Women Fund and Fight for Katrina Recovery

Juliette Terzieff
Date Published: 
August 28, 2006


As funders and activists, women have stepped into the humanitarian breach left by Hurricane Katrina. They are working to reopen child care centers, provide legal representation in housing disputes and set up holistic clinics for affected women.

Christine Grumm

(WOMENSENEWS)--Long before it became obvious that no government-sponsored cavalry was coming to help after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, women stepped in to engineer solutions to the problems facing female survivors of the Gulf Coast.

They are reopening child care centers closed by Katrina, defending low-income homes from eradication by city redevelopment plans, building health clinics for women and keeping stranded people in touch with community services and larger agencies.

"Leadership on the ground is critical to the recovery process," says Christine Grumm, president of the San Francisco-based Women's Funding Network, a national advocacy organization coordinating funding for more than 100 women's funds around the world.

The New York-based Ms. Foundation for Women and the Women's Funding Network issued a report today which concludes that while women have taken on significant leadership roles on local levels, their voices remain largely absent from policy debates and planning.

"Post-Katrina women survivors have determined to take matters into their own hands when it comes to resuscitating their devastated communities," says the report. "The importance of supporting women's solutions, opportunities and well-being is imperative for a recovery that reverses some of the Gulf Coast's longstanding inequalities and hardships."

Working in conjunction with partners and donors including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., the network sprang into action in the days after Katrina to help fund and coordinate efforts of seven women's funds, which in turn are granting money to dozens of grassroots women's groups.

"What displaced mothers needed was a sense of calm and organization, and they jumped into action," says Ruby Bright, executive director of the Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis, about the women the fund assisted.

The Memphis foundation created an intake form to assess families' needs beyond basic shelter and food and brought together local service providers; they continue to coordinate computer and job training programs and to meet with local government officials to streamline efforts aiding more than 1,000 displaced families in the area.

"The recovery process takes time and needs to reflect the goal of self sufficiency," says Bright. "There are people in this country who live their Katrina every day because of poverty and social marginalization, and this recovery could be a vehicle for real social change."

Beautician Stands Her Ground

When Katrina destroyed both Sharon Hanshaw's home and her business--a beauty salon she'd owned for 21 years--abandoning Biloxi, Miss., never entered her mind.

Sharon Hanshaw

"You have to stay and fight through whatever comes," says the 52-year-old mother of three daughters and grandmother of two. "This is my family's home, their future, and you want them to be proud of the community, of where they live."

Hanshaw's beauty salon remains closed and she is living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Driven by the knowledge that those most vulnerable to effects of the storm--the poor, women and children--were underrepresented, Hanshaw helped form locally based Coastal Women for Change at a January meeting and became the executive director. The group was organized by national relief agencies to examine women's concerns, primarily housing, jobs, health and child care.

"Here we are a year later, living in FEMA trailers, and they are focused on building casinos," Hanshaw says. "We have people displaced who can't come home because there is simply no place for them to stay."

From five original volunteers, the group has grown to over 75 women who have hosted community forums and conducted door-to-door surveys to zero in on the critical issues facing residents of East Biloxi, where Katrina damaged 80 percent of homes.

The women traveled to Washington to push for voting rights and housing and met with policy makers, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Locally, they demanded spots on the mayor's 15-seat planning commission, five of which they now hold, to have a stake in the rebuilding effort.

"People want to do something, but there are so many issues, it gets overwhelming. So you have to make a plan and take it one problem at a time," Hanshaw says.

Child Care Provider Rebuilds

Carol Burnett is focused on the problem of child care.

"Child care is a major need," says Burnett, who in 1998 founded the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Coalition, a statewide nonprofit advocating for subsidized child care. "Many parents cannot work without it and the sector was just devastated. People need to work, to rebuild, now more than ever."

In Mississippi annual costs for child care, averaging $3,380 per child, exceed the average annual tuition of $2,872 at a public state university.

Over 3,000 licensed child care centers in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana suffered damage during Katrina and Rita; the overwhelming majority remain closed. In New Orleans parish, for example, of the 266 centers that operated before the storm only 52 had reopened by July.

During the storm and its aftermath, Burnett's group lost eight of the nine buildings it had used to provide services to about 1,000 children.

Its applications to FEMA for aid were denied. Burnett put out a call for volunteers; local citizens, faith-based groups and volunteers from other parts of the country who'd come down to help Katrina recovery efforts responded.