Newsletter: An Accidental Activist in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward

Photos by L. Kasimu Harris

Debra Campbell, Secretary and Treasurer of A Community Voice, New Orleans, LA., February 2022

Debra Campbell never intended to be an activist.

In 2005, she was a divorced, single mom living in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. “I had an autistic son and a full-time job,” she said. “My mother helped me, but I didn’t have time for anything more than work and family. Or so I thought.”

Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the worst disasters ever to befall an American city.

We had no idea how or when to go home. No one knew what was going on. At that moment, everything changed for me.

New Orleans had been hit by hurricanes before. In 1965, Betsy flooded 6,000 homes in the Lower 9th, temporarily returning it and other parts of the city to the 19th century: roads became muddy tracks, streetlights failed, city services disappeared. But Hurricane Katrina was far worse. Almost 2,000 people were killed and tens of thousands fled the city, many for good. New Orleans’ city government was exposed as corrupt and the administration in Washington uncaring and incompetent. The name Katrina became shorthand for political indifference, police violence, and environmental racism. The Lower 9th Ward, its population 98% African American, was ground zero for all of this.

“When Katrina made landfall, we were lucky. We’d safely evacuated to Houston,” Campbell said. “But afterwards, we had no idea how or when to go home. No one knew what was going on. At that moment, everything changed for me. There was a need, and I knew I could make a difference. I just went at it full force.”

She soon connected with ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), an international social and economic justice advocacy group. “They taught us how to organize, how to network, and how to communicate. When we founded A Community Voice (ACV) in 2009, they were our ‘godparents’.”

My child has autism, and not knowing the cause haunts me. Was it the lead found in paint and drinking water?

A Community Voice is a model of grassroots outreach. Their members have led campaigns against expansion of the New Orleans Industrial Canal and Florida Avenue Freeway, fought urban blight, and demanded better schools and infrastructure. They have also led the fight against lead poisoning in children, an issue tragically still in the news decades after its devastating impacts were first exposed.

A Community Voice planning meeting. Rev Richard Bell, standing. Left to right: Robert Richardson, Betty Barnes, Leaudrey Winston, R.C. Brock, Avery Williams, Ida Warfield. Photo by Beth Butler, January 2020

“I choke up whenever I think of it,” Campbell said. “My child has autism, and not knowing the cause haunts me. Was it the lead found in paint and drinking water? He’s 34 years old and will never be productive in the community. That’s the issue I have fought hardest about.”

We can’t afford to make big campaign contributions, so we talk with our votes.

Campbell and ACV spearheaded a successful effort to install water filters on drinking fountains in all New Orleans public schools. “We went to the school system and explained our concerns about the water, and we were welcomed with open arms,” she remembers. “Educators know that lead in the bloodstream impacts children’s achievement in schools. They want our kids to function at their highest capacity.”

The key to change, Campbell believes, is effective communication. But politicians often only listen to people who pay to be heard. “We can’t afford to make big campaign contributions, so we talk with our votes. And we also publicize politicians’ promises, so if they don’t follow through, the community knows about it.”

ACV meets people where they are – geographically and culturally. Xavier University volunteers reach out to younger people in the community who are typically less politically involved, explaining the importance of local issues and how they can make a difference. But it’s not just the young. “We want everybody to be aware of the power they have. Even one person can make a difference. We just need to get them started so they can begin to change their reality.”

Though the challenges of life in New Orleans are daunting, Debra Campbell beams when she talks about ACV. She chairs its statewide chapter and leads her local one, but is quick to spotlight others. She praises the leadership of co-founder Rev. Richard Bell, Executive Director Beth Butler, and ACORN founder Wade Rathke, all of whom she credits for “guiding us in the right direction and keeping us grounded.”

Beth Butler and Debra Campbell posing before new green infrastructure site, February 2022.

And she thanks Anthropocene Alliance for helping them obtain a significant grant to implement a green infrastructure pilot project due for completion this September. Now, A2 is aiming to get them a multimillion-dollar grant to establish, in collaboration with four other New Orleans environmental justice groups, a network of 75 ecologically-diverse “Restorative Landscapes.” If they get the funding, the three-year project will be transformational. If they don’t get funded this time, they’ll keep trying.

Campbell admits that the environmental work that needs to be done to save present and future generations of New Orleans residents is enormous. But this accidental activist, who often stays on the phone late into the night listening to issues on her neighbors’ minds, isn’t daunted. She takes things one at a time.

“My proudest moment is when we win a fight. I know there’s lots more to do, but victory sits good with me.”

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Kerri McLean

Kerri McLean

Kerri is a Florida-based educator and writer devoted to telling the stories of heroes on the front lines of environmental justice. Experiencing over 30 years of hurricanes in the Florida Keys, she understands the ravages of climate change and repetitive flooding.

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