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September 8, 2020

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How the Lessons of Hurricane Katrina Apply to Philanthropy’s Challenges Today

An interview by Nicole Wallace at the Chronicle of Philanthropy

Forward by Celeste Lavelle

If we use this moment to do deep racial- and intersectional-equity work, our field will be better for it. If we are courageous enough as a field to really take a look and change some of our practices, we can actually start to live up to that mission of the betterment of mankind.

Earlier this month, our CEO and Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Funders Network, Takema Robinson shared her insight on how the lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are still applicable to the challenges of philanthropy today. 

In a year that just won’t quit, in a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, all during a global pandemic (remember that?),  The Chronicle of Philanthropy interviewed our favorite social justice lady boss – and she had some things to say.  

We used our bully pulpit, our influence, our access to open doors for the folks who are directly impacted by these problems.

This ‘movement moment’, as dubbed by Takema, will be a moment marked by deep reimagination for institutions and the field of philanthropy.  Takema reflects on the origins of philanthropy and its deep-rooted  relationship with white supremacy.  She elaborates on the importance of having conversations with folks closest to the issues philanthropy hopes to solve.  

Between Hurricane Katrina then and Covid-19 now, one thing has remained the same.  The root of many issues our world saw then and continues to see is racism.  Takema explains how what we learned then can be used to address what is now exposed.  

Read the full article below for everything Takema had to say…

On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, 10 foundations came together to start the Greater New Orleans Funders Network. The founding institutions included both local grant makers, like the Foundation for Louisiana, and national funders, like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, that make grants in the region.

Unlike many cities, New Orleans didn’t have a regional association of grant makers to bring foundations together, says Takema Robinson, the network’s executive director. “We were created to fill that gap.”

Now, as the Gulf Coast marks 15 years since the deadly storm hit, Robinson talked to the Chronicle about what philanthropy learned from its efforts to help the region rebuild and how grant makers can apply those lessons today.

When Hurricane Katrina struck, the storm laid bare racial inequities in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast. People talked about the opportunity to build back better, make communities stronger, and try to eliminate racial inequities. Did that happen?

This is still the Deep South. This is still southeast Louisiana. I don’t think that we were under any false impression that philanthropy’s investments can eliminate racism. What we believe is that investments can be strategically deployed to help people build power. And the people themselves can build a more equitable and a more just community.

It’s a mixed bag. There are things that are better, and there are things that are not better.

Covid is probably unveiling weaknesses all across America and some specific weaknesses here in New Orleans that we didn’t attend to. One of them is mental health. We don’t have a lot of mental- health services or mental-health beds.

It’s also laying bare the weakness in our child-welfare system. It’s laying bare the weaknesses in affordable housing as we see evictions about to rise. We did a lot of work in the city to address Black male unemployment and opportunity-youth unemployment. But there’s a fragility when you put that on top of a tourist-based economy.

Despite the gains, Covid is showing us the fragility of all of those things, because at the root of many of those things is racism.

Since the murder of George Floyd, foundations across the country have pledged significant amounts of money toward racial justice. Are there lessons foundations can apply from rebuilding efforts after Katrina?

One of our biggest lessons is that the way we talk about risk as a concept in philanthropy really needs to be reconsidered. In my opinion, it is coded with lots of white supremacy around who is worthy of investment. Who can we trust? It’s a conversation about trust, which we code as risk.

We need to trust and invest in folks who are closest to the problem. They will be the ones to have the solutions.

Our work on criminal legal reform is probably the best in the country. Three years ago, we passed 10 bills called the Justice Reinvestment Package that effectively reduced Louisiana’s prison population by 10 percent. There was a collective of people, organizations, institutions, corporations — from both sides of the aisle — who really aligned to attack our standing as the prison capital of the world.

That is a model of philanthropy investing in the grass-roots organizations and investing in their capacity to build power to do organizing and advocacy work. It centered the very people and families whose lives we were talking about and allowed them to lead. The rest of us flanked them. Philanthropy followed the leaders on the ground and put our money where our mouth is.

We used our bully pulpit, our influence, our access to open doors for the folks who are directly impacted by these problems.

We often see philanthropy leading without folks in community and talking on behalf of them, or we see philanthropy not showing up to say much about the things that we say we care about.

What would have to change in the foundation world for that model — of the grass-roots leading and philanthropy following and supporting — to become more prevalent?

To be honest, we have to look at how white supremacy frames the way we do philanthropy.

We’re talking about accumulated wealth extracted — oftentimes from people of color — and hoarded in foundations. Then, the redistribution of that wealth through what we call investment strategies gets caught up in our valuation of people and whether or not they can be trusted with these resources.

For philanthropy to do what I just described, we have to be willing to have a conversation inside the field about how grant making itself is a manifestation of a system of dominance and oppression.

Is there a willingness to have that conversation?

Absolutely. I see folks leaning in all over the place, and it is really, really exciting. I see more people who look like me leading in the field. I see new ideas, like Edgar Villaneuva’s Decolonizing Wealth. I see folks on the cutting edge really pushing philanthropy in new ways.

There’s also the co-opting of the language of equity, which is problematic.

In this movement moment, this moment of racial uprising in our country, all institutions are going to have to be accountable. All institutions are going to have to be revisited.

At the Greater New Orleans Funders Network, we’re trying to test out what those models look like. We created a participatory grant-making process. Grantees came in. They told us what they needed, what they plan to do. We documented what they said. We took the burden off of them. They just had to show up and have that conversation.

That’s a model that’s been used in other places. But how do we take those practices and really start to question the field?

What would you like foundations to take away from the philanthropic response to Hurricane Katrina?

When we reflected at the 10-year mark, we realized that where we were winning and where we were gaining traction was where we were trusting people in the community to lead and when we were actually working together.

We love to tell our grantees about partnership and collaboration, but we don’t do the same. We saw foundations with great intentions swooping down from national perches — coming into the community, not necessarily networking and coordinating with local philanthropists. There were a lot of missed opportunities.

As a field, we have to find a way to work together and be more strategic. We’ve been able to do even that on a small scale and on a large scale, saying, “OK, I could do some grant making. Can you flank me with some technical assistance? Do you have an open contract with a vendor over here who can layer on something else?” We’ve learned to operationalize collaboration and work a lot more strategically so that we can really leverage and get the best out of our singular investments.

The question that we center on is: What can we do together that we can’t do alone? The problems of racism, of intractable economic insecurity are really big problems. If Darren Walker [president of the Ford Foundation] emptied the coffers of the Ford Foundation tomorrow, he could not solve them.

I’d also say it’s really, really important to support arts and culture. I think about the legacy of Black people here in New Orleans. In many ways, it’s the culture of Blackness that has built the international reputation of the city. But the building of that culture was how we survived.

Understanding that culture is how people survive is really important. It seems like that thing that we’ll get to, or it seems ancillary. But there is medicine in culture. We learned here that funding culture had to be a big part of the recovery and the resilience plan for our city.

Where do you hope philanthropy will be on the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina?

If we use this moment to do deep racial- and intersectional-equity work, our field will be better for it. If we are courageous enough as a field to really take a look and change some of our practices, we can actually start to live up to that mission of the betterment of mankind.

The due date has arrived for us to really rethink our field.