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New Orleans and the Mississippi River
Aerial view of Mississippi River and New Orleans - Louisiana

In New Orleans, Resilience and Innovation are Keys to Recovery

March 12, 2021
The work to re-imagine city schools and protect the Gulf Coast is creating hope and opportunity

There are few places in America as beautiful and resilient as New Orleans and the Louisiana coast. And few places have as strong a hold over the hearts of the people who call it home.

“People love this city for a lot of reasons – the music, the architecture, certainly the food,” says chef Susan Spicer, owner of Rosedale restaurant in the city’s Navarre neighborhood. “I love the soul of New Orleans. The friendliness. Pretty much everything.”

An easy place to love, the region has endured more than its share of heartbreak.

Time and again over the past 15 years, the region and its people have been tested; in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, five years later by an oil spill, and by myriad natural disasters in between.

But New Orleanians and Louisianans did not fold. They imagined a brighter future for themselves and their children. They regrouped and began to rebuild – their homes, their schools, their coastline.

Out of disaster came innovation.

The foundation is proud to have shared in this journey of recovery with the people of New Orleans. This past February, as the foundation launched its 2025 strategy, we virtually convened nonprofit and community leaders to learn how they are turning adversity into opportunity.

The New Orleans Story
2020 marked the anniversary of two historically seismic and unprecedented disasters that forever changed the city of New Orleans - Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill.

Over the past decade, we’ve been inspired by the creativity and determination of parents and educators, who have never wavered in their commitment to increasing access to high-quality K-12 schools that put their children on a path to good careers and fulfilling lives.

In 10 years, New Orleans achieved major citywide gains in student performance, benefiting all students.

Jawan Brown-Alexander, chief of schools at New Schools for New Orleans, reflected that the city’s schools have worked hard since Hurricane Katrina to adopt more rigorous standards that have made the education system stronger and more focused on the needs of students.

New Orleans school bus
Students in New Orleans schools have achieved significant academic gains over the past decade.

New Schools for New Orleans, a Walton Family Foundation grantee, is a “quarterback organization” that provides support to schools, school leaders and teachers.

“This community really embraces its schools. If you're from here, or even if you've visited, you hear about our legacy schools. They've raised up our community,” Brown-Alexander says.

New Orleans Black Education. Reading with A Rapper
Students at Moton public charter school in New Orleans participate in a Reading with a Rapper event with local rap artist Dee-1.

Post-Katrina, “we’ve developed our school system to really answer the call,” she adds.

“When I think about New Orleans, I think about … our ability to always bounce back.”

One of the educators making a difference in New Orleans is Mary Haynes-Smith, principal and CEO of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary Charter School.

“We cater to the whole child. We cater to their social needs, emotional needs, as well as their academic needs,” says Haynes-Smith. For every child in New Orleans to succeed, “it will take all of us working together for one common goal, and that is making sure we address the emotional, social, physical and intellectual needs of all of our students.”

Mary Haynes-Smith. Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary. New Orleans
Mary Haynes-Smith is principal Principal/CEO of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary Charter School in New Orleans.

The same grit and ingenuity that has helped bring hope for New Orleans students is also abundant among coastal residents facing the existential crisis of land loss.

On average, a football field of land disappears into the Gulf of Mexico every 100 minutes.

Working together with locally rooted conservation groups, communities helped write a blueprint of hope to restore the Louisiana coast and better protect New Orleans and surrounding communities from land loss and the impacts of climate change.

mississippi river. barge.jpg

Louisiana’s passage and ongoing support for a 50-year, $50-billion Coastal Master Plan has been a turning point.

“The reason why we have this Coastal Master Plan in Louisiana now … is because people realize that saving coastal Louisiana wasn't just about protecting the environment. It was about protecting our economy and our way of life,” Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., told us.

The coastal plan supports major projects like the planned Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, which would redirect fresh water from the west bank of the Mississippi River into Barataria Bay, depositing sediment and rebuilding land.

“If we don't do anything (to stop coastal land loss), we have to do something else, which is move. We have to pack up, and we have to move,” says Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal resilience with the Environmental Defense Fund, a foundation grantee. “(But) this is home. We're going to stay. We're going to make it livable. We're going to make sure it stays livable.”

Coastal Restoration. Louisiana. Bayou Bonfouca
Restoration projects like this one at Bayou Bonfouca are helping rebuild wetlands along the Louisiana coast.

Cochran says “the most important thing we can do” to protect New Orleans and the coastline is to rebuild land.

“The best asset that we have is the Mississippi River. We're going to allow the river to do what it can do, which is to rebuild some of these areas where we've lost land,” he says.

An aerial view of coastal Louisiana.

“Sediment is the lifeblood of Louisiana,” adds Alisha Renfro, senior manager for coastal science policy with the National Wildlife Federation, a foundation grantee.

“It is what built the landscape … and it is the only thing that will actually sustain the coastal wetlands needed to protect communities over the long term.”

Louisiana Gulf Coast with Barge on Water

The work being done to rebuild wetlands in Louisiana is a “a story of hope and opportunity,” Renfro says. “And that's what we have now, an opportunity.”

As a foundation, our experiences in New Orleans and coastal Louisiana have underscored the importance of staying rooted in the communities where we work, being bold in supporting solutions that will last and being steady partners with those who are closest to the challenges.

As that work continues, we remain committed to doing all we can to support the people of New Orleans and the Louisiana coast.

As chef Susan Spicer told us, the resilience of people in New Orleans and the coast is matched only by their optimism. “We will find a way back,” she says, “the same way we came back from being underwater.”

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