Inequality in New Orleans
For many people, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath revealed the deep race and class divisions that have shaped New Orleans, the South and our entire country. New Orleans Deputy Director of Communications James Ross shares the lessons--and what foundations can do to address communities dealing with multiple barriers.
Tell me about yourself. How did you become an activist, a writer and a media professional?
I have always seen myself as someone working to advance equality. I was attracted to journalism because I believed in its potential to uncover truths and right wrongs. After several years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I realized that my calling was likely elsewhere. At the same time, I became increasingly involved in LGBTQ politics.
When I left the newspaper business, my first job was as a spokesman for a mayor in the Midwest. When his term ended, I accepted a position at the Gill Foundation. I very much value the friendship and mentorship provided by Katherine Pease, who was executive director at the time. In this role, I also developed a stronger analysis and appreciation of the successes of the LGBTQ movement as well as a sharper critique of its failures. Katherine left the foundation to pursue other options and I left shortly thereafter.
Through a convoluted series of decisions, I earned a master's in American Culture Studies, focusing on race and LGBTQ issues, and served as executive director of In Our Own Voices. I then began work toward a Ph.D. in American Studies before taking leave to accept my current position.
I never would have imagined myself here. I feel exceptionally fortunate to have an active role in the recovery of this great American city following the greatest natural and man-made disaster in our nation's history.
You currently serve as the deputy director of communications for the City of New Orleans, a role you undertook in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What are your thoughts on how racism played out during the disasterand in the years that have followed?
Race has been a complicated issue in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has long been a majority black, mostly poor city. As a result, the majority of residents who did not follow Mayor Nagin's mandatory evacuation order were black and poor. Similarly, it was these residents who comprise the imagery that followed the storm.
Post-Katrina, race and class have been highly volatile issues. In the weeks that followed the storm, many business and civic leaders stated to national media organizations that it was time to socially re-engineer the city. Then they summoned the Mayor to Dallas and sought to have him buy into their plan. He refused, and has faced the wrath of that decision since. These "leaders" have employed legal, political, media and social structures to marginalize and demonize the Mayor.
Race also factored indirectly into many responses to the storm. For example, the formulas used to determine compensation amounts for people who lost their homes in the storm were based on pre-Katrina valuations. But the fact that property values were low in a community did not translate to lower costs for rebuilding. That meant that property owners in communities with lower property values were less likely to receive adequate funding to rebuild. People of color were disproportionately affected by this policy decision and, consequently, have faced additional struggles in rebuilding and returning to New Orleans.
Many historians have noted how people of color throughout New Orleans embody the disparities and structural disadvantages of their counterparts throughout the region. As someone who grew up in the South, what are some challenges that Southern people of color continue to face in the 21st century?
In my experience, there remains an assumption within Southern culture that people of color are inherently inferior. These assumptions appear in the sense of entitlement that often is displayed toward people of color. This poses a conundrum because there are perhaps unprecedented opportunitiespeople of color hold positions of political leadership throughout the South. In New Orleans and throughout the South, African Americans are generally the people of color who hold these positions.
On a structural level, people of color in New Orleans, as in the South, more generally rarely hold significant economic power. This situation reads as though political power was ceded to people of color in order to hold on to economic power. But with changing demographics and politics, there is greater desire to disrupt this political leadership. More broadly, a large number of people of color in the South are the products of poor, segregated schools, few opportunities and limited health care options. I am not convinced, however, that any of these realities are specific to the South.
And how are these challenges similar or different for LGBTQ communities of color?
The challenges are similar for LGBT people of color in many ways, though they are more pronounced. The influence of organized religion serves as a silencer for many LGBT people and lack of access resulting for race and sexuality and/or gender identity limits opportunities for many.
Prior to your current role, you served as executive director of In Our Own Voices, an autonomous LGBTQ people of color organization based in Albany, NY. What were some of the policy issues that the organization addressed at the state level?
In Our Own Voices historically focused on social service provision but my focus upon being named executive director was to develop an additional focus on policy issues. This was a particular challenge because In Our Own Voices, like many LGBTQ people of color organizations, was funded almost 100 percent by federal and state grants, which did not include policy development or political advocacy among their acceptable activities. Using the limited non-grant funds we received, we partnered with other nonprofit organizations to work on issues of marriage equality, employment nondiscrimination and safe schools legislation.
You also served as the director of communications for the Gill Foundation, one of the nation's largest LGBTQ foundations, based in Denver, CO. Where have funders succeeded and not succeeded in supporting LGBTQ communities of color?
Funders have at times done a good job of funding targeted initiatives, such as the original Gill Foundation People of Color Initiative . Such short-term funding allows LGBT people of color organizations to temporarily enhance staffing or work on a specific projectoften one that is the primary focus of the funding entity. Funders also have at times been successful at funding LGBT people of color organizations that further very narrow, specific agendas that are also supported by mainstream or majority white LGBTQ organizations. Funders have been far less successful in providing on-going dollars for transformative efforts. By this, I mean funders are willing to fund projects in which LGBTQ people of color advocate for issues such as marriage equality, but invest few dollars to reduce health disparities among LGBTQ people of color, address issues of violence against transgender people of color or otherwise relate specifically to people of color.
What are some successesin our society, in our political movements, in the mediathat you'd like to see in your lifetime?
I have been fortunate to have had access to many opportunities and to have been able to participate in various movements throughout my life. I also have the great benefit of a supportive family and community. I am well aware that not everyone is so lucky. I would like to see a greater strategic relationship among funders, LGBTQ organizations, LGBTQ people of color organizations and people of color, more generally. I am disappointed and frustrated that LGBTQ people of color continue to be marginalized not only in popular culture and mass media but also among LGBTQ organizations and individuals and broader people of color communities. While it is popular to refer to LGBTQ people as second-class citizens, the level of dismissal that LGBTQ people of color as a whole face is exceptional.
I am disappointed, also, that mass media seems to be veering away from providing valuable information and investing more of its focus on the "gotcha" stories and sensationalistic segments that do little more than further divide us. My hope is that there is greater focus on stories that provide information that help us to improve our lives and bring us together. More broadly, I want what I think many people want: peace, greater equality, higher levels of justice.
Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?
My advice would be simple: Listen closely to the community you are looking to fund. In my experience, funders often want only to advance their own narrow agendas when funding LGBTQ communities of color. But for these communities, issues are very complex. While marriage equality may well be important to them, other issues also are central, such as addressing health disparities, employment equality and the furtherance of basic social networks. Funding for LGBTQ people of color should not be seen as an extension of LGBTQ funding but as a fully unique effort.
James Ross, Deputy Director of Communications, City of New Orleans (New Orleans, LA)
James D. Ross II is the Deputy Director of Communications for Mayor C. Ray Nagin in New Orleans, LA. He is an experienced journalist, activist and strategic communications professional. An Alabama native, he worked nearly a decade as a newspaper reporter and editor, and served as director of communications for the Gill Foundation and executive director of In Our Own Voices, an autonomous LGBTQ people of color organization in Albany, N.Y. He has worked for two Mayors, including his current boss, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. He has an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Alabama, received an MA in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University and studied for a Ph.D. in American Studies from the Graduate Institute for the Liberal Arts at Emory University.
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