New Orleans Activist Pam Dashiell Blends Environmentalism with Civil Rights to Rebuild Her Struggling City
by Kimberly N. Chase
- USA -
"My own grandmother would tell me stories of the adventures she had here," she says.
After hearing the family history of her adventurous great-grandmother, a free African American woman who lived in New Orleans during the Civil War, community activist Pam Dashiell knew she wanted to live in the legendary southern city.
Three generations later, Dashiell brought her family history full circle. Since moving from Massachusetts, she has come to call New Orleans home, and is now a well-known organizer; Dashiell's work in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the city's Lower Ninth Ward took on added urgency after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Trying to bring the area back to life, she now helps evacuated families decide whether they can make the move back to their city and rebuild their homes.
But for all her attachment to her southern home, Dashiell says many of her core values came from her New England upbringing. Growing up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, she was surrounded by a close-knit community, with "an uncle, two aunts and a thousand cousins" nearby. Dashiell says in Boston there was a strong emphasis on doing the right thing, with "all kinds of ideas floating around." She lived in a community that included Irish immigrants, Jewish holocaust survivors, West Indian blacks and African Americans.
"It was a huge mix, a cauldron almost, and it was exciting and fun just getting involved in all that," she says.
The street she grew up on wasn't anything fancy, but it was beautiful in springtime, full of flowers and pear trees, with a big backyard behind her family's triple-decker house.
"It was beautiful and free," she says. "It was pretty much absolute freedom."
Dashiell went to Girls' Latin School, where she enjoyed an early education that emphasized the classics. She chuckles as she says that after Katrina, she drew strength from thinking about the ancient battles and strategies of Julius Caesar. But it's not exactly a joke – Pam clearly feels that in a way, she is fighting on a battleground for her community's survival."That kind of depth, the broad initial education I got, is something that has served me wonderfully, especially since the levee break," she says.
Dashiell names Phyllis Walker, a friend of her aunt, as her biggest influence while growing up. Unlike Dashiell, Walker was very tall with an imposing presence. She worked at a settlement house in Boston, where she was a "crusading social worker who was all about rights and who talked about that all the time -- doing the right thing for people, especially for black people," Dashiell says. "That seemed to be what really drove her and I just thought she was wonderful."
The civil rights movement was where Dashiell’s activism began to bloom, as she absorbed the passion that drove her parents and her community to work for something better.
"It really changed the way I thought about everything," she says, "the injustice that you see everyday."
Dashiell often found inspiration in regular people who became remarkable leaders, like the group of young community members who took over the management of the problematic Bromley-Heath housing project in the 1970s and made big steps to improve it. Dashiell admits there have been "bumps along the way" since then, but "the fact that individuals were able to do that was something that gave [me] a lot of hope," she says.
When asked about her biggest accomplishment, the activist doesn't hesitate to point to her work since Hurricane Katrina. But with many former residents still difficult to locate and many homes still abandoned or in need of repair, her work is far from over.
"The biggest challenge was and continues to be finding people and doing whatever possible to support [them] in making informed decisions on whether or not to come back to the Ninth Ward," she says.
The decision, in the end, is a personal one, often based on whether people are able to access the funding earmarked for them through the government, she explains. Providing people with ways to stay connected to one another is a key part of this process."What we have done every week since December 2005 is to meet, to be here, to provide a forum for individuals and ideas and opportunities to meet and see neighbors and friends, people who you may not have seen since the storm," she says. "It happens all the time."
Now co-director of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED) and board chair of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, Dashiell and her colleagues are trying to make the neighborhood more environmentally friendly. They hope to reduce residents' utility costs by addressing high bills and pricing policies with the local utility along with distributing energy-efficient materials and supplies at low cost or for free. For residents, sustainable living is a statement against human-induced climate change, which many believe had a hand in making Katrina such a powerful storm.
But “sustainability” also means something far more existential for the Holy Cross Neighborhood, where giant cargo ships seem to hover just above street level on the adjacent Mississippi river.
Once the initial struggle of the hurricane was over, many believed that the Ninth Ward should not be rebuilt because it would just be destroyed again by the next big storm, which could bring in a storm surge or cause another levee break. The community stuck together and, like Dashiell's memories of Caesar, they used strategy and organization to maintain the neighborhood's integrity.
Many came to their aid, like the coalition of organizations and academic institutions that convened to develop a plan for the restoration of the area’s wetlands. Other projects include Global Green USA's sustainable development plot and the Make it Right Foundation.
"People have literally come from everywhere to help, and it's been an eye opener for me," she says. "I used to be pretty cynical – I'm not cynical anymore."
Dashiell says she loves living in the Lower Ninth Ward, in a little house she rents near the river. On the one hand it's the ideal mix of city and country. Trash collection and mail delivery are now reliable, but Holy Cross lacks some of the simple things you'd find in a functional neighborhood – the nearest grocery store is miles away, and the roads are cracked and bumpy. These things give the place a lost quality, a little like living on the frontier.It hasn't been easy for Dashiell to stay there. When Katrina hit New Orleans, the house she was renting was under six feet of water in some places.
"I lost everything except my family," she says.
Along with her daughter and her family, the activist stayed in St. Louis for a month. She moved back to Louisiana in October 2005, staying with a couple in Baton Rouge before a Tulane professor on sabbatical graciously lent his New Orleans home to her and two other women until Christmas. FEMA then provided housing in a bed and breakfast until early 2006, when she finally moved into her own place again. Dashiell was back in Holy Cross by December 2006.
Dashiell is not fazed by the continual problems she and her colleagues have encountered in trying to secure funding for the restoration of their neighborhood. When asked about her plans for this year, she speaks of the restoration of the bayou and voter registration, all the while hoping that more residents will decide to return.
CSED and the Lower Ninth Ward community have partnered with groups at the University of Colorado, the University of Wisconsin, the Nelson Institute, Tulane University and others to restore the bayou, and CSED is working on a proposal for a community-based wetlands research and restoration center.
This year the neighborhood will begin a non-partisan voter registration campaign, with the goal of reaching, registering and informing all former and present Lower Ninth Ward residents so the community can once again have a voice.
For her part, Dashiell never doubts what she is fighting for, and as she blends environmentalism with civil rights, the community is what keeps her going.
"With the support of good people and the resilience of brave people it seems like anything can be accomplished," she says. "Sustain the nine!"
About the Author
Kimberly N. Chase is a freelance journalist specializing in environmental features for print and television. She graduated in 2005 from Stanford's MA program in journalism and worked as a crime reporter in California before spending two years in Mexico City. She is now enjoying working on some of the same issues stateside.