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press clipping
Change is mantra of citizen group
'Now we see a way forward' for N.O.
Sunday, February 12, 2006
By Bruce Nolan Staff writer

As candidates line up for mayor and City Council races of historic importance in post-Katrina New Orleans, a new coalition of leaders from business, churches and non-profits continues to grow, hoping to emerge as a permanent force that politicians henceforth must reckon with. Advertisement

But that is hardly the half of it.

Dozens of members of the new Common Good Initiative, as it has begun calling itself, hope to create a new corps of broad-based, private civic leadership that New Orleans historically has lacked. They hope to push forward some version of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's reconstruction plan -- and most ambitiously, detoxify the city's bitter racial politics by forging interracial bonds among community groups in which the city's deep racial divisions can be freshly addressed.

"What we're seeing is the recognition that if we don't get change now, you might as well leave town," said Jay Lapeyre Jr., leader of the Business Council of New Orleans and a key player in the new coalition. "And this is the time to change. Never in recent history have I seen the explosion of action I'm seeing now. It's the combination of the disaster and its linkage to corruption and incompetence and business as usual."

A key to the coalition's success must be an interracial membership base that includes influential voices from the city's major civic, cultural and religious groups, said Michael Cowan, a literacy educator at Loyola University and an early organizer of the effort.

"There is no similar table in this community right now where we can have this kind of dialogue, on this scale," said Ben Johnson, another early member who heads the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Foundation.

But while the coalition includes some influential black pastors such as the Rev. Fred Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, and is reaching out to many more, some key groups of black clergy remain outside the loop.

Among them is the Rev. Tom Watson of Watson Memorial Ministries, along with key members of the Greater New Orleans Coalition of Ministers, a group of politically active black pastors that two years ago was hotly critical of Mayor Ray Nagin's contract policies at City Hall.

In addition, spokespersons for several other African-American groups say that while they find much to admire in the coalition's goals, they are holding themselves apart, at least for now.

Carol Bebelle, head of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, said she is carefully considering whether the Nagin reconstruction plan is so fundamentally flawed that the group should not join the coalition, which aims to keep the plan in some form as a vehicle for recovery.

And Barbara Major, a health-care consultant, activist and trainer with the People's Institute, an anti-racism education nonprofit, said she is skeptical of the group's commitment to deal forthrightly with public issues of systemic racism. Major co-chairs the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

Room full of rage

Like so much else in New Orleans, the Common Good Initiative was born out of the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina.

In Cowan's view, pre-Katrina New Orleans was desperately sick, limping along economically and bitterly conflicted over race.

On New Year's Eve 2004, Levon Jones, a black Georgia college student, was killed by white bouncers outside a French Quarter nightclub. Anger flared everywhere in the black community. Black clergy and other leaders saw his death as the most extreme product of a racist economic system that held one standard for white customers and another for black ones.

As chairman of the city's Human Relations Commission, Cowan presided over an incendiary 3 ½-hour public hearing.

"That was a room full of rage, suspicion and polarization," he said.

Its blunt-force message: "That there is a sort of clandestine establishment that has malevolent intentions toward African-American people in general, and especially toward poor African-American people."

Elsewhere, Cowan said, the politics of race churned inside every attempt to save the foundering public school system. The system itself became racially polarized, he said.

Orleans Parish school board meetings regularly bogged down as divided board members and a handful of vocal activists routinely fumed at each other.

"There really was no public discourse," said Cowan, whose wife, Kathy Reidlinger, is the principal of the Lusher School. "There was yelling and screaming and accusations on the part of a relatively small but very vocal activist group.

"And to our shame, moderates and progressives and conservatives, white and black, have surrendered the public arena to those folks. And they set the tenor, they set the tone and they set the climate."

A historic vote

The solution, Cowan and others believe, is to use the unifying desperation of post-Katrina New Orleans to invite previously intimidated moderates back into the public square. Their hope is that a multiracial, interreligious force can challenge or support public officials when necessary on behalf of a consensus vision of the common good.

They plan to make their debut this political season.

"The consensus is that this is the most important mayoral election in the history of New Orleans," Johnson said.

Common Good, partnered with groups like the Business Council, plans to hold four or five town meetings for mayoral and City Council candidates.

Plans are not finalized, but organizers said the idea is to tightly focus each meeting around one topic. Panelists selected from an array of interracial and multicultural groups will pose questions. There will be no open mikes, they said.

Candidates will be expected to pledge to return to the coalition on a regular basis, and to be held accountable for promises made during campaign season.

Cowan, who runs Loyola University's Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy, began pitching his idea last fall to clergy, leaders of nonprofits and key business leaders.

He produced a list recently of more than 50 churches and nonprofits that are "committed, awaiting board approval, or cooperating." Members of several organizations on the list said the accounting of organizations appears credible to them.

Participants are said to include the Anti-Defamation League, the Islamic Shura Council, Baptist Community Ministries, Kingsley House, the United Way of Greater New Orleans, Service Employees International Union, the Preservation Resource Center, the Young Leadership Council, the Urban League and others.

"There's a sense of urgency there that was not there previously," said Greg Rusovich, a shipping company executive and member of the Business Council. "We were muddled in all these problems before Katrina, and it seemed there was no way out -- school board, education, poverty. Now we see a way forward."

Sense of social justice

The progenitor of the movement is Cowan, a psychologist and theologian by training who came to New Orleans 15 years ago from a teaching position at St. John's College in rural Minnesota.

Cowan has hefty social justice credentials. He is the grandson of a Kentucky coal miner and the son of a union shop steward on the floor of a Caterpillar factory in Peoria, Ill. His blue-collar family got him an education at the hands of the Jesuits, and their concern for social justice dovetailed perfectly with his family's reverence for the AFL-CIO.

As a teacher in Nordic central Minnesota, Cowan, who is white, said he had even less contact with black people than he did growing up in Peoria. So his introduction to New Orleans, and the way its colliding world views rising from race and class shaped nearly every public question, at first stunned, then engaged him.

While teaching at Loyola University's Institute for Ministry, Cowan sought to involve himself in the fabric of his new hometown. He frequently attended worship at the predominantly black Christian Unity Baptist Church and struck up a friendship with its pastor, the Rev. Dwight Webster.

Webster, Cowan and a few others in the mid-1990s helped found the Jeremiah Group, a collection of churches and synagogues using the techniques of labor organizer Saul Alinsky to organize relatively voiceless communities to demand change.

He is a sympathetic liberal in his acceptance of systemic race-based disadvantage.

"Take any quality of life indicator you want: education, health, income, wealth, equity, public safety -- all the things that taken together add up to quality of life -- and African-Americans are systematically disadvantaged compared to whites in every one of those categories," he said. "It cannot be a coincidence. And it cannot be a matter of individual failings. There is a systemic thing going on there."

Shades of understanding

In 2001, Cowan and jazz singer Philip Manuel, who is black, co-founded Shades of Praise, an interracial gospel choir. Their goal was simply to join blacks and whites to sing about the Gospel together. In time, however, as Cowan hoped, the group of 60 or so, rich and poor, white and black, has forged deep bonds of affection and fraternity.

Katrina nearly shattered the choir. After the storm, the choir's leadership tapped its donors for help and raised thousands of dollars in emergency relief to help their brethren.

To Cowan and others, it was an example of interracial comity born out of doing something together. In Cowan's view, singing together led to conversation; conversation led to affection and respect; respect led to mutual assistance across racial barriers.

In some ways, Cowan functions as the Common Good's chief theoretician. And he says his practical experience with his interracial choir shows the way forward on the city's larger civic stage.

He calls himself a pragmatist on race. He has been recruiting new organizations into the Common Good Initiative with a similar vision.

"What we need to engage on is how do we fix public schools, fix government, make public transit work, and do that across racial lines." he said. "And as people engage together -- it works in a choir or in a church -- they can talk about anything they need to talk about in that context. That includes race, it includes gender. These are huge issues."

"Race needs to be part of the discussion. But it can't be the focal point and starting point of the discussion, or we'll lose the political base we need for change," he said.

Luter, of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, agreed.

"I've seen that happen," he said. "And unfortunately, I'm seeing it happen again. Some things don't change. But some way, somehow, we've got to overcome that. We've got to find common ground."

Cowan says he blundered seriously last month in an early meeting to pitch his idea to a roomful of invited clergy. He told them Common Good should not include people whose views contributed to racial polarization.

The remarks were reported. Cowan's effort aroused suspicion in many quarters that endures today.

"What did that mean?" asked a skeptical Watson.

"If I could play back the tape to that first meeting I would not have spoken about excluding X or Y or Z," said Cowan. "I would have spoken about creating a climate where the dialogue or discussion is not dominated by race."

Talking it out

But to some groups, that approach is evasive, avoids honest confrontation and is ultimately doomed.

"They're all the best-intentioned people. And all good. But as long as we're unwilling to have honest discussions and keep everybody comfortable, then we're just lying to ourselves," said Major, who co-chairs the mayor's rebuilding commission.

"One of the things that makes me skeptical is when white people want to lead a discussion on racism. I don't know if they understand what racism is," she said. "When white people tell us what our impressions are, that doesn't turn me on at all."

She added: "That doesn't mean that I don't want to work with them . . . but I want to see what you're going to do different than you did before. To me, it's just 'why can't we just get along,' while the system is killing people every day. I wish them luck, but I've been on this same path for 30 years."

Organizers say that in the next few weeks, Common Good will set a format for its town meetings and introduce itself to the public. Meanwhile, Cowan, Johnson and others in a steering committee continue to recruit members by pitching the idea that a window of opportunity for New Orleans will soon begin to close.

"It's an interesting alignment of stars we have here," Johnson said. "Unprecedented, really. We need to make this a place for inclusive, civil dialogue."

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Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344