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Sharon Hanshaw lost just about everything she owned when Hurricane Katrina sent a storm surge plowing through her neighborhood in East Biloxi, Mississippi. Her home, her business, and her car are all gone.
But now Hanshaw, and a growing number of other women in the Gulf Coast community, have a new foundation from which to begin rebuilding part of their lives: Coastal Women for Change, or CWC, a fledgling group of newborn activists determined have a say in the recovery of their neighborhoods.
Whatever the 2006 hurricane season brings, CWC may serve as a buffer to additional hardship. It has taught many of the women that each of them has a voice, and those voices count—individually and collectively.
"Our mission is to empower these women with knowledge of what they can do," said Hanshaw, the group's new director. "It's unlimited. You can build. You can go back to school. You can call your local officials. You can talk to them. They're there for us."
Now numbering about 25 regular members, with a core group of 10, CWC was launched with the help of Safiya Daniels, a community development specialist for Oxfam America, who has been working chiefly in Biloxi and Gulfport.
"One big difference that I saw between these two cities was the existence of organized community groups," said Daniels. "I realized that outside of the churches, Biloxi had none. I also noticed there was very little institutionalized female leadership in Biloxi."
Daniels also worried that there seemed to be few community gatherings in Biloxi to discuss what direction the city was taking as it began recovering from Katrina. Long-range community planning was not on anyone's neighborhood radar screen.
"This was a dangerous situation," said Daniels. "Everyone else was making a plan: casino developers, condo developers, and the city, but there was very little evidence of broad community participation."
She knew the concern was there—"in every community there are lots of concerned women who want a vibrant, healthy, and safe community for their families to live in"—but how to turn that interest into action was the missing piece. So, Daniels called a meeting.
One meeting followed by many more
"I brought a group of women together to talk about what was happening in their community, what issues and problems they faced, and how these could be addressed," said Daniels.
That first meeting grew into a series of sessions which blossomed into action, spawned weekly gatherings, attracted new members, and finally gave birth to an official group with a name and stated mission. Its goal is this: "to make a difference in our communities through securing and revitalizing our neighborhoods." Information sharing is the critical tool in achieving that end.
"I don't want people to be left out," said Hanshaw. "I want to give them knowledge. Knowledge is power."
Knowledge starts with asking questions, and one of the first events CWC sponsored was a Biloxi community forum to which it invited the mayor, city councilors, and members of the city planning department. Questions abounded—about flood elevations mapped out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), about affordable housing, about displaced people. Nearly 200 residents showed up for the forum.
Attendees not only got some answers, some of them learned a deeper lesson as well.
"Democracy works only if people make it work," said Daniels. "And we do that by holding people accountable. There possibly has never been a time during the mayor's 13-year tenure that he found himself in such a position, being watched and held accountable by this particular community, and in such a public way."
Signing up for city business
Asking questions is the first step. Having a say in the answers is the next step. Right away, CWC members sought seats on a planning commission formed by Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway. Called Reviving the Renaissance Committee, it was given 90 days to come up with a plan for the city's recovery.
Five CWC members have been weighing in on matters of finance, education, land use, and affordable housing—the subcommittees for which they signed up. And people are beginning to listen to CWC's opinions.
"We are in the paper every week," said Hanshaw, adding that she gets the sense she is even making some of the powerbrokers nervous.
"They try to turn their heads when I come up," she said. "Especially the developers. They don't want to talk to me. They know where I stand."
For Cass Woods, working with CWC has given her a direct link to her community, and that link is allowing her to make things better all around.
"It makes me feel good to help someone," said Woods, who has been living in a government issue trailer—the size of a matchbox, she said—parked in her back yard for months. "That's what has helped me get through my loss."
With a $30,000 seed grant from the 21st Century Foundation, CWC will be able to pay Hanshaw a salary, purchase office supplies, and begin to look ahead at how to fund itself into the future.
Meanwhile, the organization is undertaking a new task: a survey of East Biloxi to find out the childcare needs of the community's residents. To renew its license, a local day care organization is being required to assess the need for its services in the area.
"This is our first project," said Hanshaw. "Another accomplishment under our belts."
And it's just the kind of project Daniels had a hunch a group like CWC could offer the community.
"The needs of the community will drive what CWC takes on," said Daniels. With those needs being constant—as they are in every community—Daniels expects the new organization to have a long and productive life.
"It's going to stand on its own. I am confident of that," she said. "I could see it truly growing into a coastwide organization."