Can You Hear Us Now? Let Poor Americans Speak for Themselves

Posted September 19, 2005 at 5:37pm

One of the most difficult conversations I have endured in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the discussion about race and poverty. Oh yeah, I have read the quotes from rapper Kanye West and former first lady Barbara Bush. I saw the early news reports about the victims that made me want to throw my TV out the window. But I made a strategic decision to stay focused on my family and not get pulled into making this horrible tragedy a wedge issue. It’s time we shut up and allow poor people to speak for themselves. They have a story to tell us all. [IMGCAP(1)]

There’s no question that I am super-sensitive and emotional about this topic because of my own background. As a child growing up, I lived right smack on the intersection where race and poverty collide. It’s not a pretty corner. Unfortunately, this intersection of despair, hopelessness and turmoil is not unique to the Gulf Coast region. It exists in major cities across America and in some rural areas as well. Many poor inhabitants at this intersection are not black; whites live there, too.

Katrina was an equal opportunity destroyer. She did not care whether you owned a home on the lakefront or rented an apartment in the “projects.” This monster hurricane uprooted big elm trees and oak trees that lined our historic neighborhoods as though they were toothpicks.

And Katrina was colorblind. She didn’t care if you lived in a house made of brick or one of wood. She moved things out of her way and placed them somewhere else. She was a mighty big storm and from what I was able to witness, it will take time to put things back together.

In the aftermath of all this destruction, Congress should hold a series of hearings that allow the victims to tell their stories to determine how to help them get a fresh start. (We have so many of Katrina’s victims stranded in this region — just invite them over.) Whatever is done, poor people must not be excluded from this conversation.

Based on my experience, the worst part of being a member of the chronic poor or the working poor is the uncertainty about how to maneuver the system. Add race to this equation, and you have a recipe for hopelessness.

The reason why so many of Katrina’s victims, including some middle-class folks, are upset right now is they cannot get a straight answer. It’s bad enough to lose all your material possessions, let alone figure out how to log onto a computer to file for assistance or to get an update on information to help you find housing. This expectation is just plain ludicrous.

Federal officials, working with state and local officials, should begin hiring some of the locals right away. They should get rid of the red tape that forces people to find a computer. Bring computers into the shelters or communities where they are stranded.

When I was back home over the weekend, I saw numerous ads for construction workers, builders and other professional skills. No offense, but can someone cut a radio spot and inform people where to apply? Better yet, post this information in the shelters and organize local transportation to take shelter inhabitants to job interviews. Again, think like the people you want to help. Tell them when and where to report and how they can get back and forth. They are ready to work.

If it takes a national conversation on race and poverty to get things moving, I want to start the dialogue. I want Americans to learn how people who live from paycheck to paycheck budget their time and limited resources. I want America to hear what it’s like living with no health insurance and waiting for hours to see a medical professional. I want America to hear what it’s like working two shifts at a minimum-wage job so everyone will understand why President Bush’s decision to waive the Davis-Bacon Act, which guarantees that federal contracts pay workers prevailing wages, is an awful mistake and an insult to the people of the region.

I want America to hear from small and minority businesses about the cumbersome rules and the maze of red tape they went through to get certified only to learn that they may not qualify for the rebuilding work ahead. I am excited about some of the plans designed to help people rebuild their lives and communities, especially the plan to use excess federal land to build new homes. But, Congress should make sure that local people are involved in this process.

Congress can lead the way through public hearings to examine what went wrong and where we go from here. For God’s sake, let’s be honest with each other and respect our various opinions.

The people who raised me and so many others along the Gulf Coast did not sit on their behinds all day. They worked three or four jobs to make ends meet. They taught us to play by the rules, respect others, get an education and work hard. I still play by those rules, but my family and many others need support and assistance from Congress to help get back in the game.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.