Change Agents: HOW’s Inspiration in the 9th Ward - by Hannah Steinberg, Hillel Student President Sarah Lawrence College

Almost five years after Hurricane Katrina, still glaring is the structural racism and lack of sufficient government support to allow the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward to return home. Empty lots still account for 70% of the area, and little is being done to change this situation. Residents discuss the sluggishness of the Road Home Program in providing funding and how the funds are usually insufficient to begin rebuilding. Although many had flood insurance, coverage did not include water damage.  These factors have inhibited the return of a neighborhood that once had the highest rate of African American home- ownership in the United States.

However, the news is not all bad. During my spring break in New Orleans, my Hillel group had the pleasure of working with some wonderful community organizers trying to bring back their neighborhood.

Jenga Mwendo of the Backyard Gardeners Network is reinvigorating interest in gardening and pressing older members of her community into service,  teaching children about growing food while also creating a safe space. Mack McClendon of the Lower Ninth Ward Village, a community center he is working to build,  has launched  the Where is Your Neighbor program, a grassroots effort to help his former neighbors return to their homes by collaborating with Lower 9th Ward residents and stakeholders to create a comprehensive database of displaced neighbors. His plan is to include information detailing each resident’s plans and any obstacles that are standing in the way of a successful return to the Nith Ward. Mack told us that three fourths of the rebuilding in New Orleans has been done by volunteers, and he urges us to continue coming back, so his neighbors can as well. To him, our presence says New Orleans has not been forgotten; to us, he and Jenga epitomize the idea that believing in  something and fighting for it can lead to change.

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