In the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, the physical devastation in New Orleans was matched by enormous personal devastation in the lives of residents who were stranded, displaced or, at worst, had lost family or friends.
Flozell Daniels, a lifelong resident of New Orleans and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana, said the real tragedy of Katrina was that it exposed the inequity that had affected Louisiana for 150 years. “It highlighted a state, region and community that had divested itself from its own people,” he said.
Daniels’ focus is clear: “We must invest in people. They are our most significant strength. People invest themselves in place, and place must invest in them. We want to allow people to have the influence and impact that they want to have to express their love for this place.”
Daniels’ faced many of the same trials as those he now seeks to help through his work. He, his wife and children relocated to Atlanta for nine months. When they returned, they lived temporarily in student dorms at Tulane University, where he had worked. While he retained his role as the executive director of state and local affairs at Tulane, his wife had lost her professorship at another university. They were struggling to rebuild their home and dealing with multiple contractors, some of whom stole money and supplies in the process.
The ultimate opportunity to help his community rebuild came in 2007 when he was chosen to lead what was then called the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (now the Foundation for Louisiana).
Funded entirely through private donations, the foundation responded to the disaster through a lens of equity and inclusion, making investments in projects and organizations working to build safe, healthy and thriving communities for all Louisiana residents. For communities that had fallen behind in recovery or had historically seen little investment, the foundation sought to promote vibrant business, new jobs, access to fresh, healthy foods and quality homes for children and families.
Daniels explained, “People had to rebuild the infrastructure of their surroundings, along with the infrastructure of their lives. In our work, what we have sought is ‘betterment’ – going beyond replacing what was lost. We seek to build better access to jobs, safe houses, education and medical centers – enabling people to advocate for what works for them, seeing them as equals and using the wisdom of the residents of the community to inform public policy, philanthropy and the other supports people need.”
Guided by the residents of Louisiana communities, the foundation is now doing what Daniels calls “’high-engagement’ philanthropy – engaging with people (to improve their quality of life) in ways that are not wasteful either for them or us.”
One example can be seen in the foundation’s TOGETHER Initiative, which conducts a series of workshops to help educate residents to reach out to and organize with others in their community, become leaders in their neighborhoods and support the prosperity of their neighbors and communities.
“We all benefit when we are investing in people at the margin, those who were divested from, not invested in,” Daniels said. "We accrue the benefits of lower crime, a more ready workforce, more talented people who participate in civic society, people who can take on more responsibility and actually build resilience by their ability to resist policies or programs that don’t meet their needs or serve their communities..
“I’ve been privileged to stay here in New Orleans,” Daniels said. “This is my community. It is the structures here that uplifted me and made me who I am and continue to make me who I am. I’ve had the privilege of living here and partaking of all the good things this place has given me – the son of a 17-year-old, born into poverty, but (also) into a rich community that looked after me. How can I not be a part of laying the groundwork to ensure that my children and grandchildren and all those that come behind me get these same kinds of opportunities – and get more of them?”