We Can’t Wait for (Another) Disaster

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Today the Council on Foundations Annual Conference in Los Angeles is opening with a plenary discussion about “Realization, Rethinking, and Reinvention in the Wake of Crisis.” I’ll join colleagues from Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Detroit to explore our respective experiences with silver-lining stories that profile ingenuity, innovation, and impact in the face of disaster. 

In New Orleans and the greater Gulf Coast area, we have seen and continue to witness our people meeting the tremendous challenges of catastrophe with strength and tenacity, creating opportunities amidst loss and chaos and oftentimes catalyzing generational change. As we gather to reflect on our opportunities as philanthropists to effect meaningful change, it’s more important than ever to be reminded that the damage caused in “environmental” disasters is always defined by preceding “unnatural” disasters. 

These disasters are most often not recognized as such because they are man-made, historically embedded and culturally/politically sanctioned. They claim far more lives, compromise many more futures, and arguably impact quality of life to a far greater degree than any earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane. Examples include active neglect of levees, dams, and bridges that puts us all at risk; hiring and lending biases that undermine economic advancements for people of color; and austerity budgets that preserve status quo public finance models on the backs of the country’s poorest children and women. In the process of reinventing our communities in the wake of crisis, our communities increasingly realize that the aforementioned legacy issues most significantly injure our future and that our rethinking must therefore accommodate this reality in setting forth workable solutions.

Though the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation was established with a mission to address the man-made disasters that exacerbated the impact of natural disaster, our decision to transition to Foundation for Louisiana was informed in large part by a desire to communicate to our stakeholders that the work of strengthening vulnerable communities is not contingent upon wind and rain, but rather upon a long-standing need to address historic inequities. 

If we can harness the outpouring of compassion, resources, and innovative thinking that so often emerges in the wake of disaster to the work of addressing the “everyday disasters” of poverty, discrimination, and disinvestment, we could see this slow but critical work move much, much faster. 

And finally, when these historic disasters are dismantled, communities and residents are no longer so vulnerable to environmental vagaries such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods. We can’t wait.

How is your community reinventing itself? How are everyday people enfranchising themselves in ways they haven’t before?  

Flozell Daniels Jr. is president and CEO of Foundation for Louisiana.

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