Sara K. Gould and Cynthia Schmae

(WOMENSENEWS)–Two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, a central truth of the disaster is still too little known: Those disproportionately impacted by the storm also represent a critical resource for relief and recovery.

We are talking about women, specifically, low-income women and women of color, whose understanding of the disaster and of their communities holds vast potential for positive change.

We are talking about women like Sharon Hanshaw, who, after Hurricane Katrina, helped found Coastal Women for Change, a group in Biloxi, Miss., that organized around issues of fair housing and affordable child care and successfully pushed for greater representation of women of color on the mayor’s planning commission charged with rebuilding the city.

We’re talking about women like Brenda Dardar Robichaux, who launched the United Houma Nation Relief Fund to mobilize resources to support the 18,000 members of the United Houma Nation of Southeastern Louisiana. The relief fund has also bolstered support for women and children, including trauma counseling and educational programs for young people and training for women in nontraditional careers such as construction, where the disaster created new job opportunities.

Sharon and Brenda are but two among many courageous and dynamic women who, despite enormous personal loss, chose to stay in the Gulf Coast region after the storms to address the immediate and long-term needs of their communities. Like other grassroots organizers in the Gulf, both Sharon and Brenda were uniquely qualified to address the issues facing their communities: Their own life experiences at the intersections of gender, race and class had taught them much about the systemic discrimination plaguing the Gulf Coast–and much about how to combat it.

Women’s Funds Moved Quickly

Because we knew that women, particularly low-income women and women of color, would experience the aftermath of Katrina most acutely, women’s funds–foundations that make grants to empower women and girls–moved quickly after the storm to support the women-led response in the Gulf Coast and areas where evacuees were relocated.

A grant of $1.3 million from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped the Women’s Funding Network and the Ms. Foundation for Women channel early support to a variety of grassroots organizations. Combining the Kellogg funding with other individual and institutional gifts, the Ms. Foundation established the Katrina Women’s Response Fund to provide strategic support to meet the needs of women of color and low-income women in the Gulf Coast, and to ensure that their leadership and priorities are central to long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts.

By making grants to organizations in the Gulf Coast region, the fund invests in the crucial infrastructure that promotes the health, safety and economic well-being of women, their families and communities.

At the same time, women’s funds in states that border the areas of devastation have been working to impact the lives of evacuees. When Katrina struck, as a result of its ongoing, on-the-ground relationships with key partners in the areas of housing, food banks and other sectors relevant to relief, the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis developed an intake form for evacuees so effective that its use spread to relief organizations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Offering Lessons in Ongoing Recovery

The efforts in Memphis quickly matched the needs of 4,000 displaced families with local resources. Today the foundation continues to help lead and coordinate ongoing recovery and support for helping evacuees transition into new areas. Through its grant-making, the foundation is ensuring that women and families have direct services related to job placement, permanent homes and child care.

The experiences of these and other women-led organizations have helped identify a number of key concepts that hold the potential to revolutionize recovery and rebuilding in the wake of any disaster. Here are but two examples:

  • Taking an integrated approach to supporting women and their families after disaster strikes makes a difference: A report commissioned by the Women’s Funding Network and the Ms. Foundation concluded that the most successful approach to relief and recovery is one that bundles multiple services and agencies through a main contact point or lead agency. Women-led organizations are veterans of these strategies and were well prepared to respond to Hurricane Katrina’s survivors with holistic thinking about short-term and long-term needs. These efforts drew from long experience helping women secure housing, employment, child care, health and safety.
  • Offering enterprise development, capital and training for women to enter fields with increased demand (such as construction, health, education, elder care and child care) is crucial: Of the 180,000 jobs lost in Louisiana after the hurricane, 103,000–or 57 percent–belonged to women. As a result of storm damages, the health, education and hospitality industries took the hardest hit, as did their female employees and entrepreneurs. But community organizations are now finding their own solutions to this problem, in part by developing nontraditional work training programs for women.

In response to the post-Katrina scarcity of living wage jobs for women in the Gulf, for example, Ms. Foundation grant recipient Wider Opportunities for Women–a Washington, D.C., group that works on the Mississippi Gulf Coast–is working in conjunction with the Moore Community House to launch a construction-trades job training program geared toward low-income women. The program will support their entry into the region’s reconfigured work force and provide women with access to wages that will enable them to rebuild their lives.

Results Raised by Elevating Women

Our experience and research have taught us that supporting community-based women’s solutions and elevating the voices and perspectives of low-income women and women of color leads to demonstrable, impressive results. Brenda Dardar Robichaux and her organization provided direct services–including clothes, food, water, cleaning supplies and relocation help–to as many as 8,000 families in their American Indian community in the wake of Katrina and are currently working to establish training sessions to help women start their own businesses, among other projects.

Meanwhile, Sharon Hanshaw and Coastal Women for Change, in Biloxi, Miss., are now actively engaged in bringing much needed international attention to the U.S. Gulf Coast region and were recently part of a delegation that visited tsunami-affected areas, speaking out on behalf of marginalized communities around the world.

It should not take a national disaster to remind us that women’s full participation in their communities and at state and national policy tables should be the rule rather than the exception. If nothing else, Katrina and her ravages have given us an opportunity to shift the status quo in a new direction: one in which the needs of women and families fall at the center–not the margins–of policy agendas.

We know that services and policy-making processes that put women first have the capacity to lift families and whole communities out of misery. This wisdom should inform response to future natural disasters and, for that matter, the larger work of social change. Applying the gender lens isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.

Sara K. Gould is the president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women and Cynthia Schmae is the chief operating officer of the Women’s Funding Network.

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For more information:

Women’s Funding Network, Katrina Anniversary Report:

To make a contribution to the Katrina Women’s Response Fund:

Women’s eNews series, “After Katrina: One Surviving Family’s Story”:

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