Fighting for Environmental Justice in NOLA It's been nearly three years since Hurricane Katrina ripped through parts of Gulf Coast. But how safe is New Orleans for its residents today? For more, Farai Chideya speaks with faculty from Dillard University.
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Fighting for Environmental Justice in NOLA

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Fighting for Environmental Justice in NOLA

Fighting for Environmental Justice in NOLA

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. It's coming up on three years since Hurricane Katrina ripped through Mississippi and Louisiana, including historic New Orleans. Katrina damaged homes and lives, some New Orleaneans stayed or returned. But do we really know how safe this city is environmentally?

The historically black Dillard University is working on the issue, and it's very personal, as Dillard is rebuilding itself. For more, we've got Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University and Walter Strong, the executive vice-president of Dillard University. Welcome to you both.

Dr. BEVERLY WRIGHT (Director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University) Thank you.

Dr. WALTER STRONG (Executive Vice-President, Dillard University) Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So Dr. Wright, you organized a conference last weekend on race and the environment at Dillard. Why did you schedule this now?

Dr. WRIGHT: Well, this is actually our second annual conference on race's place in the environment. Our last conference dealt with looking back to look forward. But this time, we decided to focus on rebuilding, reclaiming and revitalizing this city, because we wanted it to be a conference with a more positive kind of stroke. At our last conference, it was pretty depressing to find out all the horrible things that had happened to us. But there are a lot of good things going on in this city.

CHIDEYA: Give me an example, if you can, of one of those good things.

Dr. WRIGHT: One thing that we tried to focus on was a project in the Holy Cross area, for example, where community residents have organized and they're trying to come back and build sustainably. And the point is that communities are coming back, block by block, and they're doing a lot of it on their own. Our interest was in exposing what's considered race-neutral policies that in fact are having a racial impact on this city, and it is in fact supporting communities that are mostly white and affluent and got very little damage, at the expense of communities that are mostly minority and less affluent and received the most damage. And so these supposed race-neutral policies are having an inverse impact on the communities. And we're saying the policies should be race-sensitive, not race-neutral. And that was one of the big findings at the conference.

CHIDEYA: Now, Dr. Strong, you at Dillard have taken some Herculean efforts to try to rebuild. You got a 400 million dollar program to restore and upgrade the campus. First of all, have there been environmental challenges in doing that, and secondly, how did you find the money?

Dr. STRONG: Well, yes, there have been. And we are rising above the effects of Katrina. It's clear that we suffered more than 400 million dollars in damage, and essentially our efforts to right that included not only moneys that we would secure from insurance, but also additional grantsmanship that we had to undertake. There were several achievements, 160 million on a one percent loan that we were able to engineer through Washington, 40 million dollars in federal grants, another 42 million dollars in private support. That included more than 200 Congressional contacts and 125 meetings in Washington. Maybe over the score of 10 to 12 agencies during these - the first year and a half of effort. And we've made some significant progress.

And the importance of this, of course, is that we were just devastated. We lost several buildings. The damage to buildings, historic buildings on this campus, resulted in not being able to return to our campus for over a year. We held classes in the Hilton Hotel, we lived in the Hilton Hotel. We had to lay off two-thirds of our faculty and staff.

And so we're coming back, we're coming back strong and bigger and better than ever. And our plans are not just to rebuild the campus, which is now 75 percent rebuilt, but it is also to understand the importance that this university must play in bringing back the Chantilly community.

CHIDEYA: Each of you, and just quickly, Dr. Wright and then Dr. Strong, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice moved from Xavier University to Dillard, both historically black institutions. What prompted that, and how will it change the situation of the institute?

Dr. WRIGHT: Well, our move from Xavier was an amicable move that - Xavier University was, to some extent, changing its direction, and they were basically interested in doing sponsored programs, mostly around the sciences.

On the other hand, while Xavier was moving in that direction - and it is a needed direction - Dillard University was beginning to look more at connecting with communities and doing more within the New Orleans community in terms of social justice and educational issues. And so it just was a better fit for us at that particular time. And the college presidents at the time actually met and talked, and so it was an amicable move. It wasn't an adversarial move at all. I want to make that clear.

CHIDEYA: Absolutely. Dr. Strong, why'd you bring the Institute in?

Dr. STRONG: Because we had the vision to recognize it was important. It is excellent. It is focused on community and public policy. Those are important values that Dillard University holds dear and is at the core of our forward thinking in terms of strategic planning. And it's a priority for this university to be at the cutting edge in public policy.

We believe that the Deep South Center is one of those programs that will help symbolize the new Dillard. And that it was important to continue to expand our programs in ways mentioned and, most importantly, it's introducing this community to the whole world of sustainability and environmental justice. It provides a replicable model that can be utilized elsewhere across this country.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Wright, Dr. Strong, thank you for your time.

Dr. WRIGHT: Thank you.

Dr. STRONG: You're so very welcome.

CHIDEYA: Beverly Wright is director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, and Walter Strong is executive vice-president of Dillard University.

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