Van Jones and James Rucker are founders ColorOfChange.org, a political activist organization created after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Jones is the founder and executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Rucker served as director of grassroots mobilization for MoveOn.org Political Action and Moveon.org Civic Action.
Last year, Americans met a massive human tragedy with a massive opening of our homes and our hearts. But as we enter the 12th month of this ongoing crisis in the Gulf Coast, it is clear that charity alone won’t do.
For too many of those whose lives were uprooted and overturned by Hurricane Katrina, the horrors of those first awful weeks in the fall of 2005 have given way to new fears, new struggles and new displacements. Many are not much better off than they were 12 months ago; some are arguably worse off. They are trying to rebuild their lives, to prevent the loss of their battered homes, to find jobs and to take care of their children. But despite the initial outpouring of support, those who were left behind in August 2005 are being left behind again.
This is the second crisis of Katrina.
How did it come to this? Why, when our individual actions exemplified such deep empathy and compassion, has our collective response fallen so short? Why, when we did so much as individuals to knit a fabric of community around those who lost everything, do we find our national safety net in such tatters?
The government bears a large share of the responsibility. We entrust the safety net of government services with taking care of people most at risk. It is supposed to be the collective extension of our individual values of care and compassion, of our fierce sense of responsibility to our neighbors—be they next door or thousands of miles away. The aftermath of Katrina gave us a sobering look at the health of that safety net.
We can blame our leaders. But it would be disserving and dishonest to stop there. We must acknowledge that we bear responsibility when the government falls short of our values. And we have a duty to do everything in our power, now and going forward, to make things right.
Righting the ever-accumulating wrongs will require more than generosity. Averting the second crisis of Katrina will not be accomplished by individual acts of compassion; it will be accomplished only by collective acts of civic and political engagement. Standing by those left behind in the aftermath of Katrina means paying attention to initiatives that directly address rebuilding and recovery in the Gulf.
It means being on the lookout for legislation that, under the guise of making room in the budget for the costs of the rebuild, cuts social programs for all Americans. It means speaking out against national or local actions that undermine survivors’ chances of returning home, or that fail to support them in starting over elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party and mainstream media have let the ongoing tragedy slip from public view. After the “anniversary” hoopla dies down, the tens of thousands of people who are still suffering may disappear again.
But we must not let our efforts rise and fall with the headlines. There are people in real need, every day. And there is an impressive array of worthy groups, advancing just demands, that we must continue to support.
The Common Ground Relief Collective and People’s Organizing Committee are two groups on the ground that deserve our backing and investment. So do Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), Advancement Project, the Mississippi Worker’s Center for Human Rights, People’s Hurricane Relief, Save Our Selves Coalition, Haliburton Watch, the National Association of Katrina Evacuees, Critical Resistance , Louisiana Advocates for Environmental Human Rights and many others.
Nearly 60,000 people have joined ColorOfChange.org , an online advocacy organization we launched in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Making smart use of the internet, our members have fought for housing assistance, unemployment insurance and voting rights for Gulf Coast evacuees. Anyone can join by signing up on the website.
Another key group is the Katrina Information Network , an online action center and information clearinghouse for all things related to the disaster and its aftermath. Through www.KatrinaAction.org, you can send emails to your representatives, including FEMA. KIN also wants concerned people to pressure officials by sending emails to email@example.com and calling Congress at (202) 224-3121.
Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) has an online kit with contact information for media outlets and sample letters . The toolkit is designed to help people push the news media to tell the real story of Katrina and its aftermath. By calling your local news and radio talk shows, and by writing letters to the editor, we can increase the number of fair stories and reports.
The Opportunity Agenda has produced an impressive array of fact sheets and policy proposals that can be accessed online.
That is just a small sampling of the organizations deeply engaged in this work, when the TV cameras have moved on and the pundits have switched topics. These groups deserve our respect—and a higher level of support and engagement from us.
Because in the end, this crisis demands that we attend to more than just the Gulf Coast and the survivors. This second crisis calls for a deep, longstanding and personal commitment to attend to this ailing democracy itself.
It requires supporting grassroots activists and their just demands. It requires letting government representatives know that they have our support when they choose to serve those in need, and letting them hear our disapproval when they choose not to.
It means participating in the democratic process as if others’ lives depend on it—because they do.
If we rise to the challenge, the rest of the story of Hurricane Katrina will not just be about Americans at our best. It will be about America at its best.
And the survivors of this unspeakable catastrophe surely deserve nothing less than that.