Tuesday, March 07, 2006

So What Can We Do?

What can the PHAST students of the School of Public Health do now to begin to build sustainable working relationships upon our one-week experience in the Gulf Coast? What can we do to make sure that our brief trip to the Coast becomes the basis for providing sustainable assistance to the people and organizations of the Gulf Coast calling out for assistance from the rest of the country?

In New Orleans we met some of the wonderful people who are trying to save and rebuild this city, in spite of all the challenges they face, and the slow and largely inadequate governmental response on all levels--local, state, and federal. We met and talked with Dr. Mary Abell of the St. Thomas Clinic, Kimberly Richards of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, and Adam Becker of the Louisiana Public Health Institute. But we also met with local citizens who shared with us their rich stories of survival and struggle. (I will note some of these stories in future entries).

One clear thing I learned from my time in New Orleans is that since government has been so slow and inadequate in fulfilling its responsibilities to support and assist all citizens in their rebuilding efforts, it has been the work of citizens and community organizations that has made it possible for New Orleanians to nurture the hope that the city can rebuild, and do so in a way that addresses the racial and class inequities that have plagued its past, continue to plague its present, and threaten its future.

You need only compare the rebuilding efforts going on in the white or wealthy areas of the city with the relative lack of attention to the hardest hit black portions of the city (especially the ninth ward) to note the tremendous disparities and inequities evident in the current rebuilding effort. Parts of the lower ninth ward look like they have not been touched since the flood waters burst through the industrial canal in August 2005. Decimated houses still sit astride the same streets into which the flood waters moved them over six months ago.

If the rebuilding of New Orleans is to occur in ways that address class and racial inequities, instead of preserving or aggravating them, there is much citizens of the rest of the country need to do to insure that the people and organizations of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast get the resources they need for a just and equitable rebuilding. As students of the UM School of Public Health, we can participate in this process over the weeks ahead by helping our School and University begin to build the kind of sustainable relationships with the people and organizations of the Gulf Coast that will support equitable rebuilding efforts.

As individuals alone, each of us may be at risk of feeling overwhelmed by what we witnessed, and feel frustrated about how little we can do to address the great needs of the region. But if we work together, we can each contribute something positive to the work of rebuilding by uniting our individual efforts--however small they may seem--to help our School and University develop the kind of sustainable relationships that will support the work of the people and organizations of the Gulf Coast dedicated to a just and sustainable future for all the people of the region. This is, at least, what I hope PHAST and other interested students at the School of Public Health will begin to work toward in the busy short weeks ahead before the end of the term.

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