Monday, September 27, 2010

You Must Show Your Work: NORD Reform and NOLA Civic Engagement

By Tracie L. Washington, Esq

For several weeks now, LJI has been wrangling with the NORD Charter change proposition issue. Whether NORD needs reform (we don't know if NORD needs "reform" as much as it needs to be a priority commitment of everyone in city government as well as all of us who care about all children and our future) is not in question, and truly is a non-starter to any informed conversation. Everyone understands NORD is not functioning adequately for our kids and for our community.

For LJI – a non-profit civil rights legal advocacy organization and law firm that fosters and supports social justice campaigns and issues for poor communities and communities of color – we needed a better understanding of how this proposed charter change would affect voting rights, race relations, stakeholder equity and the role of government for our clients. Those issues had not been addressed.

On Wednesday we convened a Kitchen Table conversation with proponents and opponents of the charter change, and other stakeholders from the community who were still struggling with how to vote. For the remainder of the week, we listened – at the barber shops, at schools and playgrounds, at council chambers, through our web and email and voicemail. Here’s what is clear: Folks are angry and frustrated that, once again, they weren’t included in the process that developed this proposition they have been asked to approve. Just telling this community you studied best practices, and researched models, and involved a select group of organizations to assist you wasn’t good enough, no matter how well intentioned.

The fact of the matter is, however, poor and a fair representation of black & brown folks were not seated at the table to (1) make the decision a charter change is necessary, and/or (2) hammer out the terms of a new NORD/quasi-NORD (private-public) structure, and/or (3) have an informed conversation about how this change affects their communities.

Stakeholders in this vast New Orleans community have begun screaming the Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund mantra: Nothing About Us, Without Us, Is For Us. These stakeholders are LJI’s clients, and they will no longer stand for the “urban laboratory” treatment that left them pushed out of decisions concerning public education, public health, public housing, and public works. For LJI, this is a beautiful thing. Public engagement and equity through full inclusion in public decision-making is often an arduous process; but the result – that is, when communities build consensus around a project/development/proposition – is nothing less than magnificent.

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