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Staying Above Water: How One New Orleans Native Is Fighting for Her City in Hurricane Katrina’s Long Wake

August 29, 2016 | Elizabeth Futrell | This post first appeared on The Exchange blog

“New Orleans is literally the land of opportunity now, post-Katrina, but not for the residents of New Orleans. We’ve become the home of gentrification. Our educational system has been ground zero for the experimentation of the charter system. Our kids are like the puppets. And no one is paying attention to the effects that these things are having directly on the community.”
— Nakita Shavers, lifelong New Orleans resident

In the eleven years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf region of the U.S., compelling and often contradictory depictions of post-Katrina New Orleans have emerged. Nakita Shavers’ story is one of the most powerful stories I’ve heard, and others apparently agree: Shavers’ family was featured in two acclaimed portrayals of New Orleans. Her brother Dinerral Shavers, an esteemed jazz drummer, appeared in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and later, his tragic death and funeral were woven into the story lines of David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s HBO drama series Treme. Shavers, who plays herself in these scenes and delivers a gut-wrenching eulogy, is one of the most commanding people I’ve interviewed.

I met Shavers through my work with Family Planning Voices — a global health-focused storytelling initiative from the Knowledge for Health (K4Health) Project and Family Planning 2020 (FP2020). Most people we interview work on expanding access to sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception, in low- and middle-income countries. Inspired by Humans of New York, Family Planning Voices provides a platform for them to share their experiences and reflections with the global community.

Our readers generally aren’t surprised by stories of the oft-perilous population, health, and environmental challenges in places like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. But stories like Shavers’ shed light on the struggles faced by many communities right here in America. Shavers is currently a participant in PHI's Youth Champions Initiative, a partnership between the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Rise Up, based at the Public Health Institute. The Youth Champions Initiative is a global program for young leaders working to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights in underserved communities.

When I ask Shavers how her experience compares to those of her peers from other countries, she confesses:

"I run into this a lot where people are like, 'You're from America, you're fine. Your community is A-OK.' And I'm like, 'This is not the land of the free.'"

Hurricane Katrina offered damning proof that, even in a wealthy country like the U.S., the most vulnerable populations bear the greatest burdens of natural disasters. For already-struggling communities, the aftermath of a disaster can stretch on for decades and affect every aspect of life for generations to come: housing, education, safety, health, family, economic stability, opportunity, and more.

What's most striking about Shavers is that upon facing the destruction of her family's home and the subsequent loss of her brother, her heartbreak propelled her to do an enormous amount of good for her city, particularly its young residents. Although I've never lived in New Orleans, I can understand why she fought for her city rather than flee it, even after it repeatedly broke her heart.

My two brief visits there showed me that New Orleans is a complex city of extremes. I volunteered at a residence for people living with AIDS located between the French Quarter and the Lower 9th Ward in the late 90's, when AIDS was still a death sentence for many. I also made lifelong friends, heard great jazz, joined an impromptu second line parade with some memorable nuns, and celebrated my birthday at Café du Monde. That visit sparked my eventual career in public health.

The next time I traveled to New Orleans, my friends and I were held up at gunpoint within hours of arriving. The following night, our cab driver told us that he had just found another cab driver stabbed to death in his vehicle in the very neighborhood where we were heading to visit a friend. But the city's food, music, people, streets, and parks were as rich, beautiful, and intoxicating as ever.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29th, 2005, it was a natural disaster-induced humanitarian crisis on a scale America had never seen. It was also Shavers' first day of college. "It was a really, really tough year," she remembers, "My family was displaced for awhile."

Though we heard numbers — more than 1,800 deaths and over a million people displaced — it was the human stories of Hurricane Katrina's devastation that conveyed the magnitude of the tragedy. It was the real pain in people's voices and faces that communicated the gravity of so many interconnected problems that Katrina surfaced: climate change, poverty, institutional racism, political corruption. The enormity of the preventable and unnecessary hardship endured by New Orleans' most marginalized residents in the moments, days, weeks, months, and years after the hurricane hit — beginning with lack of access to food, drinking water, shelter, and other essentials in the moment of crisis, and continuing to this day with layers of systematic injustice — has had long-term effects, including a rise in violent crime. Shavers recalls:

"I remember going back home for the first time the following year in November, for Thanksgiving of 2006, and going back again for Christmas. And while I was home on Christmas break, my brother was murdered."

Dinneral Shavers, 25, a well-loved New Orleans teacher, drummer, father, son, brother, and friend, was killed by a bullet intended for someone else. Shavers' professionalism and composure don't mask her pain. She remembers:

"My brother was really well known. He was a musician, and he had traveled the world. He was a part of one of the very popular bands in New Orleans, which was why the outrage was so massive when he was murdered…. The week following his death, there was a massive march and protest in the city. It was covered by national media, and there were thousands and thousands of residents that had showed up to march and protest for visibility of our leaders and accountability [for] the rise in violence."

That day, Shavers helped launch Silence is Violence, an organization that liaises politicians and their constituents to end violence in New Orleans. Not long after that, she founded the Dinerral Shavers Educational Fund, established in 2007 in memory of her brother to support youth education and creativity.

Now a part of Rise Up's Youth Champions Initiative, Shavers is a tireless advocate and community organizer. She began with a focus on violence prevention and criminal justice reform, but as she dug into these issues, she uncovered a slew of other pressing and interconnected issues — education, poverty, and sexual and reproductive health among them.

Through Silence is Violence, Shavers and her partners started a mentorship program, beginning at the school where her brother had been a teacher. Even though her own family had been displaced by the hurricane, here Shavers saw new depths of damage done to New Orleans' families by Katrina. It was a "different world," she recalls:

"The poverty was another level of poverty. The families that were back in the city were back because they had no other choice—families that were trying to rebuild their lives. Many of the young women I encountered were pregnant or were just dealing with a lot. Many of them were playing a role as parents, not as big sisters. These were high school girls. And they didn't really have a chance to be young girls at the time."

Shavers decries the transformation in New Orleans' educational system in the wake of the Katrina-induced breakdown of the old structure. No longer a centralized school system, New Orleans' new charter-based system allows schools to opt in or out of certain curricula. Among many schools lowest priorities? Comprehensive sexuality education: age-appropriate, medically accurate information on topics including human development, sexual and reproductive health, relationships, life skills, sexual behaviors including abstinence, and society and culture. As a result, students weren't receiving sex ed in schools. Shavers reflects:

"They certainly weren't receiving it at home, because, of course, the families have far more on their plates than worrying about teaching their child about sex. It was just a dire need, and it was something missing."

Although it was not what she had originally set out to do, Shavers established her mentorship program to try and address the need for sexual and reproductive health education and support among New Orleans' adolescent girls. She's never looked back.

Shavers concedes that, unlike her Youth Champions Initiative cohort members in other countries, she's not fighting child marriage or staggering rates of maternal death.

"But in my community — an African-American community in the U.S. South — we're fighting institutionalized slavery, we're fighting inequalities, we're fighting over-criminalization of the members of our community. And when I say over-criminalization — when so many not only males but females are removed from their homes, for something as simple as weed possession, the structure then breaks down."

I think back to my three years as a literacy tutor in the men's division of Chicago's Cook County Jail during college. Most of my students were young black men who spent months or even years in jail awaiting trial for minor possession charges. In many cases, the months they spent awaiting trial far outweighed the amount of time they'd actually be sentenced, but since they couldn't make bail or afford to hire a private attorney, they were trapped. Several of my students were young fathers. It was painful to consider the effects of their incarceration on their children and children's mothers.

Shavers recalls how, at a recent speaking engagement for a girls' mentorship program that was inspired by her own program, the organizers provided her with background information on the girls served.

"Thirty percent of those girls' mothers are incarcerated. Not fathers — because, of course, they are living in single-parent households — but mothers are incarcerated. These are girls who are now being raised by friends of the family, grandparents, where no one is telling them about life. No one is telling them right from wrong. No one is telling them about hygiene and menstruation and just simple things that a girl should have the right to know. When these things happen, the dynamics of the homes are broken down, and, in turn, the girls are broken. And the communities are broken."

I think of my kind and gentle great-grandmother who lost her own mother, a Polish immigrant, as a small child. No one taught her about her body or other things girls should know. My grandma once told me that when my great-grandmother started menstruating as a young teen, she had no idea what was happening. Terrified she'd get in trouble, she hid all of the evidence under her mattress until she could burn it. She gave birth to my grandmother at age 17. She spent the following years in an abusive marriage, struggling to care for little ones while working tirelessly to make ends meet and keep her family afloat during the Great Depression.

It's hard to imagine someone so young facing such struggles with so little support. But, as Shavers witnesses daily, too many American girls are doing it today. Girls of color in low-income communities in particular are not only facing some of the same challenges my great-grandmother faced in the 1930's. They are also facing institutionalized racism, over-criminalization, violent crime, and displacement. The girls Shavers mentors are our future. They deserve better — for their sake, for New Orleans' sake, and for America's sake. No one knows this better than Shavers, which is why she not only mentors the girls in her community — she gives them a voice on a global platform. It's about time someone did.

At the end of our interview, Shavers tells me she plans to enter politics. After spending less than an hour with her, I can easily imagine her as President of the United States a few decades from now. I hope she gets there. And if she does, I'm fairly certain she'll never tell public officials they're doing a heck of a job serving their country if Americans — especially those whose voices too often go unheard by our leaders —are dying, displaced, or suffering.

See and hear Nakita Shavers' story on Family Planning Voices. Find her on Twitter @kita_angelle.

Elizabeth Futrell is a global health writer.