Katrina Storytelling Is a Prelude to Change
October 30, 2006Good journalists have long used personal stories, integrating quotes and anecdotes into factual reporting. But the birth of the second wave of feminism—and the recognition that the personal is political—helped give storytelling and individual voices a front-row seat in journalism. As poet and journalist Muriel Rukeyser observed, “the world is made of stories, not atoms.” Driven by a quest for equality, feminist writers broke from traditional “objective” journalism to tell the stories of women’s lives, including their own, and help change the definition of news. Feminists “get it” that stories are the fuel of social change, moving people from apathy to action. Stories can keep an issue alive when the rest of the world has lost interest or forgotten. The impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on women in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—and the role of women’s leadership in recovery—is a case in point. Within days of the storm on August 29, 2005, the nation—if not the government—rallied to help. The Ms. Foundation for Women was among the first on the scene with the Katrina Women’s Response Fund. Staff and board knew that if women were not partners at the table from the start, there would be no just and equitable recovery. Fast forward one year and journalists were crawling all over South Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast to cover the first anniversary of Katrina. The amount of coverage is mind-boggling. But the quality is disturbingly spotty, rendering the stories of many women, people of color, and poor communities simply invisible. The Ms. Foundation sought out these missing voices, determined to keep them alive. Communications Vice President Ellen Braune, new to the foundation, had wanted to add a story page to the foundation website (www.ms.foundation.org) as an entry point for visitors. Why not start with the stories of Katrina? They found New Orleans-born writer Tamara Kreinin, who recruited photographer Leslie Parr of Loyola University. Together they set off to cover the untold stories of the women and the organizations they lead. Kreinin interviewed 21 women, all from nonprofits that received grants from the Ms. Foundation Katrina Fund. She struggled at first to track them down and then to get them to take time away from the crisis management that still infuses their daily lives. Many were too busy helping others to have had the life-affirming opportunity to describe their own Katrina experiences. Once started, the stories flowed. The interviews ranged from 45 minutes to five hours. The Ms. Foundation posted the stories on their website, calling the series “Beyond the Anniversary” in recognition that the problems, and the need for the efforts of these organizers, would be around for years. The foundation did not stop with passive postings or even a pamphlet they published to highlight several of the women. Their goal was to raise the visibility of women on their own turf, so Kreinin added press releases to her assignment and pitched stories to local media in New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The foundation started its media outreach initiative a month before the anniversary—too late to crack the major national retrospectives that were prepared in advance. But they got coverage on local public radio and print press in Mississippi and Louisiana, New Orleans public television, and national Pacifica radio. One measure of the initiative’s success: the coverage helped Houma Native American leaders find “lost” members of their tribe who evacuated and had not yet been able to return home to South Louisiana. Many of the Ms. grantees, angry that their government agencies have been so unresponsive to their needs, are adamant that their stories be told. They want the world to understand that “things are not okay down here,” as Xochitl Bevera of Families For Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children puts it. The Ms. grantees address issues of poverty and race, class and gender, violence and relationships, environment and community organizing—all concerns that existed long before Katrina came to call, but were worsened by the storm. Problems of domestic violence, for example, were exacerbated in overcrowded FEMA trailer camps. Daycare needs became so severe that families were forced to send children to relatives far away. But the women interviewed are also hopeful that the courage and resilience they see around them—which, in many cases, they helped generate—will bring about changes that might not have come without the crisis. Within their neighborhoods, they see a prevailing can-do approach to solving problems. When Nsombi Lambright of the ACLU of Mississippi says, “I don’t separate myself from my community,” she could be speaking about the spirit of every one of the women in this series of stories.