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Chewing cud – The grassroots organizations of New Orleans

By February 13, 2006katrina

On Saturday I had the pleasure of joining my neighbor Kristen (and some folks from the Southern Foodways Alliance) help restore two restaurants in the Treme section of town. While working at Dooky Chase’s restaurant I met one of the reknowned ‘Women of the Storm.’  I really enjoyed listening to her energetic ‘grassroots’ observations.

Speaking of greenery, these days it’s hard to keep up with all the grassroots organizations that are cropping up: groups like, and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, and Clean House N.O. and C1TY, and StopTheFlooding.  For the most part, these organizations want some of the same things: i.e. better flood protection. But how they aspire to achieve this may vary somewhat.  Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans has a goofy URL that is long and hard to remember, but their focus is laser-tight: they want one group to be in charge of all the levees in the metro New Orleans area. wins the prize for the simplest URL but its goal is more diffuse: basically, they blame the Army Corps of Engineers for all the levee problems. Clean House N.O. just wants to sweep away entrenched politics.

I’m very much in favor of these kind of grassroots organizations.  I think they are popping up because people are, justifiably, frustrated with the political process.  At the same time, there is an achilles heel aspect to these groups (an ‘achilles heel’ problem is one where the weakness is inextricably tied to the greatest strength).  The increasing number of disparate groups creates a lack of focus for their would-be constituents.  Take me, for example: I’m confused. 

I know that each of these organizations is tired of ‘politics as usual.’  But I find it hard to figure out what the nuances are.  There must be some subtle differences between these groups, right?  Or else they’d  all just merge together into one big pastoral meadow of vocal togetherness.  When there were just two groups I could keep track of the subtleties, but as more got added I found it hard to parse the differences.  So, now I kind of lump them all into being ‘against politics as usual.’ 

And I’m for that, I guess.  But, wait…  Now that I think about it, I’m not sure that I am against ‘politics as usual.’  One aspect of politics (and one that I hate, but I can’t quite figure out how to dispense with) is the need to attend to the divergent views of various social groups.  Many people in these grassroots groups seem to believe that they represent a single plausible view.  I admit that I too easily fall prey to this tendency, i.e., the inclination to believe there is one pat solution to a difficult problem, or set of problems.

Five months ago New Orleans was inundated with flood waters.  It was completely shut down.  Life was simple, mostly because there was no one here to argue about how the world should be arranged. Today New Orleans is immersed in an intricate struggle by competing groups that each believe they  have the best solution of how to rebuild the city.  Not surprisingly, most of them act as though their solution is simple and obvious.  I don’t know how to address all the important problems that New Orleans faces, and I’m pretty sure that many other people don’t either.  The problems we face are unprecedented and unimaginable in scope.  The timeline in which the problems must be addressed is long, much longer than any of us want to accept.

I don’t like ‘politics as usual.’ But if you are going to deal with a political system then you have to be prepared to act strategically.  Having a message and a forum is only one part of the strategy, and not necessarily the most important part.  Being able to address competing views is critical, and that’s where I think the grassroots organizations seem to falter.  Of course, the mainstream political system isn’t very inspiring either.

I’d like to start a new grassroots organization called Magazine Street Traffic Lights. The goal would be simply to make all the traffic lights on Magazine Street work.  How hard could that be? 

Apparently, a lot harder than we realize.

P.S. If you want a better practice, start using the 80/20 Principle.


  • Ernie says:

    Yep, I was there with my daughter and her friend. We were sent over to Dooky Chase’s to work on restoring some chairs in one of the dining rooms. It was very rewarding, and the lunch was outstanding.

  • Frolic says:

    What? Huh? You were there? Were you part of that well scrubbed group who showed up Saturday morning at Willie Mae’s? (Most of were still wearing our Friday work clothes.)

    Damn, I’ve always wanted to meet you, and apparently I did without knowing it.

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