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A force of nature

By Anna Kramer
Sharon Hanshaw stands by her tree on the site of her former home, now a casino parking lot in East Biloxi, MS.

"There it is; there's my tree," says Sharon Hanshaw, pointing to a spreading oak with a mossy, gnarled trunk. It clings to the edge of a gravel parking lot, stubborn roots sunk deep into the soil.

This tree once shaded Hanshaw's driveway and mailbox—but now it marks the place where her house used to stand, before Hurricane Katrina struck Biloxi, MS.

As cars rumble past, Hanshaw maps out the landscape of memory. "That's where we found my daughter's bed, afterward," she says, indicating a red SUV a few rows away. "This was my backyard. This was the front porch."

Hanshaw was out of town on August 29, 2005, when Katrina's winds drove the Gulf of Mexico into her neighborhood. Thirteen feet of water crashed through the streets that day, filling her house with mud, scattering her belongings, tearing the bumper off her car. The waters swept inland to downtown Biloxi, flooding the hairdressing business she'd run for 21 years. Months later, all the homes on her block were bulldozed to build this parking lot for the Imperial Palace casino.

Hanshaw says the storm brought her not just destruction, however, but also transformation. As executive director of Oxfam America partner organization Coastal Women for Change (CWC), she has turned her losses into strength—by becoming an advocate and role model for others, her fellow survivors.

A forgotten community

"This is a left-behind community," Hanshaw says emphatically of East Biloxi, the close-knit, predominantly African-American and Vietnamese neighborhood where she was born and raised.

You only have to walk the streets here to see what she means. Many houses in this once-vibrant neighborhood now stand abandoned, their boarded-up windows turning a blank face to the street. Some damaged homes, like Hanshaw's, were razed after the storm, leaving behind only vacant lots. Others are flanked by boxy white trailers, where families live cramped together as they await government grants, insurance settlements, or other resources they need to finish rebuilding.

A few restored houses gleam with new paint, "For Rent" signs propped up on the lawn. But rents have nearly doubled since the storm, and good jobs are hard to come by—so many displaced residents can't afford to move back home.

"We need affordable housing—not projects, but homes that people can pay for on a living wage in Mississippi," says Hanshaw. "But the message right now is, "if you're not rich, get back."

Speaking up for East Biloxi

Hanshaw points out that Biloxi's beachfront casinos and wealthier neighborhoods began rebuilding soon after the waters receded. But somehow those funds never reached this mostly low- and middle-income neighborhood.

Today, she can recite a litany of things lost and not yet replaced: The public library. Funds for small businesses. Elder care programs. Playgrounds for low-income kids.

By training women, people of color, and low-income people to make their voices heard in the Gulf Coast recovery process, CWC aims to give people the means to speak out about these and other pressing community needs.

The group has convened a public forum to discuss rebuilding efforts with Biloxi's mayor and city councilors. Several CWC members have since been appointed to the mayor's planning commission. CWC has also sent delegations to Jackson, MS, and Washington, DC, to urge legislators to provide more affordable housing for people left homeless by the hurricanes.

Until they see results, Hanshaw says, they will continue to push for change at the local, state, and federal levels. "This is our community," she says. "We want it back the way it was&mdsah;or better."

From cosmetologist to activist

Hanshaw's personal transformation—"from cosmetologist to activist," as she calls it—began three months after Katrina. She was shuttling between relatives' houses and a FEMA trailer, which gave off formaldehyde fumes that made it hard to breathe. Though more people fled Biloxi every day, she says she couldn't abandon her lifelong home.

Then a friend asked her to join local women who were meeting together wherever they could: a funeral home, the local NAACP headquarters, a church. The women talked about rebuilding, both their community and their lives. "Those meetings were part of our recovery, emotionally," says Hanshaw.

Among the women was Oxfam's Safiya Daniels, who encouraged them to voice their concerns about the pace of recovery in East Biloxi. Equipped with training and startup funds from Oxfam's Gulf Coast recovery program, the women formed CWC in early 2006. Soon after, Hanshaw was appointed the group's executive director.

Helping women exercise their power

These days, about 20 core CWC members still come together at regular evening meetings. They still borrow space—a beige cinderblock room in the Church of the Redeemer, a few blocks from the waterfront—but their discussions now center on community outreach and upcoming advocacy opportunities. Members of Oxfam's Gulf Coast staff often join in to provide advice.

Hanshaw believes that all women in the community should be able to attend the meetings. With prices rising at the pump, and few options for public transit, she'll even buy members gas cards so they can afford to drive over.

"I'm going to train you if it kills me," she says, explaining her passion to empower those around her. "You're all going to be powerful women."

Creating homegrown solutions

Advocacy remains at the heart of CWC's activities. But as the group evolved, members realized that in addition to advocating solutions, they had to create their own.

"We find ourselves still doing direct service," Hanshaw says. "That's not our mission, but we see there's no housing going up here that's affordable, no library, no activity center, or anything for the children. ... So I have to do what's in my face right now."

Among other activities, CWC founded its own in-home child care program to address a shortage of affordable day care. It sponsors senior appreciation dinners and computer training for East Biloxi's elderly residents. And it's taking steps to help locals prepare for the next, inevitable storm.

Meanwhile, Hanshaw speaks out about the fight against climate change in Oxfam's Sisters on the Planet and served as an official timekeeper at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. But if you ask her what she's most proud of about her work, she'll say that it's "women stepping up," whether in Biloxi city council meetings or on the national stage.

"Throughout this whole process," she notes, "we've created more leaders."

With additional reporting by Steve Greene.