Why Couldn't My Mother Keep Me?

"Why couldn't my mother keep me?" The power of that question put by a six-year old boy to his adoptive mother struck me because the life history of the boy and his birth mother is the painfully familiar story of a disproportionate share of the Gulf-South's population of women and children. Her life story began in Gary, Indiana, where she was born to a drug addict. Raised in a foster home, she had her first child at 15. Illiterate and unskilled, she raised two children on public welfare. Her third child was born while his father served time in prison for drugs. "She never had a chance," the boy's adoptive mother told her son, not so much because of poverty of money, but because of what Sir Fazle Abed, the founder of BRAC, a Bangladeshi aid group, calls poverty of self-esteem, hope, opportunity.

This child ended up in a loving home in New Orleans but 39 percent of all children in the city live in poverty. Their mothers are frequently unmarried teenagers. Functionally illiterate, they often live in abusive relationships. A shockingly high percentage of them are murdered by men -- black women at more than twice the rate of white women. Unable to conceive of something better, they continuously pursue a downward course, eventually becoming become part of the cycle of destitution. By no means unique to New Orleans or the Gulf South, female poverty exists here in exacerbated form.

International organizations have made headway in focusing the world's attention on global poverty and increasingly on the oppression of women as the human rights issue of our day. Although the human rooftop landscape created by Katrina in 2005 made Americans aware as never before of the problems in our own backyard, the states of the Gulf South are still left out of the discourse. nola4women, the brainchild of four independent New Orleans women, mean to take matters into our own hands by taking advantage of the world's attention on the tri-centennial in of the city's birth in 2018. Our approach is deliberately double-sided, celebrating both the contributions of women to the city's history while critically examining the health and educational inequities and the violence that traps poor women and children in grinding poverty.

Nola4women is drastically different from similar efforts. We start with the premise that local buy-ins are a sine qua non of success. We have created a new model of community engagement that depends above all on simplicity. Our programs rely almost entirely on volunteers and academic, cultural and civic community leaders who share our mission and bring to it decades of experience. A coalition of libraries, archives, museums and neighborhood cultural centers unlike any other in any American city is planning a series of exhibitions leading up to the tri-centennial. Based on new research they herald the contributions of women -- rich and poor, black and white, enslaved and free, alone or in community, of every ethnicity and faith, who were the co-creators of New Orleans.

Motivated by a belief in the power of community to effect change, a city-wide coalition of civic organizations, each with a long and distinguished history of fighting poverty, is laying the groundwork for a global Summit on women and girls as the culminating event of the tri-centennial year. In conversation with global thought leaders, the Summit will focus on issues of education, health, poverty and violence relating to women and girls as a cultural ecosystem that results in the oppression and under-utilization of the female half of the global population. Committed to the notion that belief without action is meaningless, the Summit will conclude with a blueprint for change that is dynamic and adaptable, sets out sustainable and flexible goals, informs long-term policies to effect meaningful change in the lives of the most vulnerable populations of global societies

Skeptics will point to the difficulties underlying such an ambitious program but they reckon without the new energies unleashed by Katrina and the renewed sense of purpose and unity felt by our citizens. Change is possible, not overnight but one day at a time, one city at a time, one state at a time, one country at a time. NOW nola.