08/30/2010 10:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Katrina's Crucible, a New Vision of Democracy

It was a year after Katrina. We were at a FEMA trailer park, in a wilderness hours outside of New Orleans. This was one of the many far-away places the US government had strewn New Orleaneans after the storm. There, African American residents, left homeless and unemployed, were greeting a group of unlikely visitors: immigrant workers who had been brought to the United States to do rebuilding work in horrific conditions. The immigrant workers had slipped away from a labor camp, and driven hours to the trailer park with organizers at the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, who worked in both communities.

African American and immigrant workers: the first group was excluded from the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, where they and their families had lived for generations; the other groups was exploited in the reconstruction.

The immigrant workers were stunned into silence as they entered the FEMA trailer park. The trailers stood behind a tall wire fence on a bed of gravel--a grey plateau that seemed to have no past and no future. The air was numb from despair. Children were playing in dirt. There were no jobs or homes for miles around. This is what the federal government had done to New Orleaneans in the aftermath of Katrina, instead of letting them rebuild their lives and their city.

Then it was the turn of the African Americans to be stunned as the two groups gathered under a white tent and one immigrant worker told his story. He and others had been brought to Louisiana as guestworkers on H2B visas. They were working as welders, building barges in a Louisiana shipyard. They had been promised good jobs and decent pay by recruiters in Veracruz. They plunged their families into debt for a chance at an American dream. When they arrived, they were locked into a labor camp on company property, surveilled by armed guards, and forced to work in horrific conditions for subsistence wages. The company seized their passports to make sure they didn't escape.

The group talked into the night. The Black workers, who had been told that immigrants had come to "steal their jobs," learned that the immigrant workers had in been recruited into indentured servitude. The immigrants learned that the African Americans in front of them had worked the welding jobs in the Gulf for years, until they were shut out of the industry to make way for cheaper, more exploitable workers -- themselves.

The problems were clear. Then one African American resident, a welder who had been pushed out of work in the shipyards, asked the immigrants: What's the solution? What do you want?

An immigrant worker said, "All we want is citizenship. If we just had legal status, all our problems would be solved."

The African American gentleman gestured to the desolate trailer park around him. "We got citizenship," he said. "They gave us legal status. And look at what happened to us."

He was right. For poor communities of color in the post-Katrina South--and all across America -- citizenship isn't enough. Their real fight is for first-class citizenship.

That clarity, and the courage of Black and immigrant communities that act on it, is the most enduring legacy of Katrina.

That conversation in the FEMA trailer park has driven four years of organizing work across lines or race, class, and citizenship. Our goal: to radically expand democracy so it reaches the places where people are most stripped of power--homeless encampments, evacuation shelters, day labor corners, detention centers, labor camps. That means building the ability of poor communities of color wield power over the decisions that impact their lives.

Out of the homeless encampments and neighborhoods in New Orleans, African American residents built a membership organization called STAND With Dignity. STAND went on to lead a statewide fight for new evacuation standards--and won. Across the day labor corners in the post-Katrina landscape, reconstruction workers organized the Congress of Day Laborers. Members of the Congress are now leading the strategy to shut down the day-labor-to-detention pipeline in the Southeast United States. And throughout the hidden labor camps of the South, H2B guestworkers have escaped from forced labor to build the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, an emerging national organization of guestworkers. The Alliance is now running dramatic campaigns to shift national debate and federal policy at the intersection of civil and labor rights.

Through their campaigns, poor people of color who were treated as disposable in the wake of Katrina--or were downright discarded--are winning grassroots organizing and policy victories on behalf of all communities and all workers. In the coming weeks, I'll be telling more stories in this space about how we can all follow through on the fights they've started.

Five years after Katrina, their work is a legacy of the storm that we can't do without.

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