Dr. Beverly Wright honored with Robert Wood Johnson Leadership Award

Vincent Sylvain
Date Published: 
September 23, 2006


Shortly before Hurricane Katrina, Beverly Wright’s mother and only brother died. During the storm, her home and office were destroyed. And afterwards, suffered from heart disease, for three weeks. But Wright, who serves as the executive director of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, looked beyond her personal tragedy and loss, and focused instead on the environmental health issues facing the most vulnerable people in New Orleans.

Because of her health environmental work on behalf of displaced residents, Wright has been chosen as one of five recipients of the Special Gulf Coast Award for outstanding leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Program (CHLP).

There was much work to be done. In its wake, the storm left severe environmental problems such as huge amounts of mold, debris, and contaminated soil in low-lying areas, inhabited mostly by minority and low-income people. Everyone was vulnerable. Wright set up a temporary office in Atlanta a week after Katrina hit and kept in contact with her staff, who was scattered in several southern cities. She put together a team of specialists whose expertise she could tap. She organized workshops for and distributed fact sheets to evacuees to provide them with important information on how to protect themselves from indoor air pollution and outside contamination. She spoke out in the media and testified at congressional and other hearings on the massive environmental damage caused by the storm. She questioned the methods and pace of debris removal by both the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. She challenged state and federal officials to address long- term pre- existing environmental health problems in some New Orleans neighborhoods.

In early 2006 she initiated a project that involved collaboration with the United Steel Workers Union as well as with volunteer, faith-based, and neighborhood organizations. It was a pilot clean- up effort on Aberdeen Road in New Orleans East. More than 180 volunteers showed up for training and work. Tainted soil was removed from each yard and replaced with new topsoil and sod and contaminated dirt was safely removed as part of the “A Safe Way Back Home” project. The result? A cleaner street, a return of residents, and a slew of requests from other communities for a similar program.

“In our city, Dr. Wright is known as the “can do” kid, as her work reflects her tenacity for justice and vision for change,” said Dr. Kevin U. Stephens, director of health for the New Orleans Health Department. “She has made a difference in our community and because of her, many more will return home.” Wright and the four other winners will be honored on October 12 at CHLP’s annual meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Besides Wright, recipients of the special award are Kimberly Dilosa, Executive Director, YOUTHanasia Foundation, Inc.; New Orleans, La; Elise Hough, Executive Director, United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Houston, Houston, Tex; Vien Nguyen, Pastor MQVN Community Development Corporation, New Orleans, La; and Joe Dawsey, Executive Director Coastal Family Health Center, Biloxi, Miss. Each winner will receive $105,000 to further the work of his or her program and a $15,000 personal award.

“Last summer’s devastating hurricanes brought into focus for all Americans the gaping holes in this country’s safety net,” said Catherine Dunham, Ed.D., CHLP’s Program Director. “It reinforced what we know to be true; that local leaders taking the initiative are really the first and best responders. They deserve this special award as recognition of their extraordinary contribution to the recovery effort.”

CHLP also awards $1.2 million each year to health leaders who have surmounted substantial obstacles to improve the health of their communities. Since 1992, the program has distributed 140 awards in 47 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Those chosen are nominated by civic leaders, health professionals, government representatives and others inspired by their efforts to provide essential health services in the communities they serve. For more information, go to www. communityhealthleaders.org. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 30 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org.