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Survivors face social injustice

Hurricane survivors are often caught in a complex web of social injustice - and there is no "cookie-cutter" approach to helping them, said advocates this week.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | December 5, 2005

"What we know is that charity is not justice."

—Sandy Bernabei

Hurricane survivors are often caught in a complex web of social injustice - and there's no "cookie-cutter" approach to helping them, said advocates this week.

Caseworkers in local storm-stricken communities need to be vigilant about what their clients may be facing in collective terms - whether that means the lack of affordable housing, structural racism, or the obliteration of community character. Without looking at this wider web of issues, caseworkers risk exposing hurricane survivors to a myopic view that stunts long-term recovery.

But every few miles over a massive geographic area, the issues change.

In Biloxi, Miss., land speculators are putting pressure on low-income residents faced with financial uncertainty, observed Reilly Morse, a Gulfport-based attorney working with the Mississippi Center for Justice.

"People living in broken-down houses or in trailers are hung up in financial limbo. One of the most heavily devastated low-income areas is at the eastern end of Biloxi," Morse explained.

Hurricane Katrina so badly devastated the nearby casinos that legislators have newly authorized land-based casinos, changing a policy that once mandated casinos be located offshore. Sites 800 feet inland from a previously approved casino location are now eligible to be developed. And now there are a lot of high-pressure land speculators combing Biloxi, said Morse. "That puts into play a large area of eastern Biloxi. It could take a huge bite out of that part. Folks are faced with situations where land speculators are recognizing the drastic straits people are in and trying to make deals."

Unless caseworkers see themselves as advocates for social justice, they risk inadequately serving hurricane survivors, explained Sandy Bernabei, a social worker and founder of the New York City-based Anti-Racist Alliance. "People will respond to emergency needs and deliver charity," she said. "What we know is that charity is not justice. So many well-intentioned people will move forward, and they will give, and they will help to rebuild without a clear understanding of the structures that created racism and poverty."

Bernabei urges caseworkers to see themselves as agents of social change. "While we are rebuilding, while we are delivering services, we must grow in a sophisticated way to make the structural, political and cultural changes necessary. Social workers and caseworkers are mandated to be agents of social change - but knowing how to do that on a structural level has eluded us."

The Anti-Racist Alliance, working with the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, has offered training to more than 700 social workers. The alliance works with universities, faith-based groups and local communities. "We are building a framework, a collective understanding of what racism is," said Bernabei. "Social workers are now beginning to understand our role as social gatekeepers. We need to prepare social workers to be structuralists - on the policy level, on the administration level, on the case management level."

The Anti-Racism Alliance focuses on training social workers, pointed out Bernabei. "But you have education, healthcare, transportation and housing. At the end of the day, what we understand is that Katrina has been a horrible tragedy, but it is also an opportunity."

Advocates are urging national and local leaders to adopt policies for rebuilding communities in ways that alleviate poverty and racism. But at least some people are urging policymakers to remember the irreplaceable character of the hurricane-wracked communities, too.

Gary Esolen, a former resident of New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward said there was a lot of poverty and difficulty in the community - but some amazingly strong cultural aspects as well.

"What you do want to preserve are the things that were amazingly strong in that culture in spite of the poverty and the difficulty - the extended family and churches."

Rebuilding plans for New Orleans need to respect the institution of the extended family, Esolen said. "Extended families are very strong. They intervene. They step in when they are needed."

Esolen is working to create a "virtual New Orleans." He envisions restoring social capital, and creating a process through which long-time residents representing the entire cultural spectrum can have a voice in the rebuilding of the city.

Meanwhile leaders from the Brookings Institution also say Hurricane Katrina has left a window of opportunity to address racism and poverty not just family-by-family but on an urban planning level.

A paper released last month by the Brookings Institution urges national leaders to take a deep look at alleviating concentrated urban poverty and segregation.

In "Katrina Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America," authors Alan Berube and Bruce Katz found that, before Hurricane Katrina hit, nearly 50,000 New Orleans residents lived in neighborhoods where the poverty rate exceeded 40 percent. New Orleans ranked second among the U.S. 50 largest cities on the degree to which its poor families - mostly African American - were clustered in extremely poor neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward. There, the average household earned barely more than $20,000 annually. One in 12 adults held a college degree. Four in five children were raised in single-parent families, and four in 10 working-age adults - many of them disabled - were not connected to the labor force.

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