When Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour recently addressed lawmakers in Jackson, he said, "I am committed to going beyond recovering and rebuilding. I am committed to our having a renaissance on the Gulf Coast."
Hmmm…what does renaissance mean? The dictionary says rebirth, new start, resurgence, and reawakening; its antonym is decline.
Well, certainly Mississippi is in decline. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2004, Mississippi ranks last among all U.S. states in median family income. As of 2004, Mississippi is ranked 2nd among all states in percent of children under 18 below the poverty level. And around 35 percent of the population in that state (ages 16 to 64) is unemployed.
The news for Mississippi’s women is just as bleak. Based on 30 indicators of women’s status, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research ranks Mississippi as the worst state for women.
But what brings about rebirth? How does a place get a new start? Brand new physical infrastructure isn’t the answer. Alone, it isn’t sufficient and it isn’t even a necessary part of a true resurgence from a decline.
Justice is the answer. Mississippi and other devastated communities along the Gulf Coast must focus on justice to get a new start now. That is, they will have to secure greater economic equity between people of color and whites—and greater gender equity between men and women. Barriers to equal opportunity are going to have to come down. They will have to begin to value each and every person in the community.
The human suffering and loss of life wrought by the hurricane and the broken levees in New Orleans painted an unmistakable picture of the horrific effects of unrelenting racial and economic injustice on civil society and on people—women, men and children. Poverty-stricken African Americans and whites were unable to evacuate the city when the waters were about to wash them away. The people most connected to children—women—were often the hardest hit.
Yes, we need a renaissance. But our renaissance must focus on people’s lives.
We know that women of color and poor women live every day on the margins of society. And yet, as a nation and as individuals, we have not done what is necessary to build a true democracy of equity and inclusion. We have let stand federal policy that reduces tax revenue, widens the gap between rich and poor, undermines affirmative action and weakens key systems that invest in and serve people. We’re not holding our elected officials accountable. The Hurricane Katrina tragedy clearly illustrates this reality.
Reawakening of Outrage
I believe that women across race and class lines— across the country—are experiencing a reawakening of outrage at racial, economic and gender injustice. Everyone I have spoken with in the past week is extremely angry that in the United States of America we could have disinvested so much that preventable human suffering and death were the end results. How could we have ignored our inequities this way? Answering this question is not about pointing fingers but about looking at the bare facts.
But there is a silver lining to this horrible cloud. There’s enormous power in that outrage. It’s exactly what fuels the passion for change, and it will cause us to take action. This sense of outrage is the key factor we need to cause a resurgence of organizing to win back our human rights.
And it’s already starting. Right now, thousands of people are working day and night to assist evacuees in meeting their own and their family’s basic needs. And we know that soon they, and we, will start turning to the deeper underlying issues.
Out of Crisis Rises Opportunity
This tragedy is forcing us to return to the drawing board – and we need everybody’s voice and perspective as we do that. We particularly need the voices of people of color, poor people and women because they’re the most affected and they have been most clearly shut out. Women are the glue in their communities, and their leadership is essential in reweaving the fabric of community when it is in tatters.
At this moment of crisis, we must get resources quickly to women of color and low-income women who are deeply involved in their communities and strategizing about next steps. They are listening to the people and hearing about women’s immediate priorities, their experiences, despair, grief, and their stories. They don’t want to be stranded any longer.
Soon they will be out of crisis mode enough to talk about their long-term visions and ideas. We must focus on listening to them—and learn abut their experiences to help show the way.
Out of this crisis rises the opportunity to elevate new ideas about improving women’s lives and advancing women’s status in our society. At this critical juncture, we have to ensure that women are fully integrated into every relief, recovery and rebuilding effort. So many policy decisions are being made right now about the social and economic future of the Gulf Coast and the people who live there. We have to watch on a daily basis how these decisions are made. Women must be at the tables set up to chart direction for rebuilding and to allocate the flow of resources. We need a redistribution of both decision-making power and the benefits of development, and not simply economic growth.
Congress has already approved billions of dollars in relief assistance and much more money will flow out of Washington over the next several months. Without vigilance, these funds could easily reinforce inequalities and be captured by existing power structures.
We will lose this opportunity to make change unless women take strong action — now.
We’ll Do What It Takes
In cities with active women’s funds, women’s leadership is doing just that. We’re taking relief efforts forward quickly and raising deeper issues that begin to build the will to change. Take Memphis, for example. Ruby Bright, leader of the Women’s Fund of Greater Memphis, and women from organizations the fund has supported, were at the table when the first decisions about relief strategy were made.
Another example: domestic violence shelters and sexual assault. We know that in this devastating time, violence against women is increasing. Yet, throughout the Gulf Coast, domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers were destroyed by flooding, and the few that remain are now deluged with evacuees. Women’s funds and women’s organizations are addressing this crucial issue. They are helping women to safety and renewing their work to end violence in all forms.
As always, our sisters in other regions of the world have much to teach us. I was deeply moved last week when the first grants to the Ms. Foundation’s Katrina Women’s Response Fund arrived from two internationally focused organizations: the Global Fund for Women and the Urgent Action Fund. Conversations with Julie Shaw of the Urgent Action Fund and others have opened my eyes to the strategies used by women activists around the world to respond in times of crisis and conflict in their own communities.
What do they do? They support the reorganizing of key groups and sustain key activists, they raise women’s rights issues to the forefront, and they demand involvement in decisions about resource allocation and policy. That’s what we must do too!
A Different Future
If we don’t start to see through the lenses of gender, race, and class now, the Katrina tragedy will certainly be replicated—either in another natural disaster or in another form. If we want to see a different picture in the future, we have to work toward justice now.
We can no longer rely on traditional assumptions of “business as usual.” As we have seen, accepting the status quo can be deadly.