Fresh out of graduate school, my husband and I bought our first house in New Orleans one month before hurricane Katrina. We were lucky as we lived in one of the few neighborhoods in New Orleans not inundated with flood waters. It is an experience I remember vividly and will never forget. It opened my young adult eyes to many realities I had not faced and, frankly, would never have to face.
The aftermath of hurricane Katrina brought all the realities of life in New Orleans – the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly – crashing to the forefront at the speed of the floodwaters. Along with all its culture, music, food and acceptance, coexisted economic, educational and other major disparities among New Orleans citizens. Unfolding before the nation was a tragedy unseen before in a wealthy nation. Literally thousands of citizens were stranded in the city and the Superdome surrounded by water with little more than the clothes on their backs. Others perished in their own homes. In that same city more privileged citizens were able to hire armed guards to protect beautiful, historic homes. It was like something from a novel.
As I watched the tragedy unfold from the comfort of my childhood home in Shreveport, at first all I could do was cry. After a day or so of 12 hours of New Orleans news coverage, I got myself up and went and volunteered at one of the many shelters in Shreveport. Most of my time was spent talking to fellow New Orleans residents and using my home access to the internet to provide them with information they were desperate for about their family members, neighborhood or homes. Being there for them and with them was therapeutic for me as well.
The outpouring of love from all over the nation and the world for the great city of New Orleans kept me going. I was so happy the nation embraced the city I loved so much. Along with all the attention and love came vast amounts of funding, resources and new opportunities for the city. Like it or not, it was a new beginning for the City.
Much like New Orleans post-Katrina, we in Shreveport are at a crossroads. COVID-19 did not cause the disparity and economic hardships that already existed here. Like Katrina, the Coronavirus simply highlighted issues that already exist and, in some cases, deepened divides. Many of our citizens have been struggling economically for years. Many in our community struggle to meet the needs of their families due to low-wage jobs. We have one of the highest low birth rates in the nation. Many of our citizens do not have access to the internet in a time where half of our school children are now tasked with learning from home. While these problems are not insurmountable, change cannot be brought about by any one person or entity alone.
In my role at the Community Foundation, I am so fortunate to spend my days collaborating with others in the community to make it better. In the last few months, I have seen nonprofits, the library, our school systems, and others completely overhaul their programs seemingly overnight to meet the needs of our citizens and their children. The increasing energy in the room (often just a room over Zoom) is exciting and reminds me of the days after Katrina.
Community Foundation of North Louisiana is excited to announce that after over a year of planning Step Forward will once again become a part of the Foundation. We vow to continue the legacy of Step Forward’s mission to foster regional collaboration to improve educational outcomes for all children. Through the Step Froward work, we will convene community leaders and use data to illuminate obstacles faced by children of color and those living in poverty. These obstacles can only be eliminated through a partnership with the entire community.
THE TIME FOR CHANGE IS NOW SHREVEPORT! We can make our citizens lives better through collaboration, hard work, creativity, and innovation. Only through multisector collaborations will we bring about the change we need. Our character is defined by who we are not during good times but when times get rough. We must roll up our sleeves and do the hard work. We must challenge old ways of thinking with innovative solutions. We must consolidate to eliminate waste and maximize effectiveness. I am not willing to go down without a fight. Are you? We can make Shreveport better together.
This article was written by CFNLA CEO Kristi Gustavson and originally published in the Shreveport Times on September 6, 2020.