The blog of the Urban Institute
July 8, 2020

Louisiana Grassroots Organizations Can Be Key Partners during COVID-19 Recovery

In St. James, a majority-Black parish in Louisiana, COVID-19 is infecting and killing Black people at disproportionately higher rates than people of other races—as is the case in other communities across the country. St. James, as well as the neighboring parish Orleans, has seen disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19 cases, with Black people accounting for about 75 percent of reported COVID-19-related deaths in the two parishes, despite making up only 49 percent of the population.

Physicians have noted that higher rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart and kidney disease, among Black people predispose them to more extreme complications from COVID-19. Many of these preexisting conditions are the result of systemic barriers like residential segregation and ongoing discrimination, substandard housing, and lack of access to quality health care.

St. James is very familiar with these systemic barriers. Even before COVID-19 arrived, the parish was dubbed “Cancer Alley.” St. James is surrounded by an 85-mile stretch of more than 200 chemical plants and refineries that make the air difficult to breathe and harm the environment and community. Of the more than 30 petrochemical plants in the parish, the majority are concentrated in the fifth district, which is more than 80 percent Black.

Decades of these types of developments, with little pushback from parish councilmembers, led to the formation of the grassroots, faith-based group called RISE St. James. The group has been organizing, researching, and advocating against these types of facilities in the parish since 2018.

In Louisiana, stories of grassroots-led efforts have intertwined with state- and municipal-level response and recovery initiatives for decades. As state and local governments assemble COVID-19 response and recovery plans, grassroots organizations have taken up the mantle to help. Our research has shown that to ensure an equitable response in which community members—especially Black residents, who have historically been left out of policymaking processes—have an active role in decisions, it’s critical that government officials establish a seat at the table for local grassroots organizations.

Learning from shortfalls in community engagement after Hurricane Katrina

Urban Institute research aims to understand how different groups, particularly people from the most marginalized populations, have participated in urban planning efforts in the Greater New Orleans region in the years after Hurricane Katrina. We’re also examining how these populations are being reached by planners and government officials to participate in engagement events. This work can help inform future community planning initiatives.

Our research finds that in the two years following Katrina, at least seven community-engaged, local plans focused on recovery efforts with varying focal areas, such as housing or coastal recovery and funding. Because of the incoordination and siloes among the different plans, several stakeholders we’ve interviewed have described feeling overwhelmed at the number of community engagement events they were being invited to and a lack of clarity on how each plan differed from another.

Other reports have also shown there was distrust among residents after Hurricane Katrina toward state and local government officials because of their failure to appropriately address pre-Katrina structural inequities, which the disaster exacerbated, and decisionmaking siloes and miscommunication that left residents disappointed in the final plans and outcomes.

Given some community members’ distrust in the City of New Orleans’ recovery planning, officials are under pressure to develop a pandemic response that doesn’t make the same mistakes.

How grassroots organizations are getting involved in COVID-19 recovery efforts

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is developing a health equity task force that will examine the effects of the pandemic on the Black community and advance solutions. A group of grassroots organizations have said they appreciate the gesture, but they believe the community needs a stronger and more effective plan that goes beyond creating a task force.

That group, which includes the Power Coalition and dozens of other grassroots organizations, released their Roadmap to Recovery: Policy Demands to respond to COVID-19, a two-part document that addresses immediate community needs and long-term policy reforms. The plan acknowledges the previous top-down approach to recovery efforts and suggests that approach get turned on its head.

The group of organizations, which have collaborated previously on other issues, assembled earlier this year to discuss upcoming policies but shifted focus to COVID-19 as the coronavirus began to spread throughout the US. The organizations range in focus areas from fair housing to public education, and they serve individuals and communities of different races, ethnicities, and genders. They’ve been fighting alongside their communities for years and have advocated for people-centered policies—something Ashley Shelton, the Power Coalition’s executive director, told us she believes is key for developing strong grassroots partnerships.

These are some of the immediate and long-term solutions proposed by their Roadmap to Recovery:

  • Utility companies could suspend shutoffs on water, gas, electric, and other utilities.
  • Jails, prisons, and detention centers could issue medical parole for pregnant women and others in the justice system who are immunocompromised.
  • The state could provide grants and small-business loans to child care providers who have either closed their businesses or suffered losses during the pandemic.
  • The state could expand access to unemployment insurance and increase the minimum wage.

Similar to efforts to use already collected data to inform testing center locations, grassroots-led efforts like the HousingNOLA 10-Year Strategy and Implementation Plan (PDF) have, through outreach and engagement, identified neighborhoods and populations that are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus and that should be a focus for COVID-19 testing centers.

As governors look to open economies and lift stay-at-home orders, proper recovery planning is critical. Shelton said she believes a proper recovery consists of three phases: relief, a larger recovery effort, and betterment. For local and state governments to properly serve their communities at each of these phases and to ensure an equitable response, all community members need to have a voice in decisionmaking.

A sign announces food at Burnell's Lower Ninth Ward Market in New Orleans on April 14, 2020. Burnell's, the only grocery store in what is otherwise considered a food desert, has been providing food to dozens of clients under financial duress during the COVID-19 outbreak.  (Photo by CLAIRE BANGSER/AFP via Getty Images)

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