The Inherent Wisdom of Community

Ashley Shelton

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

That the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, the most significant protest for civil rights that our country has ever seen, and the 8th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest storms in our nation’s history, fell within days of each other was not lost on those of us living and working for justice along the Gulf Coast.

I often remind people that Hurricane Katrina forced us to rely on the inherent wisdom of community. Those of us working in the trenches didn’t have the luxury of sitting down with leaders throughout the state to map out a long-term vision or initiative.  Instead, we had to be opportunistic and prioritize quickly, given the fast-acting nature of policy development in the wake of the crisis.  We engaged residents to capture truthful and transparent articulations of their needs in order to develop solutions that could be advanced through policy. We learned that it was critical to develop a set of civic leaders and networks with policy expertise and a commitment to equity and inclusion.

New Orleans has been working hard to move beyond recovery and embrace the transformation that has been underway since the storm.  And we are already seeing indicators of success:

A Model City

On the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (now the Foundation for Louisiana) and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, with support from many national funders, put together a document to present to the Obama Administration on positioning New Orleans as a “Model City,” based on the ongoing federal investment, unprecedented civic engagement and an environment nurturing of innovation. We felt that New Orleans had the opportunity to become a proving ground for many of the initiatives being proposed by the Administration.  We proposed several key areas for federal partnership. Three years later, we are on course to realize many of these opportunities for the City of New Orleans:

  • Make the greater New Orleans area a centerpiece of the national strategy to create a “green economy.”
Equity as Core Value and Growth Strategy

Following the storm, we worked hard to ensure the importance and necessity of equity and inclusion as values for recovery. Eight years later, community has demanded equity as a core value from anyone working towards systemic change. Recently the New Orleans Business Alliance released their economic development plan that supports Mayor Landrieu’s vision of a diverse, sustainable and prosperous economy for all citizens. ProsperityNola provides an actionable roadmap for how businesses can invest in the City of New Orleans and includes a key finding that equity is a growth strategy.

Community Access to Reliable Data

Before Hurricane Katrina, free and accessible data for community use was rare. The unprecedented civic engagement that followed the storm left community leaders hungry for information to better understand their communities.  The Greater New Orleans Data Center began producing the New Orleans Index that tracks rebuilding efforts and is now released every year. The Data Center also added a series of tools available to neighborhood leaders including the Neighborhood Data Profile for the major neighborhoods in the City of New Orleans. In addition, they have a research agenda that is focused on economic development and supportive of messages coming from the ground.

A Second Chance for Workers

At One Voice we are excited to be working with the Worker Center for Racial Justice to build a campaign that ensures that as the City of New Orleans manages close to $23.5 billion dollars in redevelopment and infrastructure projects, they will be using a blueprint of opportunity and equity. We are seizing this moment to transform low-quality jobs into sustainable and career-tracked employment opportunities and are working to do so through establishing a citywide policy for Community Benefit Agreements (CBA).

Stories about Katrina often reference the strength and resiliency of our communities in the face of the storm and in the days, weeks and years following.  While powerful as a community asset, resiliency should never be a permanent way of life. Eight years on, too many people living along the Gulf Coast are suffering from poverty and social inequities. However, these challenges have made the inescapable network of mutuality, that Dr. King wrote about so eloquently, visible.  As a result, our people are committed to creating a new future for the Gulf Coast that promises equity, inclusion and opportunity for all.

To see more MRBF grantee partners with successful workforce development programs visit our grants section. - See more at:
To see more MRBF grantee partners with successful workforce development programs visit our grants section. - See more at:

Ashley Shelton is the Louisiana Director of One Voice. One Voice works to add statewide capacity and community participation in formal and informal policy debates impacting a wide range of critical policy issues in both Louisiana and Mississippi. Before joining One Voice, Shelton was the Vice President of Programs at the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (LDRF), where managed a system of integrated, value-added programs with the goal of creating a better Louisiana for all of its citizens in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  In her role at LDRF, she designed, initiated and coordinated a comprehensive policy strategy, which led to a systemic, multi-pronged approach to equitable policy development on a local, state, and national level.  Utilizing a participatory model, she is engaging local, state, and national partnerships to develop and nurture civic engagement throughout the state by providing leadership and key philanthropic knowledge of Louisiana-based organizations and issues.

To watch a video about MRBF grantee partners working on Gulf Coast recovery, visit the MRBF Story Bank.
To see all the MRBF grantee partners working on Gulf Coast Recovery, visit our grants section.





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