When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Tabitha Mustafa was an eighth grader looking forward to running the yearbook, diving into some advanced academic classes, and playing sports. Within a few weeks of the storm, Mustafa had experienced firsthand some of the unjust treatment she’s committed to fighting as an adult 10 years later. “Prior to Katrina, I definitely thought that everyone got along, that we all live together happily in this colorblind society — and then it dawned on me that, hey, race really does matter,” she says. The challenges she faced keeping up her education after her family was displaced and the treatment she received from fellow students helped inspire her to work in anti-racist and social activism. Mustafa, now 23, works for Peace by Piece NOLA, one of dozens of community groups working for social and racial justice in the city. She’s also one of countless women throughout the Gulf Coast who have dedicated themselves to rebuilding their communities, which faced poverty, educational challenges, and overpolicing even before the historic storm. Just as women, and women of color in particular, have been at the front of protests for decades — against police brutality across the country in the past year, and for civil rights, voting rights, and gender equality since the end of the Civil War — women have played a crucial part in the ground-level organizing that is helping people who were largely ignored after Katrina.
It wasn’t my goal in life to start a nonprofit. My goal was to have my salon.
Sharon Hanshaw, Coastal Women for Change
Though it’s been clear for years that much of the money and resources that flowed into the Gulf has gone to tourism and economic development aimed at middle-class and affluent people, the gritty and unglamorous work of lobbying city councils for financial support, fundraising for basic healthcare or child-care services, and providing computer training and aid for senior citizens has fallen to the people who live there. And unlike too many segments of more mainstream political activism, this work is being led by women of color. The storm took a toll on Mustafa and her family, one that affected her especially deeply as a 13-year-old. “We lost my grandmother, and I don’t mean we lost her as in she passed; I mean we lost her. We had to find out where she was; the government, neither federal or city, did anything to help us locate her,” Mustafa says. “We found her by calling the Red Cross number at the bottom of the screen and found her, conveniently, about 30 minutes away from my cousin’s house. But Mustafa’s family reunion was short-lived: After multiple schools she attended near her mother were bad fits, she returned to New Orleans to live with her father to go to school there — after only a few weeks. “My education kind of fell behind a bit that year. I got called a refugee; I was just not in a good place.” When she did go back to school near her mother, she was one of only a tiny handful of students of color, and the racism and alienation she experienced there helped push her to become an activist.
“It wasn’t my goal in life to start a nonprofit,” Sharon Hanshaw, a 61-year-old grandmother, says. “My goal was to have my salon, keep telling people to vote, and make sure I’m a part of the system and progress.” After Katrina destroyed her East Biloxi, MS, business, Hanshaw found a group of women who were meeting in a funeral parlor to talk about how they could help their community, home to the city’s poorest and hardest hit. Katrina killed more than 1,800 people. It also displaced more than a million people, among them around 175,000 Black New Orleans residents. More than 75,000 stayed gone, and hundreds of thousands of others in the region had their lives disrupted. Some settled in cities including Atlanta and Houston, and others went back to their homes and took their lives in new directions. The people who stayed had to find a way to help people who were underserved before the storm. Ten years later, Hanshaw still works with the women she met in the early days of Coastal Women for Change, which has helped women get affordable child care, train senior citizens in computer skills, start a community garden, and agitate for city leaders to help bring back some of what was lost in 2005. Both Coastal Women for Change and Peace for Piece NOLA are part of Gulf South Rising, a coalition of community groups in the Gulf that are holding events this week to raise awareness, spark conversations about climate justice, and organize communities. Mustafa’s group has coordinated a screening of a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and economic inequality, along with a panel discussion about organizing, as part of the program. Hanshaw's work has taken her to conferences in India and Denmark, as well as up and down the Gulf Coast, yet one thing still strikes and inspires her. “When you go to these meetings, you’re going to see women. They’re the ones who are leading, the ones who are working, they’re the ones who are raising families,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how many women leaders I’ve met on the Gulf Coast since Katrina. A lot of my peers from NOLA, from Mobile, every time I go in a room, I just start counting women.”
Peace by Piece, where Mustafa works, teaches young men and women organizing skills, activism, assistance for incarcerated youth, and is branching out into advocating for larger systemic changes to institutions that disproportionately affect young people of color in New Orleans. It’s hard work, but it’s work Mustafa says still needs to be done, and that more people should pay attention to. It also means she has a window into the complaints many people in New Orleans have about the school system there, which has been completely privatized and yet still can't meet the needs of its students. And new residents and investment have helped some neighborhoods, but they’ve also driven up the cost of living for poorer New Orleanians, many of whom still struggle to make ends meet because businesses haven’t come back to the areas where they live.
We haven’t recovered. There are communities that have recovered, but they’re not black communities
Tabitha Mustafa, Peace by Piece NOLA
“Point blank: We haven’t recovered. I wish [Mayor Mitch Landrieu] would stop saying that,” Mustafa says. “We haven’t recovered. There are communities that have recovered, but they’re not Black communities.” A narrative of resilience hurts, she says, because it leaves old systems of inequality in place. “What we are currently is a resistant community, resisting the oppression that is placed upon us by these systems and by governments who fail to address our needs.” It’s something Hanshaw sees in East Biloxi, too. “We lost a lot, and it just never came back,” she says. “There’s no stores there, there’s no activities, no community center. Children have nothing to do and nowhere to go, and that’s scary. You’re still rebuilding, and people think, “10 years, y’all should be up and running already.” Not in this area. In other areas it is, but not everywhere.” Mustafa’s experience after Katrina, and her decision to take the upheaval and systematic failures she encountered and use them as fuel for her work teaching other young people how to advocate for themselves and create change, is just one example of what people who still want to help should look to for guidance. And though they’re from different cities and at very different points in their lives, Mustafa and Hanshaw both exemplify the same spirit. “I love the fact,” Hanshaw said, “that women are just so darn smart, and that we rule.” If you’re curious how to help in the Gulf region now, take Tabitha’s advice: Go to KatrinaTruth.org and GulfSouthRising.org to learn more about community groups working around the region.