Growing up in New Orleans, water was ever-present – yet invisible – to Jessica Dandridge.
“I never saw the [Mississippi] River. What I saw were 20-foot walls – the levees holding it back. As a child it was all a mystery to me, until everything came rushing through.”
The day Jessica turned 16-years-old, Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Her birthday, she says, “is the day the levees broke.” Like generations of New Orleans residents, Jessica’s relationship to water is rooted in trauma – both protection from it and access to it. Today, as executive director of The Water Collaborative, she is listening to the residents of the diverse, urban communities of New Orleans and helping them thrive with water through the arts, education and advocacy.
A Walton Family Foundation grantee, I spoke with Jessica to learn more about her story, and how the Collaborative is using urban water management as a tool for social, economic and environmental healing.
Tell me about your relationship to the Mississippi River.
I was born and raised in the 7th Ward, a mostly Black and working-class, well-educated community. Ours was a multi-generational Creole household. My grandmother was from Breaux Bridge, the crayfish capital. My grandfather was Jamaican. Our community is a beautiful, uniquely American story. But every generation here also has a similar experience – a similar trauma – when it comes to water. Katrina was mine, but my grandparents were on the roof when Betsy hit, when Camille hit.
How is the Water Collaborative helping residents of New Orleans take control of their future relative to the river?
We live in a Delta that is meant to flood. So, we help people learn to live with the water. We help people take ownership of the systems that impact them. Here in New Orleans, that’s water. Climate adaptation and resilience, green infrastructure and stormwater management are going to be the tools to protect us. So, we focus on bringing community voice to these complex solutions.
Because, bless their hearts, sometimes engineers and legislators can think in a bubble. It happened with the French and Spanish when they didn’t listen to Indigenous voices about how to manage the river. It’s happening today when the city redesigns a street without input from the neighbors, who know exactly where and how it floods.
Another area we focus on is water justice and quality. Some people might not consider access to water an issue in New Orleans given how abundant it is. But climate change is reducing the quality of that water, making water treatment and clean drinking water more expensive. If you want to enjoy the coast, access is limited because our coastline is not public. So, unless you are with a private business or homeowner, you can’t participate in this thing that surrounds you.
So, we have to speak up. Our community can’t be a bystander to the decisions being made around them. Because at the end of the day, the people closest to the land are often the best stewards of it.
How do you help community voice be heard?
I’ve worked in policy for a long time, and a lot of local leaders mistakenly believe that regular folks don’t care about policy. I can tell you that just isn’t true. People are hungry to know how systems work. A good example – in spring of 2023 we hosted a series on how water is controlled in Louisiana. This was the nerdiest of nerdy topics, and we had 300 participants ranging in age from 15 to 82. We sold out!
To encourage the community to get more involved, we are launching a partnership with the ISeeChange app, a tool where neighbors can log block-by-block observations on climate change to help the city address urban water management where it’s needed most. Residents can also select the issues they are interested in, like flooding, and receive notifications on city meetings and events. It’s one way to help solve that constant push and pull for neighbors who want to get more involved but don’t know where to start.
What about your work with local artists and creators?
One of the challenges we face in this very complex work is how to talk about these issues in a way that people understand. And you can’t understand what you can’t see.
With support from the Walton Family Foundation, we launched the Brackish Artists Collective. We work with everyone – rappers, painters, cocktail artists, you name it – to spread the word about water.
A lot of residents in New Orleans, our creative community included, have never been outside the levees. We take them out on the river, through the swamps and marsh, and show them what we mean when we talk about these issues. We explain the infrastructure and history that surrounds us. For many, their experience on the water has been life-changing.
The collective is spawning massive murals by the artist Nesby Phips. A series called “Don’t Water It Down,” where web creator Deniseea Head creates a water-themed cocktail and we discuss the issues. We even work with a hip-hop collaborative called Freewater.
Ultimately, we hope that a more informed creative sector will act as conduits of climate resilience and hope for Louisiana residents.
Has the community been receptive to this work?
We’ve been living within this system for a long time, and it can take time to shake the trauma – to change what people think is possible through smarter water management. When we first started, I would hear, “What if that French drain brings more mosquitos? What if it floods us again?” “If you plant native vegetation, won’t that give criminals more places to hide?”
To our community, the delivery of the message is important. Seeing is believing. We had five inches of standing water following a flooding incident last weekend. In the places we had those French drains? They didn’t flood at all. More green space translates to less violent crime. It makes people feel better in their neighborhoods.
When people see how it works, they want it. We can’t fix what happened to them before, but we can make things better going forward.
What do you hope can be achieved through appropriate and long-term urban water management?
I was at a dinner recently and everyone was talking about all the ways that make New Orleans unique. How we are this torch for American culture. But then I asked the table, “Will any of this matter if we are underwater? Will the jazz matter? The second lines? The food? Will we be relegated to the history books, and are you OK with that?” Because when the land goes, we go with it.
So, my goal is to share the story of New Orleans. To remind people how unique and important we are, and why this place is worth saving. But to do that, we have to reimagine our relationship to the river. We have to move past the trauma and learn to live with the water.