Economic Violence in Post-Katrina New Orleans: Reflections from “Breaking the Silence: A New Orleans Town Hall Hearing on Women of Color,” Part One

By Penny DeNoble

I have been incredibly excited about making my transition to New Orleans, as I had become really homesick over the last year and a half, desiring to return to the City of my birth.

There is something about New Orleans … the people, the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the rhythm and energy of the City; unlike any place else in the world!

Penny DeNoble.

Another reason for my homesickness and desire to leave Denver, CO, is because I grew lonely and fatigued at looking at so many faces that didn’t look like me, and desired to be in a community that does, especially in a community of Black women.  In the two months that I’ve been here, I have been able to find and join in a few events that have fed that need in my soul; to hear and learn about and participate in actions that highlight the state of trans women, Black women and girls in New Orleans, and to assist me in finding my place as to where I can serve and give something back to the community.

On June 18, 2015, I had the great privilege of attending a Summit entitled “Breaking the Silence: A Town Hall on Black Women.”  The intention around this Town Hall – which is a part of a National Series spearheaded by Kimberle Crenshaw, Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum – is to address challenges Black women in New Orleans experience on a daily basis, and then identify opportunities that local decision-makers can take back to their organizations and effect policy change.

After holding moments of silence for the nine martyrs who lost their lives to unspeakable terror and violence on June 17 in Charleston, we began.

The Town Hall was divided into 3 very rich panels:

  1. Economic Violence in Post-Katrina New Orleans;
  2. State Violence and Criminalization of Black Women and Girls; and,
  3. Gender-Specific Violence

The one panel I will focus my thoughts on today is Economic Violence in Post-Katrina New Orleans.  In future blogs, I will address the other two panel topics.

The women who were on this panel were: Ashana Bigard, housing and education advocate; Cashauna Hill, housing advocate; and Dr. Adrienne Dixon, education advocate.

This is a critical time in New Orleans in the recovery and building process, and it has been identified that so many crucial voices have been left out of the recovery and building conversation. Marginalized Black women and girls and other women of color have fallen out of the recovery intervention equation.  The idea that racial and economic justice would trickle down to women and girls through dads, brothers, and sons is an ideal.  The idea that women and girls are strong enough to wait for racial and economic justice to get to us is a myth. Women are verbalizing that the way forward is to lift up the truth of Black women’s stories and come forward to say that Black women and girls matter.

Ashana shared that the City of New Orleans has brought in outside contractors who have charged massive amounts of money and who have given their opinions and conclusions of post-Katrina recovery solutions, vs. inviting Black women and women of color to the table who are from the City, and are EXPERTS in and on their communities. For many reasons, numerous women and families have been displaced and are unable to return home to help re-build their neighborhoods and communities.

Although salaries in the city have remained the same, rent and groceries have tripled and lack of economic opportunities makes it difficult for women to be stable in housing.

She also shared about Parish housing authorities establishing ordinances that discriminate against people of color for housing opportunities. A perfect example she gave was of the St. Bernard Parish that engaged in a campaign to limit housing opportunities for Blacks in the Parish.  These policies made it very difficult to find or keep housing and these civil rights violations on the part of the Parish unfolded over the course of more than seven years.  This ordinance restricted the rental of single-family residences to those related by blood to the owner of the property (keeping in mind that the racial makeup of the Parish is 88.29% White and 7.62% Black).  Even after settling with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and the U.S. Department of Justice, the Parish and the Parish Council were repeatedly held in contempt by a federal judge for violating the voluntary agreement.  They were also found guilty of repeated actions to delay construction on multi-family housing developments in the Parish.  It was noted by the Department of Justice that racial discrimination has been a clear and consistent theme throughout the course of the legal battle.  So after years of litigation and $2.5 million later, St. Bernard Parish is building low- and moderate-income homes.

Everyone should have an opportunity to choose where they want to live regardless of their race.

Cashauna provided statistics stating that 83% of those receiving housing assistance in the state are women.  Further, a 2009 report by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center found that Housing Choice Voucher holders in Orleans Parish were 99% African American, and that they were facing severe discrimination. Criminal background checks keep Black women and women of color out of housing, especially if landlords and rental companies enforce different standards of criminal background checks on potential Black, Brown and White renters.

Cashauna also shared that women she advocates for have shared that they are constantly threatened to be evicted if they do not trade sexual favors in exchange for housing, especially and including undocumented women.  They voice that they are harassed and discriminated against on a regular basis.  This harassment makes them more vulnerable to eviction and often puts them in situations where they may turn to survival sex for retention of housing.

This speaks to the fact that Black women and women of color feel under-protected in these situations and may often feel like there is no resolution or help for the challenges they face.  These situations show the potential incidence of high-risk behavior for these women, and could place them in the category of populations at high risk for acquiring HIV.

Additionally, the City, by order of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has eliminated public housing units for 3,000 families and only 670 of these units have been replaced.  These uncensored bodies, which include HUD, City and Parish Housing Authorities, and private developers, are in fact participating in public and private-funded gentrification.  These bodies have made the decision about who can and can’t come home with the elimination of these 11 public housing units.  This elimination of housing units and these appalling housing policies disproportionately impact Black women and women of color, especially considering what I said earlier: that women make up 83% of people in New Orleans who use subsidized housing and Blacks are 32.4% of Louisiana population, and 59.7% of Orleans Parish population.

This is another issue that shows the connection between safe and affordable housing and HIV.  The effort to expand access to subsidized housing and other housing supports is crucial to vulnerable people living with HIV, because safe and affordable housing is healthcare.

I grew up in The Magnolia Projects, in 3rd Ward, and had close and extended family members living throughout the same housing project.  Not only were there family members, but there were many other families in the Magnolias that treated me like family.  There was always someone or someplace I could go to if my relatives were not around to let me in, feed me and/or give me a place to sleep.  Today, the Magnolia Projects are no longer there and neither is my family.  They, along with so many others throughout Orleans Parish, were demolished after Katrina and my family members that lived in New Orleans subsidized housing have been scattered to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston, Atlanta, and Long Beach, CA.

Many of these housing units did not experience any storm damage, but the City made the decision to totally flatten them anyway.  What sits on the land now throughout Orleans Parish are some of the housing projects that remain empty or with mixed-income housing that have high-end rents or condos and townhouses for sale, that are in the higher $200,000s and low $300,000s, that often have workout gyms, recreation and community centers, and retail shops on their premises.

I have had the good fortune of being able to purchase a duplex home in the 7th Ward neighborhood.  I am glad to be a part of the neighborhood and as I live in one of the units, I have made a commitment that I want to be able to provide a safe and pleasant living environment for a mother and her children on subsidized housing in the other unit.

Another endeavor I am anticipating is being a part of the City-Wide Katrina 10-Year Anniversary Day of Service, on August 29th, 2015.  The Mayor of New Orleans hopes to have 10,000 people gather in New Orleans, during the week of August 24th-29th, to be a part of the Day of Service.  I have volunteered to help build a Habitat for Humanity home for a family in my 7th Ward neighborhood.  I look forward to putting in “sweat equity,” to help a family achieve their dream of homeownership!

Ashana mentioned how this economic violence also has a great impact on the health outcomes of Black women and girls and women of color because the stress, unsafe and unhealthy living and housing conditions all have an impact on women’s quality of life and general wellbeing.  There is an intersection between poor health and homelessness.  Health outcomes for Black women and women of color can be disastrous, especially women with an HIV diagnosis.  These women may suffer illnesses at three to six times the rates of others and have a higher death rate and have dramatically lower life expectancy.

Dr. Adrienne shared that before Katrina, there were 7,000 teachers in the Orleans School District, and 80% of them were women.  Post-Katrina, the majority of these teachers were fired, forced to retire, and/or were unable to return.  This factor has had a huge impact on the number of Black women in the City.  These experienced members and pillars of Black communities have now been replaced with Teach-for-America associates, who are predominantly young and white, have no history in the communities where they work, and do not serve as role models for Black girls. This greatly impacts Black girls’ success and ability to navigate an educational system that wasn’t created with their mental, social, emotional and educational well-being in mind.  She states that New Orleans teachers have been displaced and disgraced.

With the establishment of a 100% charter school system in New Orleans, educational institutions are given free rein on determining what their policies and practices are and who can be accepted into their schools.  Keeping in mind that Black students make up 44% of the public school body, but receive 67% of out-of-school suspensions, 68% of expulsions and arrests, and Black girls were 23% of those arrested.  Black girls often report they are reprimanded for being “loud” or “defiant” when they were simply trying to express themselves in ways that were natural to them. Cashauna reported that once the students are arrested, many families of these students are then kicked out of their public housing, often leaving them homeless, and shelters aren’t an option for many families because a mother isn’t able to keep all of her male and female children with her.  These policies demonstrate how Black girls and their bodies are marginalized, pushed out and over-policed just by being them, and are victims of economic violence in the area of housing and educational opportunities.

Some of the solutions members of this panel suggested were the establishment of Community Accountability Boards that look at a wide range of community disparities, and use the findings to shape policies to guarantee that all voices are heard, and needs factored in when making recovery and revitalization decisions that impact all citizens in the City of New Orleans.  This also includes undergoing comprehensive fair housing training.

The inclusion of the voices of marginalized Black women and girls and women of color is a critical solution – they are valued as contributing members of the City, their voices are important, their unique and critical stories and needs must be taken into account in discussions about the recovery of the City.

Another solution that was presented was for charter schools to be more inclusive in engaging community members where they’re located, to give them a sense of ownership and to give them opportunities to help create procedures for the school and bodies they serve, with the hope of eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline connection. The voices of community members in residential neighborhoods, they feel, is crucial to improving the process of enrollment and encouraging the hiring of seasoned female educators of color.

The same is true for women living with HIV.  These women are the EXPERTS on their lives and the virus, and they have a vested interest in ensuring the health and wellbeing of women are taken into consideration when decisions are being made about our lives.  This includes inviting us to the table to hear our personal stories about our lives.  The ending of the HIV epidemic will not be in reach without women being at the table and our meaningful involvement in vision and mission setting, and the development of policy and programs that take women living with HIV and their experiences into account.

I hope that local and national policy-makers will hear, regard and include the community’s solutions in their programs and policies to legislate change for marginalized Black women and girls and other women of color in New Orleans (and in communities infected and affected by HIV/AIDS).

Until next time …



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