Each February children of all backgrounds across the United States study some of our most powerful human rights movements and the role of student activism. During Black History Month, students read about young people of all races marching for voting right with Dr. King in Selma. They see photos of youthful leaders like Rep. John Lewis protesting segregation through student sit-ins in Nashville. No matter what your race, studying the civil rights movement really epitomizes how the qualities of youth have promoted social change and racial equality in our country.
This February also marks almost a year and a half since the levees broke in New Orleans, once home to a robust African American population vital to the city's culture and history. Now half of the city's population remains displaced, tens of thousands of houses lay in shambles, while billions of dollars in federal aid tied up in strangulating red tape has suffocated the rebuilding process and the families that survived the storm. While several politicians have been quick to use the backdrop of tragedy in New Orleans to lay blame and point fingers in recent months, they have been slower to offer real solutions.
Buried amid these dampening realities lays a budding grassroots movement and some hope.
Grassroots advocates have risen to the occasion filling the gaps of government leadership. They continue to punch well above their weight, more through strength of will than size of budget. They've taken on unforeseen roles of neighborhood planners and construction workers with the help of thousands of volunteers across the country to tackle the lack of affordable housing and the need to preserve homes. They have partnered with lawyers across the country guarding the rights of their displaced neighbors. The Association of Community Organizations in New Orleans and its more than 9,000 member families from New Orleans has been a shining example of a group that has moved to the forefront of struggling to overcome the many hurdles of bungling policies and unjust realities affecting the storm's survivors in recent months to work towards the goal of a more inclusive and strengthened post-Katrina New Orleans where all of those affected by the storm have an opportunity to play a role in its rebuilding. While these successes should be celebrated, there are still many many challenges ahead and groups like ACORN know they can not do it all alone. New Orleans need a little bit of help to bring social justice to its working class neighborhoods and displaced families. While progressives should work towards holding the government accountable and pushing the White House and Democratic majority in Congress to action, Americans should embrace those grassroots leaders fighting it out on the ground whose efforts in recent months have made the difference, pulling the city back together block by block, regardless of political bumbling.
Seeing hope in grassroots efforts for change, students from the Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development in Brooklyn, NY are putting their school lessons into action to support ACORN New Orleans.
"Black History Month celebrates the black leaders whose struggles and sacrifices gave us the rights and freedoms we cherish today", said La-Keisha Towner, a senior at Banneker Academy. "We want to honor their courage by raising money for Katrina survivors struggling to realize their human rights to return and rebuild their communities."
Banneker Academy students pledged to raise $5,000 in February for the grassroots social justice group the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in New Orleans and are also planning on traveling to the region for their spring break to aid ACORN in cleaning up and rebuilding family homes and working class neighborhoods.
ACORN's members have been a driving force for human rights in New Orleans since the levees broke by helping Katrina's survivors to realize their right to adequate shelter, to be able to return to their neighborhoods and to participate in the rebuilding process.
The students are also issuing a challenge for 1,000 other schools, groups, churches, philanthropists, or businesses to step forward and launch their own campaigns to raise a $5,000 dollar matching donation to help ACORN New Orleans towards a goal of raising $5,000,000.
Beatriz Grullon, a junior remarked, "By raising these funds and going down to New Orleans we can not only repair homes but the culture. During Black History Month we remember the legacy that our ancestors have left us; New Orleans is a part of that legacy."
The students kicked off their fundraising effort on February 1st, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's first speech in New Orleans. Banneker Academy are inspired by Dr. King's claim that, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." They recognize the current injustice in New Orleans and how it threatens our national ideals. Banneker Academy students hope this campaign will help more Americans to realize their responsibility to support the storm's survivors in overcoming the many obstacles they face in rebuilding their lives and communities.
Led by their teacher, Terry Ann Samuel, who volunteered with ACORN New Orleans for six weeks and brought the group's work to her student's attention, the students have begun selling items at their school store, selling Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and snacks during lunch periods, and taking up donations from the community.
"It is easy for people to look at a problem situation and say 'that's a shame', it is quite another to DO something about it and provide realistic, meaningful ways of becoming change agents," said Samuel. "We work with the understanding that every little bit helps; that one is the difference between 99 and 100. This fundraiser is our school's 'little bit' and we hope, sincerely, that others will join us"
The fundraising effort is being coordinated with ACORN Louisiana's head organizer, Stephen Bradberry, who visited the students February 1st to help kick-off their efforts.
During his visit Bradberry described the situation on the ground in New Orleans to the students and thanked them for their efforts. Thousands of homes still lay in shambles almost a year and a half after the storm, Bradberry explained, especially in working class neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward where many still displaced ACORN members once lived.
Funds from federal block grants for rebuilding homes have only reached a handful of families in Louisiana. ACORN has gutted and preserved almost two thousand storm damaged homes free of charge, more than any group in the area, with the help of volunteer labor. Gutting homes is a necessary step to ensure homeowners have a right to return home by meeting city ordinances, which threaten to possibly seize blighted properties. ACORN continues to mount legal challenges to unjust FEMA policies and lobby the federal, state and local government to protect working class families, many who are still displaced from the city.
"How the government treated the largely black victims of the storm generated a lot of emotion out of the black community but now a year and a half later we need to put some of that emotion into action," Bradberry said. "Black communities across the country can work alongside the storm's survivors who are already working in New Orleans by raising funds in their own communities or organizing trips to come down and rebuild these neighborhoods."
"President Bush and other leaders might not make good on their promises to rebuild New Orleans but together if we can build on the efforts of these kids, bring together a thousand or so groups and raise these funds, together," he said, "then as a community we can still make good on these promises and heal these neighborhoods and the wound this tragedy has left open in our country."
"No one can help us but ourselves," said Banneker Academy 11th grader Darian Springer. "We are the future. It's up to us to try the hardest to make it better."