[Mary Knill (an archivist for the LBJ Library, a member of the Texas Forums network and former New Orleans resident) volunteered to facilitate a small group in Austin for the recent Community Congress Two designed to bring together current and former New Orleans residents in 21 communities. Community Congress II focused on updating New Orleans residents on recovery efforts, creating a public dialogue to identify rebuilding priorities, and strengthening public awareness for continued recovery and rebuilding efforts. I asked Mary to file this report about the experience. Marla Crockett, Texas Forums member and news director for KERA in Dallas, attended the Dallas gathering and will be including audio excerpts from the event in her farewell broadcast on December 15. I’ll post links in this blog to her recordings.]
On Saturday, December 2, 2006, AmericaSpeaks hosted an interactive community meeting that brought together over 2500 New Orleans residents and evacuees from 21 sites across the nation. At five sites in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, and 16 satellite sites, New Orleanians watched introductions from Mayor Ray Nagin and Dr. Norman Francis, chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) and President of Xavier University, in which they described the re-building planning process to date and the funds that had been allocated for recovery. Participants were told that this community meeting process, called the “Unified New Orleans Plan,” or UNOP, was the accepted process signed on to by the city council, the mayor and the LRA and that what the participants decided that day would become the blueprint for future planning initiatives.
Other news they shared about available funds and the timeframe for recovery was grim but participants were told that their input would not only direct where existing funds would be channeled but that their voices would be used to develop a plan that could be used to approach Congress and philanthropic organizations for additional funds to help bring the city back.
The participants then got down to a long day of discussing their positions and voting on six critical issues: 1) Flood Protection; 2) Roads, Transit and Utilities; 3) Neighborhood Stability; 4) Rental and Affordable Housing; 5) Education and Health Services; and 6) Other Public Services such as police, EMS, and fire departments. One over-riding theme of the day was that New Orleanians did not want to just return their city to its pre-Katrina standing – they wanted to make the city stronger and better, while still preserving its rich heritage.
The methodology was not like anything the New Orleanians or I had encountered. At the five main locations participants used keypads to enter their demographic information, and, over the course of the day, to vote on the issues. As with many such forums each discussion cycle began with a presentation of the issue and the three or four suggested options for addressing the issue. During the discussions the participants talked about the pros and cons of each option and came up with alternative options. Reporters at each table recorded themes that arose during the discussions and submitted them over the internet to the “theme team” working in New Orleans. The theme team simultaneously synthesized the information arriving from over 250 tables across the country, including the satellite sites, into further options. Then, in real time, a new list of options generated from the original options and the themes sent from the participants were displayed on the screens at all 21 sites. From these lists of often nine to twelve options participants chose the top three or four that they preferred. Once again, in real time, the percentages of those choosing different options were displayed on the screen, sometimes to the loud cheers of the participants. It was an empowering experience for the participants to offer new options for resolving problems, to have them included in the vote, and to see them supported by their fellow New Orleanians across the nation.
Previous efforts to survey New Orleanians about their preferences for the “Road Home” had not represented the demographics of New Orleans pre-Katrina. Because the unique culture and spirit of New Orleans are a direct reflection of the city’s demographics, AmericaSpeaks was committed to bringing together a representative sample of the population. As you can see in the report at http://www.unifiedneworleansplan.com/uploads/UNOPpreliminaryreportdraftv4-01856.pdf, the ethnic diversity of the participants almost exactly mirrored that of pre-Katrina New Orleans. However, the economic distribution was not as well represented. But by correlating votes on the different issues to the demographic data that participants entered in their keypads at the start of the day, AmericaSpeaks and UNOP can present a plan to the City Council, the Mayor and the LRA that can honestly say it reflects the desires of the citizens of New Orleans.
The next Community Congress is to be held on January 13. Meanwhile, you can view an 8-minute video that highlights the methodology online at http://www.americaspeaks.org/resources/video/toughissues_full.htm.