Democracy Returns to New Orleans
Posted by Lorelei Kelly
Week two in New Orleans. I spent all day last Saturday as a guest of the organization AmericaSpeaks attending the Community Congress II . This was a meeting of nearly 3000 New Orleanians--many in the diaspora beamed in from Houston, Baton Rouge, Dallas and Atlanta. With simultaneous voting, lots of technology and professional facilitation, these citizens set a priority agenda for rebuilding their city called the Unified New Orleans Plan.
I saw more democracy in that convention center in six hours than I saw while working for the past 8 years on Capitol Hill. I'm only partly exaggerating. They had simultaneous translation into Vietnamese! It was astounding and impressive. People who had lost their homes were gracious and optimistic and intent on problem-solving. And the first table I sat at included a little old lady who banged her fist down and said "if we can send millions to Iraq to rebuild, why can't we help New Orleans?" Indeed. Building Amsterdam-like levees around the city would cost 8 billion. That's one month in Iraq war spending.
I was surprised to see many champion the importance of personal responsibility. There was very little victim language. Despite the fact that New Orleans is our American poster child for state failure. We own it. Government has failed the city at every level....expectations are--like the city--below sea level. They had a good sense of humor about it. At one point, the moderator on stage had a communications breakdown with the audience and responded "Don't go all FEMA on me".
Here's the irony for me: I gripe all the time about how our conservative leadership has outsourced the public interest or sold it off to the highest bidder. Well, this was a case of outsourcing that was just excellent. New Orleans--having received effectively no help from any public entity--outsourced its participatory democracy with philanthropic funding. Check out the results . This is all a great innovation in bolstering democracy but remember, we pay taxes so our government will respond to us citizens. Private philanthropy and NGOs are no substitute for that. One of the ways conservatives have dominated the agenda for the past decades is by keeping progressives running in circles trying to replace with private money things that rightfully should be paid for by taxes: like representative government.
We have to save New Orleans. As poet-rapper Hollywood Delahoussaye spoke during half-time "you are not just where I live, you are who I am"
New Orleans should be in everyone's top five favorite cities. If its not, there is something wrong with you. It would be like not liking dogs.
And that evening, while shopping for Christmas, I saw a wedding parade.
Sunday I attended Rootscamp DC . Check out the site and the lists of organizations working on progressive campaigns. That's something to be proud of.