By Lauret Savoy, Roundtable Core Member
In “The Testing-Tree,” poet Stanley Kunitz wrote, “the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.” So many experiences that make a life, even in more ordinary times, involve breaking or being broken, physically, emotionally, and in other ways. But how does an individual, a family over generations, or a community find courage to be broken and transformed by experience, and to believe it possible to retain a sense of wholeness beyond the breaking?
I came to know many child-forms of despair as a brown-skinned little girl in 1968 America; a child who had believed that her skin was made and ‘colored’ by Sun, blue sky, and the land until told otherwise with spit. As an adult, I’ve needed to understand what hardness leaves of our lives. For hardness in this sense is not harshness or severity. Not difficulty or insensitivity. Instead, imagine the quality of rock or stone to retain some identity and physical memory even though broken or fragmented repeatedly.
It might seem counterintuitive but such hardness can feed resilience over time, and be a vital wellspring for communities for whom distress has been a norm across generations, whether a ghetto, a barrio, a reservation, or impoverished rural area.
The Center for Social Inclusion defines resilience as the capacity of a community to mobilize services and resources—human, financial, and otherwise—to prevent environmental, health, and economic threats from arising and to reduce negative impacts from those extreme events that cannot be prevented. Resilience here requires access to opportunity, to what’s needed not just to survive but possibly to thrive. Community transformation emerges as greater internal strength, and as better self-understanding of how to reduce vulnerability.
But how is this made real in marginalized communities that tend to be the hardest hit by stress or disaster, and then the slowest to recover? What resilience exists within communities at risk that have long borne the brunt of environmental pollution, toxicity, and dirty energy? How can resilience be nurtured, given the continued curtailing of civil rights and cutting back of even basic assistance to the economically poor and disenfranchised?
Almost seven years have passed since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf coast on August 29, 2005. By some measures New Orleans has recovered significantly. The city’s population exceeds three-quarters the pre-Katrina numbers, large-scale rebuilding efforts have boosted its economy, and local unemployment and poverty rates dipped below national statistics. But who has moved back and who is being counted?
Even though most of those living in the Crescent City in August 2005 were renters and low-income residents, recovery programs like The Road Home favored property owners. Corporate spending on rebuilding gave priority to privatizing or reducing many social services rather than ending the displacement and homelessness of poor people of color. Investment goals focused on a smaller but more affluent city footprint, targeting areas where the economically disadvantaged did not, or could not, live. Thousands of displaced families still live in “temporary” housing or are homeless. Thousands more, largely low-income (former) renters and public housing residents, could not return to their communities as rents climbed out of reach and as mixed-income homes replaced affordable housing. (The housing authority demolished intact affordable public housing projects (more than 5,000 units) to build mixed-income homes.) Only a small percentage is set aside and subsidized for those with little means. Lower poverty rates reflect the continued displacement of those with few resources more than an overall boost in the city’s economic well being.
Reconstruction and recovery efforts in New Orleans recall the failed promise of another reconstruction attempted nearly 150 years ago. This reconstruction has changed the city’s racial and economic complexion, rather than restore separated families, communities, or the spiritual rootedness that made the city so culturally rich. Yet polled by Gallup and other organizations on whether Hurricane Katrina and its impacts pointed to persistent racial inequality, fewer than half of white Americans thought so, while more than three-quarters of African Americans in the country said yes.
I think two of the most difficult things a human being can cultivate are the expansiveness of spirit and heart necessary to respond to life fully and imaginatively—with assumptions and stereotypes put aside—and a capacity to ask significant questions about our lives in a larger world, and about lives not our own. We exist in relation—to each other, to the Earth and its inhabitants. We might do well to regard such relation and responsibility as life itself.