Pam Dashiell is the co-director of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development and a board member for the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. The Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development shows how social entrepreneurs can build new organizations that can adapt rapidly to changing circumstances on the ground. By using local knowledge and acting on information generated within the community it serves, bottom-up organizations can be much more nimble and adaptable that big bureaucracies.
What were you doing before Katrina?
I’ve been working in the community for many, many years, ever since I’ve lived here in the Lower Ninth Ward and for years before that. I was a contractor for one of the big oil companies downtown. But I’ve worked in environmental issues, and community advocacy, and core reform for about 20 years.
How did you begin working with the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and the center?
I was president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association before the storm, since around 2001. When I got back [after having evacuated to St. Louis], it was real clear that we were in a lot of danger, that there were plans for the community that were not community driven, and there was a lot of talk about our neighborhoods being used as drainage ditches. There were the green dots, and the orange dots, and the commercial and industrial development plans and discussions.
Before the levee breaks, I had been very active in fighting the expansion of the Industrial Canal, which was, and is, a huge core project. The neighborhood association filed a lawsuit, which we ultimately won, to stop that project, and it was something that would’ve isolated the community….And so, I had a real involvement in all of that, and it was clear that we needed to have a plan, that we needed to do something concrete to address those dangers to the community.
So we were able to get some wonderful planners and crafted a plan beginning in December of 2005 for the sustainable restoration of the Lower Ninth Ward. That was released in June 2006, and we started work on trying to get money to make it happen, and this center opened in January of 2007.
What is the mission of the center?
The mission of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development is the sustainable restoration [and advancement] of the Lower Ninth Ward. Getting a strong infrastructure; getting natural and built protections; helping people to return. The restoration of the population is a huge goal of ours and helping them with sustainable building materials. That’s just one example.
It’s bringing [the community] back, serving the people, and doing what’s necessary so that people in the neighborhood can be strong, protected, and thrive and prosper and continue as a community on into the rest of this century.
Why has the center taken on the role of protector of the community rather than New Orleans city or the federal government?
After the levee breaks, there was a kind of a vacuum, and our councilperson, she was wonderful. I mean she did great. She led one of the charges and probably the primary charge. I don’t know what all went on in that milieu…but it was just her at that level of government, and there was a vacuum of most forms of government—most that I could see—and where it wasn’t a vacuum, [government] was a negative.
And so it was people taking their own survival into their own hands and making it happen. People who had been around here for a long time and knew what the deal was pre-levee breaks and saw the problems post-levee breaks and just did it. And there were a lot of us. There were a lot of different organizations with a lot of different foci, each moving forward toward restoration. And that’s still the case down here.
But again, there was an absence of government. That was one of the reasons that it’s happened as it has.
What are some of the things the center is most proud of having accomplished for the community?
In conjunction with the neighborhood association, [which] was established back in 1981, we met at least weekly beginning in December of 2005. At first, we, of course, were not able to meet here in the Lower Ninth Ward; we met in the Carrollton section, which is way across town, and provided a forum for information, a forum for ideas, a gathering place where people could see their neighbors. Where people could come, and that to me is one of the most valuable functions [the center] served.
The center has led campaigns in advocacy around energy efficiency [and] wetlands restoration. Our northern border is a degraded cypress swamp. And one of our big goals is to restore that to its former state, because it can provide a significant amount of protection, of storm protection, and opportunities for carbon sequestration, and economic and community and recreational development.
Common Ground has been very instrumental in this work too and actually may have been there first probably. With help from universities, and just all kinds of organizations, [we] put that back into the consciousness of people here in the Lower Ninth Ward. Many people under a certain age, even folks who grew up here, didn’t know it was there. And so to have brought that back into consciousness and almost got funding for its restoration, that’s something we’re still working on.
We’ve provided sustainable rebuilding materials to hundreds of people and training also. The green concepts and concepts of sustainability brought that home to people in a concrete way. Issues of climate change, we advocate on those. On the Industrial Canal project, the one I was talking about earlier—that $1 billion for nothing essentially—we work very hard on advocating against that one.
But just a wide range of things, from the concrete to advocacy, and working on behalf of our residents. From relief to inspiration, maybe.
Why are people so concerned about sustainable green development in the Lower Ninth Ward when people just need to be back in their houses?
People ask about that and talk about that all the time. People need to be back in their houses, but they’ve got to be in houses that will not fold the next time, like so many of them did this last time. The levees aren’t fixed; the wetlands are not restored; the protections aren’t there right now. And the way things are going with that absence of government and that vacuum, it’s going to be a little while before that happens.
And we’re surrounded on three sides by water. There’s no getting around that. You know, the Industrial Canal, the bayou, the river, and then 40 miles down the road, the Gulf of Mexico. So we’ve got to learn, we’ve got to address those vulnerabilities and live with the resources that we have here. So we’ve got to come back strong. We just can’t come back and be swept away again. Nobody has a crystal ball, and given the effects of climate change, who knows what this hurricane season will bring.
Why do these organizations have the knowledge of the neighborhood better than the local or federal government?
Because the community, we live here. We talk to the community. It’s not us with the knowledge; it’s the community with the knowledge. It’s an interactive deal, absolutely. Those meetings every week, those formal meetings once a week, and smaller meetings once a week, and having this office here where people can come and talk and get assistance and information….We are the people, and we live here.
Everybody who works at this center, well not everybody, but most folks are residents of the Lower Ninth, and it’s our reason for being—the restoration and advancement of our community.
What does advancement mean for the Lower Ninth?
Better means protected so that we don’t have those levee breaks like we had before. We want it better in terms of less isolation, better city services—although that’s a long haul—less crime, more economic infrastructure. No question about it, pre-levee breaks, there were not that many businesses here, and we had to shop and bank and [do] everything outside the community.
Better means having all those things that a community needs. Having an optometrist again, having a drug store again, you know, all the little things, a grocery store, and a bank. All those things that people need and want and having the ability to shop locally. Just stuff that most people take for granted. So that’s what I mean by better, greener, survivable, and sustainable, and, again, confronting the vulnerabilities that we face. So that you know, structures are higher, and stronger, and wind resistant.
What can government do to support groups on the ground?
Well, one of the things that the [we] do, and will do, is to lay the groundwork for getting government to do what it needs to do, which was a total disaster here. There was that vacuum, and [government] didn’t exist, so people began doing for themselves. But some things in the recovery, government has to do. Government has to fix the levees. Government has to fix the streets. I don’t have a backhoe, and if I did, I wouldn’t know how to use it.
So to transfer some of the successful citizen-driven initiatives, the lessons learned from those, the ways of doing things learned from those, to a methodology, which is a different way of doing things for government….Because government, it has to act differently. It has to be responsive. It has to serve the needs of people, and it didn’t do it well pre-Katrina, but it has to do it if we’re going to thrive and prosper and advance together.
What will success for the organization look like?
I’d say the 15th anniversary of the sustainable restoration of the city of New Orleans. That’s the point: when it’s a part of the fabric of the city, that different, better system of citizens dealing with government and government serving its citizens.