Call for Ideas Lens: Equity

Equity: the Prophetic Future and Best Chance for New Orleans 

By Carol Bebelle


In the aftermath of the 2005 Katrina related flood disaster, Mary Rowe, then Program Officer for Blue Moon Foundation began calling New Orleans the prophetic City of America. Her reasoning was simple. New Orleans was being given the “do over” opportunity to fix the failing institutions, infrastructure, social ills into an ideal American City.

Taking on such a view of New Orleans, positions it to model for the country, a living breathing city that works to meet the American foundational mission and ideals of holding the “ self-evident truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”.

Given our disaster experience and the major investments that followed, aspiring to equity is a grossly insufficient report on our efforts and plans to emerge as an ideal American city. The Nation yearns for a City that dramatically displays a culture and eco-systems that not only supports equity but requires it to survive. 

In the very near future the New Orleans Data Center will present it’s Tricentennial appraisal called a Prosperity Index on New Orleans. It will lay out for us just how far we have to go to be a city where prosperity is available to all. We will once again be faced with the price we all pay and have paid for inequity, injustice, and multi-generational transference of racist attitudes and behaviors.

A healthy and thriving city by contrast lives and breathes social and economic justice. An equitable city recognizes how our lives and futures are inexorably connected. An expanding and inclusive economy benefits everyone. A sustainable City invests in and supports its generative economic elements, health and medicine, technology, water management, tourism, entrepreneurs, cultural and creative industries. The extent to which we ignore our assets is the extent to which we dig a grave for our future as a city. 

The disaster of 2005 is only partly responsible for our struggle. Our geography is a factor too. But, our insistence on living with values that exclude and marginalize New Orleanians for reasons of race, class, gender classification etc. weighs heavily into this equation as well. The adherence to the false and divisive belief and practices of human hierarchy has been and will be the source of our undoing going forward, if we can’t or won’t purge ourselves of its presence in our social and civic life.

Our current Mayor,cMitch Landrieu, has made this equity issue, the centerpiece of his administration. Our new Mayor-elect, Latoya Cantrell, has made the people and their needs, the center of the design of her administration. Our leadership is and will be in formation.Whether through commission or omission however, equity has continued to escape us through hindering or withholding investment. The end result is the same, our City loses economic capacity, magnetism, and overall standing in the world. 

How do we continue to build a momentum toward equity? Cross sector adaptations and creations are sorely needed. Continuing education system improvements must become routine. We have to be consistent in preparing our children for work opportunities available in our region. Our business eco-system must continue to work cooperatively and creatively with the educational, non-profit and governmental sectors to create more and varied on- ramps for the dramatic number and percentage of our fellow New Orleanians stuck on the economic circle to nowhere. Prison as a solution must be resisted and replaced with proven anti-poverty efforts and violence reduction strategies.

The creative and cultural industries of New Orleans are suffering from centuries of neglect and yet are still contributing generously to the success of the sturdy tourism industry greatly composed of hotels, restaurants and bars and serviced by the spirited and talented people of New Orleans. Here we have a starving “golden goose” laying golden eggs for others at great personal sacrifice and with minimal reciprocation. A “shuck time job”, less than livable wage, is not a reciprocal for their valuable generative investment.

A significant portion of un and under employed New Orleanians are connected to cultural and creative practices in the City. Changing this parasitic relationship could accomplish a major positive shift in the economic circumstance of many low wealth earners and contributing members of our City. Progress here requires a determined intention and solutions that range from assuring a cultural trust fund as a funding resource to cultural and creative efforts, to working to create other earning streams for culture bearers and creatives. These strategies might include entrepreneurial efforts, re-dedicated financial opportunities, and creative thinking.

As hard as it may appear to chart the path to economic justice, economic justice may be easier to attain then social justice. The recent controversy in the city over the Confederate monuments shows us the deep seated racism and race tensions that still reside inside our New Orleans society. The shadow of slavery is generally accepted. The violation of humanity, it’s far reaching connections to the present, it’s economic advantage to the White South and New Orleans in particular were not sufficient to create a unified moment, where with little resistance, we remove these racist symbols. Our victory with the Monuments is progress. The struggle though ugly does not diminish its importance. It demonstrates where we are on the social justice scale and how far we have to go.

We add to it, the injust application of justice, imprisonment, expulsions, health care, affordable housing and livable wages and our table is set with an urgent work agenda for equity in New Orleans.

The pivotal energy for our City going forward will be weaving a broader and deeper “WE” consciousness. How do we find ways to help historic New Orleanians, new New Orleanians, low-income and high-income New Orleanians, Black, other people of color, and white New Orleanians to grow an aware appreciation for each other and our interdependence with each other? Only then will we be compassionate and caring enough about any New Orleanians who are not self-actualizing, who are not free, not able to pursue their happiness, who are not able to provide necessities for themselves and their loved ones now and potentially in the future. We will then live with people and have compassion for each other, plan and problem solve with each other, vote to elect people and for policies that assure one another’s best interests.

Equity is our best path to survival as a City and as a Nation. Learning to admire and enjoy difference is a critical part of the transformation we must make to emerge a culture for New Orleans that supports and encourages equity. Are we smart enough, compassionate enough, brave enough to answer the challenge of being the prophetic American City? Can we emerge a New Orleans that has room for everyone at the Welcome Table?

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Carol Bebelle. Photograph courtesy of Ashé Cultural Arts Center.

New Orleans native, co-founder and executive director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Bebelle is a constant voice, a frequently sought presenter and advocate for the primal role of culture in establishing a quality life in urban environments especially New Orleans. Her day-to-day laboratory for this work is the Ashé Cultural Arts Center where the daily agenda is created by the intersection of culture, community and art.