Chair of the Board: Central City Renaissance Alliance
Saundra Reed is the chair of the board for the Central City Renaissance Alliance. She is a life-long resident of Central City in New Orleans.
It is the nimbleness of smaller, community- and faith-based organizations that makes them so successful. The Central City Renaissance Alliance displays that crucial nimbleness and has also been a critical source and communicator of information to coordinate recovery efforts.
What is the Central City Renaissance Alliance?
Well, in order to tell you about the Central City Renaissance Alliance, I have to go back before Katrina and talk about the process that we were involved in for about two years, where we had already begun to think through, as a community, what we’d like to see for the future of our neighborhood.
So we came up with a plan early and got it through to a written format. And the Ford Foundation, who had helped us with resources to get that done, actually allotted us our first grant in early August of 2005, so that we could take that plan into some form of implementation, continue the work to see what we could do to get those ideas off the paper and into some kind of action.
Well, before the ink was dry, before we could get to the bank with the check, came the end of August, and Ms. Katrina showed up at our city. As soon as it was humanly possible to come back into the city, H.M.K. Amen and myself, co-chairs for our organization, began coming back to the city and meeting with those folks who were meeting around how to rebuild the city.
The idea was that we were almost ahead of the game in that we had a plan already written. Our community had already articulated what its vision was for what our neighborhood was to look like….
This is what I’m most proud of about our organization. What we do is to represent the voice of the community, not to say, “This is what would be good for the community. Come on, community! Get behind us.” We are here to keep the community’s voice articulated in conversations that have to do with our results and our outcomes.
What is the mission of the Central City Renaissance Alliance?
The Central City Renaissance Alliance was designed to honor and support the collective voice and the collaborative strength of Central City residents as we create neighborhoods that are powerful and economically vibrant. We are committed to the revitalization and transformation of Central City by employing community education, community economic development, leadership development, and advocacy.
That’s not bricks and mortar; that’s keeping the community’s voice at the front representing the community, advocating for the community’s point of view.
How has the organization used the information it has gathered from the residents of Central City?
Well, it actually has been used in a variety of ways, but one of the ways is that we served as lead organization in putting together a funders’ collaborative. As folks began to come and look at our community and see what it was that we wanted to have done, lots of people, were looking to see, how is it that we can help? How is it that we can invest in this city in a meaningful way and have something come out the other end that is going to be positive and useful in the rebuilding of the community and the city?
So as a lead organization, we put together a collaborative of funders, as well as a collaborative of neighborhood stakeholders,…[to discuss] our ideas about returning our neighborhood and our city back to commerce and restoring and revitalizing it….Those people who are doing development work, those that are doing investment work, and those people who are doing planning work could have a place to coordinate so we don’t trip over each other or come into conflict. There are so many strands going together to reweave the fabric that is New Orleans, and Central City in particular, it’s easy enough for the wrong thing to be done for the right reason and with the right effort.
What should urban planners know about the Central City Renaissance Alliance and how they should work best with you?
Talk to the people. Connect with the people. Don’t decide for us; decide with us. Include the work that’s already been done. Show us, and help us decide. Don’t decide for us; don’t plan for us. Include the people in all of the conversations.
Has the planning process worked at all?
The planning process is like onion skin. As soon as you’re done with one phase of planning, there is more to be done, more to be done, and more to be done. It is not as simplistic as it sounds when you start out. Because we surely thought that when we put together our initial plan, and we learned to call it the visioning plan pre-Katrina. We’ve thought about this for two and a half years, so well, now, that’s that. Well no, that’s not that. We have to figure out what’s the next level and how do you get it to implementation? In between visioning and implementation, there’s like a million other little steps, and it depends on how you organize.
There has to be coordination, and there has not been citywide, about getting different things done. Each neighborhood has been left to its own devices and to its own ingenuity to get certain things done. There have been failures in government at every level, and there have been successes in communities at every level, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. We have, around the city, developed an understanding that a citizen’s participation entity needs to be developed in order to keep city government and state government true to the understanding that we are the people and we have elected them to do our bidding.
So part of the failures have been that government has been used to operating from a patronage kind of perspective: “We’re going to do this for you, sit right there until that’s done.” We the people, the residents, the citizens, have come to a clearer understanding…that it is our responsibility to participate in the direction that our future is going in and make clear [that] what our voices say needs to be honored.
What have been the accomplishments in Central City since Katrina?
We have, I think, done a very good job at recognizing that we hold the reins, much more so than before. Central City was always a very organized neighborhood; there were always groups—political and social groups—that participated, but we have done a very good job at learning to connect to each other, hear each other, and recognize each other….
There was a conversation that got heard; we had more things in common than not in common. There were voices that were heard standing on the same thing. One of the positive things is there’s new housing being built in our community.
Where would your neighborhood be if groups like yours had not stepped in to help?
In Central City, there has always been an organized presence of community people speaking aloud, but the importance in our impact has been concentrated or recognized in a stronger and wider way since Katrina. We were not to be rolled over; we did not decide to sit down and let government decide for us what they would do for us. In order to get that done, we needed resources to be able to do the work, to be able to continue asking communities, organize in communities, taking ourselves to meetings and making sure that we got the opinions of the people published and put in the places and spaces where it could be recognized, quantified, and identified.
So the nonprofit work is essential, though the fact that funders have come to help us get that done and support us so that we continue to be that is invaluable. I don’t know of another way that it could have been done. The government structures were not set up to participate in that way.
Why has the Central City Renaissance Alliance been able to communicate the needs of the neighborhood to the city and federal government?
The community, the family, the individual, can best speak for itself. Without a relationship with the community, the organization, the family, the individual, it’s a stranger talking or a stranger assuming what is needed, what is helpful, what is desired. The conversation had to happen from the inside out, and that’s where I think bureaucrats forget or get twisted what it is that they are to be doing. I don’t think that it starts off as malicious, but I think that it’s ill-directed. Our experience with FEMA taught the world that lesson. We ended up showing the country that there are some great disparities, that we needed to fix some things that they didn’t recognize were broken.
What would you tell the new administration about New Orleans today?
Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past….Sometimes people have a very pat answer for how things should be improved. Just look at what’s been done and don’t do that. There are ways of being that have to change dramatically; the line of communication has to change dramatically. The people who head FEMA have to really come to grips with the fact that it really got screwed up. There has to be a Federal Emergency Management Association overhaul because it got screwed up on every level. There are things that can be done better. There are reasons that I can probably imagine about why that happened. Don’t do what’s been done. In order to get a better job done, we can’t continue to do what already happened. It’s insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect a better result.
This all has to be done with a collaborative spirit; there is no one organization or no one answer. Neighborhood by neighborhood, agency by agency, funder by funder has to have an attitude, a desire, and a will to collaborate. The answer is not going to be in one place. We have to gather this thing together, and collaboration is going to mean more than partnering. Some people are going to have to give ground in order for the greater good to gain ground.