The Beloved Community: Hurricane Katrina's Lessons

Monday, August 31, 2015 - 3:37 pm
Sherry P. Magill

As I've read and watched others' reflections on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's destruction of a great American city, I'm compelled to tell some of my story. New Orleans is not a place where I practice grant making or convening, but it is a place near and dear to my heart, one I've visited for over forty years -- Mardi Gras, Halloween, Christmas, the New Year, jazz fest, Sugar Bowl, Council on Foundations' conferences. I have celebrated all of these in New Orleans.

My first post-Katrina visit six months after the storm -- one my husband and I HAD TO MAKE to support my French Quarter brother and his community -- is one I will not forget.

The occasion was the first Mardi Gras after the storm. We exited the Interstate at Pascagoula and drove along the Gulf Coast past Biloxi, near ground zero Waveland, Mississippi.  Majestic live oaks and giant Azalea plants, strip naked yet standing bent and breathing. An image so very unsettling. I grew up in a Gulf Coast state, camped and hiked among these native evergreens. I know they should not look like this. And the people should not look so hollow-eyed.

Despite physical devastation and few tourists, that first Mardi Gras might just be the greatest Mardi Gras I've attended. We encountered grateful New Orleanians everywhere. The Marsalis brothers were back in town, food and music as great as ever, the French Quarter mostly peopled with locals and few visitors.  Hope, resilience, and community in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. People caring for one another. A decidedly universal human story.

Five years after Katrina, Gulf Coast devastation continued when BP Oil blew a gasket in the ocean floor. The spill raged for 87 days. The beaches of my youth do not look like this.

One year after that particularly egregious human-made offense, one we thought would never end, my university town and home for seven years -- Tuscaloosa -- was ripped apart by an F-5 tornado, a mile wide and earthbound for 85 miles. Alabama tornadoes do not look like this.

My home region is ever vulnerable. We live along sinking coasts, hiding from wind and water.

This repetitive story -- destruction followed by restoration followed by what? -- reminds us I hope of a deep and universal truth: our very survival depends upon our discovering what we have in common and on our fostering and strengthening inclusive human communities. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the beloved community, one to which we all belong and one for which we all must care.

What lesson might we learn from this repetition? Human frailty and vulnerability lie at the core of the human condition, and we, as practitioners of grantmaking, must ask timeless questions – how do we alleviate human suffering, how do we protect against natural and manmade forces that undermine our collective well-being, how do we build just communities?

We must learn that we are at our best when we are not counting and measuring. We are at our best when we lift up the human spirit, celebrate our determination to endure and thrive against all odds, and advance what it is that we have in common; we are at our best when we bring people together, help them create a healthy sense of community where it does not exist and strengthen human community where it struggles to survive.

This is ageless work and we must stay for the long haul.

In April 2016, the Council of Foundations will focus our annual conference on defining and nurturing community in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. A timeless and ever present challenge, work that we of all folks are called to.

I hope you will join us.

Sherry Magill is president of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and chair of the Council on Foundations.

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Disaster Grantmaking