Diversity and Democracy

Recommitting and Re-Energizing Community Engagement in Post-Disaster New Orleans

New Orleans has inspired architectural beauty, influenced improvisational jazz and blues music, and created a distinctive cuisine. Yet those familiar with the city have long known that amidst its incredible cultural mélange, there exists deeply entrenched racialized poverty and inequity reminiscent of the Third World. Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing destruction caused by the failure of the federal levees exposed that reality for all to see. The resultant human misery, encapsulated in the haunting images of black Americans stranded on rooftops for days on end, is now seared into the consciousness of the nation and the world.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, members of the Tulane community and volunteers from colleges and universities throughout the country provided astonishing levels of support to a slowly recovering community. Inspired by their response, catalyzed by the disaster’s impact, and recognizing the inadequacy of its previous community engagement efforts, Tulane has officially and energetically committed itself to the recovery of New Orleans. As part of this effort, the university has actively sought to focus its academic resources on building healthy and sustainable communities locally, regionally, and throughout the world. To pursue these ends, Tulane created three new and interrelated entities: the Center for Public Service, the Institute for the Study of Race and Poverty, and the Partnership for the Transformation of Urban Communities.

Recent CPS Coursework Projects

Sociology 160—Environmental Sociology: Using sociological methods, students developed and implemented a neighborhood survey on behalf of the Green Project, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability. CPS faculty and students will use the resulting report to design future outreach and recycling programs.

Latin American Studies 102—Cultural Heritage in Latin America: Students served as classroom assistants and individual tutors with the Hispanic Apostolate’s ESL program. In the process, they learned about the backgrounds and cultures of the local Latino population and corresponding political, social, and economic trends.

Political Science 30—Post-catastrophe Policy Making: Students observed post-Katrina policies in action while assisting with both the city’s blighted housing remediation program and the Road Home program.

Inaugural ISRP Community Forums and Workshops

Structural Racism and Recovery: Opportunities for Change: ISRP’s first community forum brought local stakeholders together with national, regional, and local experts to examine structural racism and develop change initiatives in New Orleans and beyond.

Multiracial Coalition Building: Strategies for Developing an Agenda for Racial Equity Workshop Series: ISRP’s second community forum brought together local stakeholders and experts from throughout the country to explore the bases for and barriers to developing multiracial and multiethnic coalitions in post-Katrina New Orleans. ISRP is sponsoring a series of three follow-up workshops on organizing and coalition building during summer 2007.

PTUC Research Projects

The Metro New Orleans Demographic Project examines changing population trends in the New Orleans metro area in the post–Second World War era, and documents dramatic shifts in city-suburb development and racial composition.

The Louisiana Grand Jury Project undertakes statistical analysis of grand jury race and gender composition in association with criminal defense appeals.

The Community Information Clearinghouse provides a publicly accessible, Web-searchable information clearinghouse and online digital library of research, projects, programs, and service activities in the areas of urban development and transformation, disaster and recovery, race, poverty, and inequality.

Responding to Katrina’s Call for Civic Leadership

The Center for Public Service (CPS) is the key entity facilitating Tulane students’ community engagement. Although Tulane has long incorporated service learning into its academic program, CPS has substantially expanded and reinvigorated service learning at Tulane. In response to the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Tulane implemented a two-tiered academic public service graduation requirement. This requirement is overseen by the center and aims to create socially responsible and civically engaged leaders.

Through the public service requirement and other programs, the center aims to forge a reciprocal relationship between the university and the community. In this model, faculty members create learning environments that enable their students to fulfill community-identified needs. Service activities vary in scope and allow students to participate in enacting policy on both the governmental and grassroots levels.

Combating Racism and Poverty in All Contexts

Created with initial support from the Ford Foundation, the Institute for the Study of Race and Poverty (ISRP) promotes equity for all citizens in the greater New Orleans community. The institute establishes mechanisms for reducing racial tension, creates pathways for reconciliation, and supports community coalition building.

ISRP provides tools for transforming racially and ethnically divided communities by establishing grassroots and ivory-tower partnerships in research, education, policy, and advocacy.

The institute’s research projects identify public policies and institutional practices that perpetuate social stratification. In response to this research, ISRP advances policies and practices that promote fairness, equity, and opportunity for marginalized individuals and groups. Through programs such as community forums on multiracial coalition building, ISRP educates community members in strategies to reach equity.

Linking Action and Research for Transformative Engagement

With support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Tulane created the Partnership for the Transformation of Urban Communities (PTUC). This network for integrating community-based research activities spans Tulane’s ten schools and colleges and expands and synergizes the Tulane/Xavier/Dillard/Loyola interuniversity consortium.

Drawing on the expertise of the university’s entire faculty, especially faculty members in the School of Architecture, the School of Social Work, and the social sciences in the School of Liberal Arts, PTUC’s mission is to address the challenges of building healthy and sustainable cities through unique interdisciplinary research initiatives and educational programs. Toward that end, it seeks partnerships with other institutions committed to developing a greater understanding of the consequences of Katrina and ameliorating the problems highlighted in its aftermath.


Tulane’s three institutional initiatives intersect to enhance common goals, facilitating student, faculty, and staff collaboration and involvement in the community. Together, they encourage civic engagement informed by an understanding of the historical and contemporary dynamics of inequality in segregated southern urban communities such as New Orleans. Their programs and practices provide Tulane students and faculty with the tools they need to promote social justice in our treasured city, in the surrounding communities, and in the world at large.

Joel A. Devine is the director of the Partnership for the Transformation of Urban Communities and a professor of sociology; Rebecca Chaisson is the interim director of the Institute for the Study of Race and Poverty and an assistant professor in the School of Social Work; Vincent Ilustre is the director of the Center for Public Service—all at Tulane University.

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