To Render Ourselves Visible: Women of Color Organizing & Hurricane Katrina

Excerpt from from the book: What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation
by the South End Press Collective. Ordering Info Below!

Invisibility & Organizing Strategies

Domestic and sexual violence is facilitated by other disasters. Women of color bear the brunt of compromised safety during a disaster and after. Shortly after Katrina, a visiting representative of Florida’s disaster
management team told Mayor Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission that domestic violence will increase. There’s little doubt why. Cramped living conditions (families housed in small travel trailers, or in overcrowded homes and shelters) and high stress situations increase the prevalence of domestic violence. The lack of affordable housing in New Orleans which contributes to domestic and sexual violence will not improve for low-income people any time soon due to the decision of federal housing officials to raze 5,000 public housing units in an effort to drive poor people permanently out of the city. With the breakdown of communities and the loss of old neighbors – and the loss of just about all neighbors – because of widespread displacement and destruction of affordable housing, community accountability for rape and abuse becomes even harder to implement. Building and re-connecting communities must be a critical and central anti-violence strategy, now more than ever.

Despite the correlation between the housing crisis and sexual and domestic violence, there are few emergency shelters in the city (none of which are readily accessible and available), and no battered women’s shelters. However, the lack of battered women’s shelters and the destruction of institutional systems designed to support domestic violence survivors has actually revealed some weaknesses of this system that existed before the hurricane. A New Orleans-based coalition of domestic violence service providers working to support women after the storm have found themselves assisting women in a variety of circumstances, not just domestic violence survivors. The providers have come to realize that they must support survivors of domestic violence in the context of many kinds of violence – including extreme poverty, stranger harassment, the loss of their children, criminalization, poor health care, etc. – not just as it relates to their experience of being in an abusive relationship. But all of these problems existed before the storm, especially for the most marginalized survivors of domestic violence. The context may have looked different, but the fact that domestic violence exists in a context of so many other kinds of violence and oppressions is not a new phenomenon. In fact, radical women of color have recognized that “violences” against women are not isolated from one another and we have been recommending that the anti-domestic violence movement take a broader, more integrated approach to supporting women from the beginning of the movement’s inception. However, this recommendation has, in the past, fallen on deaf ears in order for the problem of domestic violence to be taken seriously by the people with the most power (who, incidentally, are also people who do not want to discuss issues such as poverty and criminalization) instead of the most marginalized people. Why did it take the flooding of a city for this point to finally be legitimate?...

Whitening New Orleans

Perhaps one of the more insidious effects of invisibility is that mainstream populations and government agencies will not acknowledge that you are gone. Hypervisibilty and misrepresentation, on the other hand, will ensure you do not come back. For example, in a meeting about the shortage of public housing in New Orleans, City Council member Oliver Thomas said that “we don’t need soap opera watchers all day.” Also, Rep. Richard H. Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge, was overheard telling lobbyists that, “we finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." Thomas’s and Baker’s statements invoke intensely hateful stereotypes about former public housing residents – a group composed of disproportionately low-income Black women and children. These are the people, apparently, that Thomas, Baker, and others do not want to come back and comments such as these essentially justify the permanent displacement of thousands of public housing residents.

Population-control policies such as the destruction of affordable housing, denial of health care, lack of environmentally safe public schools, and other critical community services that need to be in place for a real
sustainable return, intentionally block particular people – especially poor
women of color – from returning home. These policies create a forced
migration and displacement of people of African descent and other people of color from New Orleans. They change the demographic nature of a city renowned for its African traditions and rich multicultural legacy, radically transforming and whitening New Orleans. Furthermore, Avis Jones-DeWeever of The Institute for Women’s Policy Research notes that “more women than men left the region after the storm” and low-income women of color in particular are having a difficult time coming back home. The institute has found that, before Katrina, women made up 56 percent of the local workforce, but only 46 percent today; the number of families headed by single mothers in the metropolitan area has dropped from 51,000 to less than 17,000; and food stamp usage by those single mothers who have returned has quadrupled.

Unfortunately, white progressive and radical left volunteers that have come to “rebuild” in the name of altruism and charity also contribute to the
changing demographic of the city. Though hundreds of non-profits, NGOs,
university urban planning departments and foundations have come through the city, they have paid little attention to the organizing led by people of color that existed before Katrina and is struggling now more than ever...

...white volunteers coming to New Orleans benefit from their experience, but they remain unaccountable to local folks. Many non-local people in the city are here to “get experience” working in a disaster zone. These character-building experiences in some cases actually have the capacity to compromise women’s and community members’ safety, many of whom have lost everything. For example, white volunteers participated in the first wave of intensified post-Katrina gentrification; organizations created cramped conditions for hundreds of volunteers which help to increase sexual assault; and activists organized planning processes that plan local people right out of the process all undermine community safety. Essentially, when people treat you like you don’t matter, you don’t feel safe. Many of these volunteers are coming from a contemporary form of activist tourism – in which a U.S. or European radical activist tours “hot spots” for revolutionary work around the world to increase her activist cred. This kind of “solidarity” objectifies people of color – again, our bodies are made to signify their truths. The viewer is the white activist, the viewed is the oppressed person of color, the encounter between the two is unidirectional – objectifier and objectified.

An alternative way of considering “solidarity” was put forward in a recent article, “Rethinking Solidarity,” by the Refugio Collective in Brooklyn, New York. They write, “It’s the unaltered position of power and privilege that much of this [U.S.-based] activism is rested upon… But accountability is a process, one that moves in both directions and requires more thoughtful reflection of our position in this country in relation to others.”
Volunteers in New Orleans who are outsiders, especially those who are white, need to engage in humble and thoughtful reflection about how one should take up space in a devastated community that is undergoing fast-tracked, ruthless gentrification. Otherwise, the whitening of New Orleans will continue and will instigate more violence such as white volunteers calling police into neighborhoods that are already terrorized by law enforcement violence. Further, volunteers who decide to stay and get paid work are given preferential treatment over New Orleanians of color that were here before because of employment discrimination based on race, class, gender, education, and nationality. They can often afford skyrocketing rents in neighborhoods they would not have dared to enter before the storm. This is called back-door disaster gentrification (also known as volunteer fall out). Non-local allies could do work in solidarity with New Orleans from where they live by supporting displaced survivors in their own local communities, but those who choose to work in New Orleans often do so because they are drawn by the excitement of realizing their own political ambitions (whether they be pursuing pet projects in devastated neighborhoods or simply adding this town to their activist résumé)...

Authentic Visibility

The authentic visibility of the oppressed, in this case women of color, is sometimes perceived by the left as an actual threat to solidarity instead of an opportunity for richer, more effective, and more relevant political
strategies. However, when the experiences, ideas, and lives of women of
color are centered, instead of being considered “divisive” or “secondary,” a politic emerges that has the possibility of making the entire movement
better for everyone. When women of color assert an authentic existence and visibility that acknowledges the intersections of oppressions within the
public and private spheres, we create opportunities for everyone to
construct new ways to think about organizing for justice and liberation. As
Andy Smith, a member of the INCITE! national collective, puts it, that the
role of radical women of color organizing is not just about including women of color in organizing agendas, it’s about re-centering women of color in organizing agendas, allowing their authentic experiences to guide our ways of thinking about justice. Andy writes in her article, “Re-Centering
Feminism,” that “radical women of color organizing is not simply based on a narrow politics of identity but more on a set of political practices
designed to eliminate the interlocking systems of oppression based on
heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, a vision that is liberatory for all peoples.”

If we were to re-center women of color in the work of organizing in the context of Hurricane Katrina, we would recognize that sexual violence is a serious political issue as it relates to community violence and safety in
notoriously unsafe spaces such as the Superdome, and as it relates to the
military occupation that took place in the name of “restoring order” to New
Orleans. We would realize how critical it is to develop our own
community-based resources and responses to violence within our communities as well as violence targeting our communities such as police violence and environmental racism. Centering the lives of women of color—because they are often the primary caregivers for both children and elders--may have helped us anticipate the way that children would be targeted in chaos, or the way in which people with disabilities and elders might be trapped in nursing homes and hospitals. Centering undocumented immigrant women, recognizing that often when they experience domestic or sexual violence they do not call the police for fear of deportation, we might have anticipated the dangers faced by undocumented people would have been more endangered during the
hurricane, either by immigration enforcement deporting them when they tried to access resources, or by drowning because of their fear of calling
authorities for help who may deport them.

Further, instead of demanding that foundations “include” women of color projects among their funding priorities and value women of color organizing styles in their assessments, we may recognize that depending on volatile foundation-based funding – often based on “flavor of the month” priorities – is not a sustainable practice for long-term revolutionary projects. By re-centering the experiences of women of color, we may realize that we need alternative strategies to fund our grassroots movement-building work...


Or contact Joey Fox at 617.547.4002 or joeyfox [at] southendpress [dot] org.