March 7, 2021
Pearl River If you talk to many people in New Orleans who have been lifelong residents of the city, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — now more than fifteen years ago — is still an open sore and daily grievance. I was reminded of this stark reality while talking on Wade’s World to Debra Campbell, a leader of ACORN’s Louisiana affiliate, A Community Voice, and chair of the Upper 9th Ward neighborhood group in the city.
Asking about the soaring prices caused by gentrification coming into her area, was a bit like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull. We were off to the races, as Campbell talked about the escalating property taxes that were forcing families, African-American families, out of their homes on limited income, lower paid jobs, and pandemic-induced unemployment.
Please understand that Debra is one of the nicest, sweetest people anyone would be lucky enough to meet. Since the pandemic began, forcing many of her older members into virtually-complete home confinement and cancellation of their monthly neighborhood meetings, she has moderated a weekly telephone conference call for her members and others concerned about these issues and interested in hearing the mutual aid and support information that she reports at the end of the call. I’ve listened to these calls from time to time. Politicians vie to be invited and frequently are themselves repeat callers. Representatives of city agencies are often more begrudging guests. Debra welcomes them all as they dial into the call every Thursday. Sometimes there are as many as 150 people on every week, and never less than 75. They canceled the call on Christmas Eve and more than fifty tried to call in anyway.
These calls are no knitting bee. Heaven help members of the Public Works Department when they are asked to defend the condition of the streets in the area, so bad that Debra describes having to back up and go around some blocks. Representatives of the Sewerage & Water Board and Entergy utility company get a beating for their exorbitant rates, especially this winter. Cox cable, the local internet provider, takes a licking as well for cost and service breakdowns, which is part of why ACV abandoned Zoom calls early in the pandemic and went to the conference service as better access for their members.
As part of ACORN’s 50th anniversary, I asked Debra how she became a member and leader of ACORN, and her story started with Katrina. She knew about ACORN of course before that, but it was not until she ended up in Houston as part of the diaspora that she found that ACORN was the place she could go to get the answers she needed. She had ended up as a leader of ACORN Katrina Survivors in Houston, and talked about going to some of the daily meetings Houston Mayor Bill White convened during that time. Returning to New Orleans only deepened her involvement in the organization.
One of the grievances most raw for Debra Campbell and thousands of other African-American families in Louisiana — 75,000 to be exact — was the inability to access Road Home money for home rehabilitation. Large families spread all over the country had unclear succession records so could not confirm title to the homes and access recovery funds. Seeing homes in the 9th Ward that are now unkempt vacant lots where neighbors used to live because then Governor Blanco and state officials couldn’t fix this problem then created living scars from Katrina, is painful for her, especially now as gentrifiers pour into the community with deeper pockets and easier access to resources. This is not something that Campbell will ever be willing to simply forget and forgive. Instead, she and her members, are still in that fight every day to hold onto their homes and their community and their organization.