Shakoor Aljuwani in New Orleans: We Need Viable Community-Based Development Models

Interview by Jessica Gordon Nembhard

Shakoor Aljuwani is an organizer with the Home Coming Center in New Orleans. GEO Newsletter's Jessica Gordon Nembhard interviewed him in April 2007 about his work and progress with helping low-income residents return to New Orleans and rebuild their homes and neighborhoods. Aljuwani describes some of the grassroots efforts to help returnees with both direct services and advocacy - to play a role in designing their homecoming, rebuilding their neighborhoods, and making government programs work for them. He also discusses prospects and opportunities for including cooperative economic development in the efforts to rebuild neglected neighborhoods in New Orleans.

Q: Describe your work, the organization you work for and current activities.

A: I am an organizer with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana Office of Disaster Response, Home Coming Center. We provide direct service case management to help survivors develop personal recovery plans. We combine direct services with organizing to help address the systemic issues blocking people from coming home. We are fighting against the remaking of public space and the attempts to privatize New Orleans by getting rid of housing, education, and health care. We have built a new community center that people can come home to, to provide supports for returning residents.

All Congregations Together, a federation of 42 churches, is fighting to stop the road blocks in the Road Home Project. $11 million allocated from Congress has been mismanaged, which has created serious obstacles to home owners getting the money they need to rebuild their houses. Only 8,000 people received checks. More than 100,000 people are still waiting for money they are eligible to receive. Many people are receiving only a fraction of what they lost. Our coalition is helping to expose mismanaging of the programs. The Road Home Project, for example, really needs a complete overhaul. There are no provisions for renters, so we are fighting to raise that issue also. The majority of New Orleaneans and Louisianians are not receiving what they need to rebuild. This is a real battle. The government is dragging out payments over years, so there is not enough up front money to rebuild. We recently won a provision to have all the money released to survivors at once.

Schooling is another issue. New Orleans now has more charter schools than any other city in the country. The state basically got rid of the public schools and replaced them with a few charter schools. We are fighting this movement and trying to improve the public school system.

The Home Coming Center has 3 part time staff, 4 organizers, and a group of dedicated volunteers from around the country. We organize the congregations in New Orleans to address these issues and service residents and returning survivors.

Q: Please give us your assessment of how things are progressing in New Orleans in general

A: Conditions are much better but do vary. Communities are beginning to organize themselves. A major concern was that not enough progress is being made in brining New Orleaneans home. There have been many obstacles in the way. There is now a developing movement among residents here fighting to determine what their neighborhoods will look like. They are fighting to have a role in deciding what their neighborhoods will look like and to bring their neighbors home.

Q: What gives you the most hope; what projects are succeeding?

A: We have set a community planning process where a large number and diverse group of New Orleaneans were able to develop a New Orleans plan that speaks to people's interests, and opposes the destruction of public housing and schools as the center piece of reorganizing. This process brought thousands of residents together, representative of the entire city. It involved people in the diaspora, and simultaneous meetings in Houston, Dallas, and other cities. The plan was developed over a three month process. It started with 300 people, and then grew into a broader network of about 7,500 people from New Orleans and the diaspora. At first the group was only about 20% Black, but now is about 60% Black (close to the pre-Katrina percentage of African American residents in the city). Grassroots interests are also included in the plan. Ninety-one percent of those involved want to be involved in the process to activate the plan. We have established an E-Newsletter for the 3,000 who provided email addresses. [Editor's note: much of what is unique about this latest plan versus previous rebuilding plans is the extent of community involvement, the increase in African American involvement, and the inclusion of all the neighborhoods rather than a select few who need the least rebuilding.]

Everyone is now agreed on this overall city-wide plan. This is a victory. The plan will be signed by the mayor and city council.

The next step is district-level plans. We will take provisions from the city plan and work neighborhood by neighborhood. Here is a place to insert cooperatives. There is agreement now that certain commercial strips should be redeveloped and resources are now being put on the table. Communities can come together to make this happen, bring new resources and new ideas for redevelopment. We are also working on projects to combine cultural space with places of commerce at some of the historic sites, and reclaim their role as economic centers.

There is more and more talk about community land trusts - to keep land in the hands of community members. We are also looking for strategies to create jobs that people can come back to, and then develop appropriate housing. Public housing is needed. The Housing Authority of New Orleans did a terrible job. Corruption led to federal government control. But the federal government is doing a worse job because they want to get rid of public housing. We, local grassroots coalitions, can establish public affordable housing because we are the ones who want it. So there is a real possibility to create appropriate housing if we show a positive model for affordable housing for low-income people. We could pursue co-op housing. We are trying to make that happen.

Q: What are the biggest challenges?

A: The biggest challenges are to continue to keep the people in the diver's seat in terms of the recovery. Getting the resources that we need is a huge challenge. What has been allocated and appropriated hasn't reached New Orleans. In terms of the business response to recovery, so few of the contracts have gone to local residents. Many of the companies are from Texas and Virginia. Black folk have received only a small percent of the contracts, and New Orleans companies very few. There are serious Affirmative Action issues here. There are increasing concerns about getting development dollars to support community-controlled redevelopment and businesses of people of color, and to keep people of color in positions of power.

Q: What prospects do you see for co-op development in New Orleans, particularly worker co-ops?

A: Co-op housing. Co-op retail operations. There are many areas where there are not enough services. All indications are that this summer there will be an increase in New Orleaneans coming back home. The school system is over taxed. There are few stores and restaurants. We are looking at the possibilities for environmental issues to be addressed with the establishment of cooperative businesses. There is money to restore coastal wetlands. The Algebra Project and others are looking for ways to involve people of color in environmental businesses. We could create jobs through this and bring wealth to our communities.

We are also building ties with Latino labor, rather than fomenting competition. Blacks are being discouraged from participating in day labor. There are lots of day laborers competing with each other and being ripped off by contractors. We could set up a more humane place where workers rights are protected and coalitions fostered. We need to talk about establishing positive temporary labor hiring halls. We need to organize workers and perhaps start a company - maybe a cooperative.

We need a community-based model of development in New Orleans. We need to take the models of cooperation and justice and show that they are viable as a way to redevelop communities that are in total distress.

Q: What efforts have been tried?

A: There is not much yet under way. A group is talking about a retail co-op in one neighborhood. There are some small computer cooperatives. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives is working outside the city with a Black shrimp cooperative and agricultural processing plants.

The whole rebuilding process is slow, so we are actually just at the point where we can talk and do more about rebuilding in specific places. First was the fight about what neighborhoods would be redeveloped at all. Now we can look at how they can be rebuilt and do some pilots. There is a role and space here for cooperative development.

Q: What do you think is needed to encourage or promote more co-op development at this time in New Orleans?

A: We need to talk about models. There is an opening here, that people want to hear what are viable ways that involve people in a bottom up way. There is a lot more openness to that now than before. There is a general sense that we can't do it the same way that was being done in the past. So how do we do it differently? We need viable models. The sense that we can't do it the same way is overwhelming. There are few now that support the status quo.

Q: What can the co-op community nationally do now?

A: The co-op community can begin to send people here to talk about what models will work. The co-op community can attend meetings about how to implement the plans. We could convene a body of folk who know credit unions, co-op housing, land trusts, retail development, worker co-ops, etc. We could send teams down to talk about this and suggest models to apply to New Orleans. We need to connect information about projects and cooperative development that are working around the country, particularly urban cooperatives, with efforts to rebuild New Orleans. Let's do something with the land and employ our kids, etc. People are asking for this kind of assistance. If we can set up an efficient way to do this, it would be very helpful. We need to bring people to talk about co-op development and best practices, and talk to practitioners who are involved in successful cooperatives. How to involve young people in co-op development is another important subject. Environmental cooperatives might be the best place to start. We should establish a partnership with those around the country and people in New Orleans. Groups could come for 3 or 4 days, provide presentations and then hands-on workshops about how to start a cooperative or implement cooperative development. It is all about what the new community is going to look like.

Last words?

A: There is a very strong sense down here that this is like Selma and Mississippi in the 1960s. It is a battle ground of poverty issues and urban issues, questions of disaster relief and how these things will be treated in the future. We need to set this place as an example of positive forces in the way that we rebuild, and as a place where lessons can be learned. This is a chance to build anew, to rebuild communities the right way.

Thank you.

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