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Nsombi’s Story

November 17, 2006

I see my aunts and cousins and grandparents in these people’s faces. I take it very personally. It angers me when I see the lack of accountability.—Nsombi Lambright Nsombi Lambright is passionate. She is passionate about all people being treated with dignity, and she is passionate about people having the knowledge and ability to speak up and hold government accountable. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Lambright is committed to making the state and the entire Southern Region a better place to live. She notes, “We are a poor resource state in terms of human rights.” The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU of MS) for the past 3 years, Lambright believes the citizens of Mississippi have been silenced by the prevailing attitude that if you speak out you are a “troublemaker or radical.” Lambright observes, “We came from such a rich civil rights history… and now that’s gotten lost.” Like everyone in Jackson, Lambright and her staff lost power for the week after Katrina. Even though her own extended family in Louisiana was not accounted for, Lambright led her staff to the shelters. The first thing they did was give out water, ice, food and clothes. This was made more difficult when she and her staff were turned away at the point of a gun from the Mississippi Coliseum, which was a shelter for thousands. “Many shelters were not for whole families,” Lambright says, “taking just men, as they wanted them to work, or just women and children.” This alerted Lambright to monitor how evacuees were treated. She quickly realized that her home state was not greeting the displaced with open arms. ACLU of MS: Helping improve Jackson’s response to evacuees Before Hurricane Katrina the ACLU of MS’s work to protect and enhance civil liberties in Mississippi varied based on need. The organization, begun in 1969, has a poignant place in history. It was one of the first civil rights organizations to defend civil rights workers arrested by the state government in the 1960s. In the past few years many of the cases have related to poor prison conditions and school prayer. Just before Katrina hit, a planning process focused their work on young people and juvenile justice. The treatment of Katrina evacuees by public school staff intensified the need for that fight. But right after the storm the staff of the ACLU of MS focused on meeting evacuees’ most immediate needs: food, clothes and shelter. Unlike the large shelters in other cities, the Mississippi Coliseum closed after several days to prepare for a “Disney on Ice” show that was scheduled for September 21. In order to clear the Coliseum, and perhaps the city, of evacuees, people were encouraged to leave on buses. The buses came everyday, taking people to Nebraska, to Utah; people had to make split-second decisions. It became increasingly clear that housing was a dire problem. Only 4 apartment complexes accepted FEMA vouchers and there was little affordable housing. “People were displaced over and over again,” recalls Lambright. In mid-September, Lambright and other activists took a Witness Delegation Tour to the Gulf Coast. They discovered that close to their own homes, people had been displaced repeatedly. Landlords saw the opportunity to push out their tenants and make room for new developments. Landlords frequently refused to make repairs and clean up their property, often requiring the tenants to either leave in 3 days or clean up themselves. The ACLU of MS was able to stop just one displacement. And, one year later Lambright still hears these stories. ACLU of MS staff also found that people had been left in local jails, and not evacuated until after the storm. Prisons filled with water, and the prisoners had to go out on the roof and hold on during the storm. Police began harassing residents who were trying to clean up their property. A curfew was instated and citizens were arrested for going across town to see family. Lambright has noticed that on the Gulf Coast, and everywhere there are Katrina survivors, there are more police. In the small town of Picayune, MS alone, there were 29 people arrested for suspicion of drugs. “There has been an increase in racial profiling where hurricane survivors have settled,” says Lambright. However, the biggest issue, according to Lambright, and the one to which the ACLU of MS is devoting most of its attention, is discrimination against evacuees in schools. Three students from New Orleans who enrolled in a Jackson high school a week before Thanksgiving found the school administration unwelcoming. “When the new students walked through the door, they were told by the school office manager, ‘We’re not taking anymore of you people…We don’t want any more of you people.’” Picked on by other students, the evacuees got into a fight and were suspended. The usual suspension for fights is 10 days; these students were kicked out for the year. The ACLU represented the students in a school hearing, albeit unsuccessfully; the 3 students did not attend school all year. Lambright notes that one kindergarten student has been suspended three times from a Jackson school. “Her mom said that every time it rains, the child starts crying. It’s post-traumatic stress, but the school didn’t pay attention. We have to advocate for mental health services for students.” Life post-Katrina: The challenges one year later According to Lambright, the need for increased government accountability became apparent immediately after the storm. Lambright says, “We put our elected leaders on a pedestal like our ministers, and they let us down.” She describes the poor response of elected officials: “The first special session of the state legislature was held 3 weeks after the storm. [But] the entire agenda was determined by the business community in order to allow casinos land rights.” (Previously, the casinos technically had to be on water). Despite many requests for attention to housing, the Governor ignored the issue. It was only in the January session—once legislators found themselves impacted by insurance companies’ refusal to pay claims—that the issue of housing was finally taken up. Lambright recalls, “We didn’t hear from Trent Lott until the insurance company denied his claim.” Lambright and her colleagues have also found that some communities never saw FEMA or the Red Cross until weeks after the storm, if at all. To this day there is no plan to re-build affordable housing. All the funds that are coming into the state are earmarked for homeowners; by state, not federal, regulation. Lambright believes this is because so many of the people in need are people of color whose voices are rarely heard. One year later, much of ACLU of MS’s work is advocacy on behalf of Katrina survivors to ensure that their basic human rights are upheld. Their focus is on rebuilding the schools and making them safe and welcoming for all young people. And, Lambright says, “In response to the total disregard for people of color we began, ‘Access to Government,’ a training for community people to understand the role of government.” She continues, “People didn’t know who to call and how to hold them accountable. Pre-Katrina many people had never gone to a city council meeting; now they are speaking up.” This is particularly true of women of color, whose leadership is critical to re-building. “We want to give women voice at the tables where they have traditionally been absent,” Lambright says. In the end it is the young people who give Lambright hope. She reflects, “Mississippi needs to be a different place for the kids.” She finds that “young people… don’t have the same fear and resistance; they are willing to stand up and challenge the system. There is a strong generation of young people who won’t accept the silence.” On the personal nature of her work “As a black woman, [this work] is very personal to me,” Lambright says. “I don’t separate myself from my community. I see my aunts and cousins and grandparents in these people’s faces… It angers me when I see the lack of accountability.” Lambright is also fighting to make Mississippi a better place for her son. She says, “I have a young black son – I am scared for him. We have to keep fighting – we can’t loose any more kids to the juvenile justice system. It is not acceptable.” On home and community: the need for self-reliance “We went without power for a week,” Lambright recalls. “For the first time in my life I was forced to engage in survival techniques. I have a 9 year old son, and I started thinking about taking care of my son and my grandmother.” She continues, “I started thinking about how every community needs their own plan for when the federal government lets us down.” But even if those plans were in place, it is clear to Lambright that the region could not take another hit. “Please don’t let another hurricane come,” she says. “Things will never be the same again.” The Ms. Foundation helps give women of color a voice where they have been absent The ACLU of MS is using the Ms. Foundation grant to continue their production of the “Know Your Government” and “Know Your Rights” workshops, as well as to create a position for a woman leader to spearhead their “Women of Color Leadership” workshops, which they hope will give women voice at the tables where they have traditionally been absent.