training, will offer you an opportunity to witness that power in something closer to real time. I have no doubt you'll be amazed, and moved to action, by what's to come.