New Orleans Case Study: How City Leaders Can Promote Racial Awareness & Reconciliation

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This is a guest post by Timothy A. Evans.

Under the leadership of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans is taking the lead in community-building efforts to address racial reconciliation. (Getty Images)

Over the course of the last year, we’ve witnessed several events in cities across our nation that call upon each of us as Americans to examine more critically issues of race and equity. From the calculated shootings in Charleston to the riots in Baltimore, these events have forced us to confront persistent challenges stemming from a history of racial discrimination and marginalization.

However, despite this renewed conversation, too often the public debate rests on surface-level rhetoric that fails to capture the depth of how historical injustices persist today. For us to create thriving and equitable communities across the nation we have to be willing to discuss racism, racial inequity and injustice, and implicit and explicit bias, among other issues. Some of the critical ingredients needed to foster racial healing and reconciliation are:

  • Willing city leaders capable of directly and authentically addressing historical and systemic racial barriers
  • A safe space for the community to be vulnerable
  • Communities that are ready to take action

Over the past few years, local elected officials in cities all over the country have begun to address racial inequities by leading a range of changes within local policies and programs.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse. (photo: Jeanie Riess)
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse. (photo: Jeanie Riess)

New Orleans is one city taking the lead in this space. Since 2004, Lt. Governor of Louisiana and now Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu has worked to address racial reconciliation and community building in New Orleans. His leadership has been critical to the sustainability and seriousness of this work.

Due to his leadership, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded a multi-year initiative which intends to foster racial reconciliation within the city. In May 2014, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, based at the University of Mississippi, facilitated a 12-month citywide Welcome Table New Orleans (WTNO) community-building program. The Winter Institute facilitated a safe space for community members to be vulnerable and share personal experiences that shed light on the historical and systemic racial challenges residents faced their communities.

The Welcome Table, the Winter Institute’s signature community-building program, creates a safe space for diverse community stakeholders to form healthy relationships via open, honest communication. (photo courtesy The Winter Institute)
The Welcome Table, the Winter Institute’s signature community-building program, creates a safe space for diverse community stakeholders to form healthy relationships via open, honest communication. (photo courtesy of the Winter Institute)

On June 24, three neighborhood circles that resulted from WTNO (Algiers, Central City, and St. Roch) discussed their experiences and presented their future projects for the next phase.

The neighborhood circle presentations revealed how racial undertones are interwoven within the city, divide neighborhoods, and fuel racial stereotypes. Numerous residents spoke about how these conversations opened their eyes to a different world than they had known in their own communities.

One resident believed she came to circles fully prepared with a racial awareness to have a meaningful conversation. Yet, similar to other personal accounts, she quickly learned that she was unprepared, as her beliefs and biases were challenged.

Acknowledging that conversations about racism are not a space that everyone is ready or willing to address, WTNO went from 300 to 100 dedicated residents. Nevertheless, the 100 residents’ committed to supporting this work can facilitate exponential change in the city.

Toward the end of phase one, each group was asked to develop a project for their neighborhood to help inform, educate, and engage their community. As each neighborhood circle enters the second phase — “the action phase” of the initiative — the circles will be critical to informing and creating sustainable change citywide. This phase will ultimately help to foster inclusive and thriving communities.

The projects each group is committed to working on comprises a variety of strategies from inter-generational/interracial educational opportunities, public awareness through community visual art, and curriculum development for local schools. Each of these strategies help to address, through awareness, the historical and systemic racial barriers that have led to disparities in the community.

Participants of Welcome Table New Orleans prepare to have their picture taken with Mayor Mitch Landrieu. (photo: Jeanie Riess)
Participants of Welcome Table New Orleans prepare to have their picture taken with Mayor Mitch Landrieu. (photo: Jeanie Riess)

Ultimately, the leadership of the mayor is critical to the citywide and system-wide initiative to addressing these barriers. Mayor Landrieu has taken this leadership role. During the event, Mayor Landrieu presented three steps to making sustainable change in the city:

  1. Apologize: A leader must be willing to apologize for past injustices that have negatively impacted the respective communities. Mayor Landrieu publically apologized for the historical and systemic racial barriers that impacted blacks across the country.
  2. Forgive: A leader must work with the community foster forgiveness of each other to truly effect change. Mayor Landrieu’s leadership to establish the WTNO circle is critical in helping the city to forgive itself of past atrocities.
  3. Take action: A leader must inspire and encourage the community to take action that creates awareness about the historical and systemic racial barriers. Mayor Landrieu through WTNO is committed to each circle taking action as the next phase of the initiative begins.

Most recognize the conversations about race and racism can be divisive and confrontational, but New Orleans and other communities are learning that having this conversation is critical to the inclusiveness of their community. Initially, a community may struggle and push back, but over time the conversations and awareness will bring the community closer together.

The National League of Cities launched the Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) initiative this past March to help city leaders speak authentically and directly to the historical and systemic racial barriers in your communities. Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., Mayor Landrieu stated that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” adding that “we have to bend it.”

To learn more about NLC’s REAL initiative, contact Leon T. Andrews, Jr. at andrews@nlc.org or (202) 626-3039.

About the Author: Timothy A. Evans is a Senior Associate of NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative.