WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Emily Kask
A city-level Resilience Corps in New Orleans could serve as a national model to dually combat the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. The Frontline explores the power of trusting and investing in communities.
When the U.S. entered lockdown almost exactly a year ago, Brion Teapo was on maternity leave. The 28-year-old had been working as a bartender on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, but that job was long gone by the time she was ready to enter the workforce again. Since then, the city—whose economy depends largely on tourism—has shuttered tens of thousands of jobs.
Teapo was out of work with a new baby to care for. Like the millions of others affected by the sudden economic meltdown, Teapo was unsure how to move forward. Unbeknownst to her, the city of New Orleans was busy putting together a new workforce program that would soon open a door of opportunities for people like Teapo: Resilience Corps.
The Corps is a partnership between the City of New Orleans and Resilience Force, a nonprofit working to build an equitable disaster response economy across the U.S. The program specifically targets those laid off by the hospitality industry due to the pandemic and trains them to become community health workers against the coronavirus. The idea for such a program dates back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina more than 15 years ago, says Resilience Force Executive Director Saket Soni, but the COVID-19 crisis set in motion the chain of events needed to make it a reality.
The program hired its first cohort of community health workers in October. Teapo was among the eight-person team. She had grown up interested in the health field and even took some pre-nursing classes in college. Thanks to her grandmother, who sent her the job listing, Teapo is finally living that dream.
“Ever since I [can] remember, I always wanted to be a nurse,” she says. “Now, being in the field, I feel like it’s really rewarding. There’s nothing better than being able to go to your community, talk to people face-to-face, gain their trust, and let them know there are people working for them and rooting for them.”
Resilience Force hopes that this workforce program can serve as a pilot for a national Resilience Corps. In January 2021, the group released a blueprint for President Joe Biden to upscale what’s happening in New Orleans. While workers like Teapo are currently hyper-focused on connecting their communities to COVID-19 testing and vaccines, they’ll eventually go on to learn the skills necessary to activate during other types of disaster that result from the climate crisis: hurricanes, floods, and the chaos that follows.
After Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans in 2005, the city’s economy was in shambles. More than half of city residents fled; not everyone returned. Eighty percent of the city was underwater. Wind speeds up to 140 miles per hour wreaked indescribable havoc. As a result, tens of thousands of jobs vanished. The aftermath of the historic hurricane amounted to nearly $3 billion in lost wages over 10 months. As we’ve seen occur with COVID-19, tourism was among the industries most disrupted by Katrina.
Where some people saw struggle, however, others saw opportunity. Soni of the Resilience Force observed that disparity—and how locals were locked out of the recovery economy. He saw how privileged outsiders exploited a desperate situation for economic gain while the people who had long called the city home left in search of financial security.
“Black and brown community members experience enormous amounts of asset stripping during disasters and often continue to see their meager wealth bleed away even during recovery,” Soni says.
Hurricane Katrina was America’s first modern taste of unsurvivable climate catastrophe. It showed us the cost of lacking climate resiliency. And it showed us the need for a Resilience Corps, which aims to build economic stability for residents and provide a safeguard to New Orleans. By now, many of us understand that “resiliency” addresses the ability of a community to prepare for and respond to disaster. Faye Matthews, a resident of New Orleans and the legal policy adviser for the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Program, says it’s twofold.
“Resiliency is the now and the future,” she says. “But what each community needs will be different depending on the starting place. Some communities can’t begin to think about resiliency planning for tomorrow because they’re still reeling from the impacts of previous disasters.”
Hurricane Katrina may feel like a lifetime ago, but New Orleans is still recovering. Since then, more hurricanes have struck the region, leaving it in a nightmarishly endless cycle of destruction and repair. The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. Beyond job loss and economic disillusionment, the highly contagious virus disproportionately killed Black people in New Orleans—and across Louisiana and the greater U.S.
Though we’re bound for brighter days as the Biden administration works to obtain enough vaccines for the entire U.S. population, the data already shows that not everyone has equal access. In Louisiana, white people are seeing higher vaccination rates despite the virus attacking communities of color at higher rates. At the heart of a lot of this is distrust, especially among Black Americans. A study published in January found that Black people are 41 percent more likely to not seek vaccination. They questioned both the vaccine’s effectiveness and affordability.
The Resilience Corps is a remedy to that. The program’s foundation is building trust among skeptical community members.
About a year ago, Soni and his team approached New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her team about the idea of a workforce development program, and they were immediately on board. By 2021, the city had unlocked $1.7 million to develop the program. The two partners didn’t stop there, though. Philanthropic supporters—the Rockefeller Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and the Ford Foundation—stepped in and donated another $600,000. The groups continue to identify long-term funding sources so that the program remains sustainable. This diversified funding mechanism has made it possible for the Resilience Corps to pay members a starting wage of $12 an hour with a path toward $18 an hour. In Louisiana, the minimum wage is currently $7.25.
“We were able to creatively braid those philanthropic dollars with the workforce development dollars to help us try to feed those two birds with one piece of bread,” says Joshua Cox, the senior adviser and director of strategic initiatives for the mayor’s office. “The idea of getting community health workers into a city that needed them while also putting our people back to work in the communities that they come from.”
These community health workers are now being paid a livable wage with access to on-the-job training, which covers community organizing and healthcare. The paid training even teaches skills like conflict resolution and stress management, says LaTanja Silvester, the Louisiana director for Resilience Force who’s been managing the program. By the end of the training, the Corps members should have the skills and certifications to secure jobs in hospitals or clinics, like medical assistants or patient care technicians. All the while, the city is providing them with supportive services, such as childcare, housing, and laptops for those who need them, says Sunae Villavaso, director of the city’s Office of Workforce Development.
These workers are the ones on the ground, knocking on doors, conducting wellness checks, delivering groceries, and convincing people to get tested and vaccinated. In some parts of the city, according to Resilience Force, COVID-19 testing rates have increased by 60 percent since the program launched in October. The workers are now pivoting to vaccine persuasion; they’re treating the vaccine like a “political candidate,” per Soni. And locals listen. These workers aren’t strangers or outsiders; they’re neighbors and friendly faces. They’re family. Already, the city is leading the nation in its number of vaccinations.
“One of the key functions of this program is that it’s trusted individuals,” says Silvester. “That’s what’s making the difference. People in Black and brown communities—rightfully so—have a distrust in the healthcare system, and seeing someone they’ve seen in the neighborhood anyway having this conversation with them, they trust the knowledge and information they’re providing.”
The program exclusively hires those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, but there aren’t any restrictions against formerly incarcerated people, Silvester clarified. Such flexibility is impactful for residents in a state like Louisiana, which has the highest state imprisonment rate in the U.S. Though undocumented workers aren’t yet included in the program, the city is already looking into avenues to ensure they’re afforded employment opportunities, too. Nationwide, immigrants make up 22 percent of the hospitality workforce. In Louisiana, more than 226,000 immigrants serve that industry. These numbers don’t even include immigrants without papers. Many of those individuals are now out of work and ineligible for some federal aid assistance.
“The one thing we don’t want to do is discriminate because of some technicality,” says Villavaso. “We’re trying to figure out how we can provide services to [undocumented workers], as well, because they’re a part of our community and they’re a part of our culture.”
There was a time when Villavaso’s office was fielding 1,500 unemployment calls a day. Not only do people need work—they want fulfilling work. And that’s exactly how Teapo described the job, especially when she handed out clothes and supplies to the people of Lake Charles, Louisiana, after Hurricane Laura. She didn’t foresee this path of disaster response for herself, but she has zero regrets.
“We are always doing outreach to the community,” says Teapo. “If it isn’t that, we are working with food banks, delivering food to people who are affected by COVID currently if they’re in quarantine… Sometimes, we are helping those who are affected by hurricanes.”
Pamela Bourgeois, 59, joined the team in August before the program’s formal launch in October. Her previous experience working alongside Silvester in union organizing made her a welcome addition, but the public health aspects of the job were new. And she’s enjoyed every second of it. Bourgeois thinks of community health workers as “walking warriors.”
“We are people who respond to disaster, so when others are running away from, we are running toward,” she says.
The program’s next phase will involve expanding into mitigation and adaptation projects in the construction and rebuilding industry, says Silvester. The Resilience Corps ultimately hopes to train individuals to become disaster response extraordinaires. In New Orleans, where the hurricane season is starting sooner, that means helping to rebuild the city after an extreme weather event unfolds. Coastal cities need a robust local workforce that is actively prepared for these types of events—and immediately popping off when they occur.
These types of programs carry significance for communities, but local and state governments need more support from the federal government to truly become resilient to our ever-changing climate. In 2020, there were a record 22 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the U.S. During and after these events, public health and infrastructure crumble. Resilience Force has been discussing a similar program in Houston after its historic snowstorm this year, but a single Resilience Corps can’t save a city on its own. Cities need several programs designed with the local community’s well-being in mind—and President Biden has positioned himself as the person to help.
In 2018, singing echoed in the halls of Capitol Hill: “When the people rise up, the power comes down.” These words were a part of the message that Sunrise Movement protesters were sending to legislators—specifically House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—in their effort to popularize a Green New Deal.
National discourse around a Green New Deal put a spotlight on the potential for equitable job creation in our efforts to decarbonize our society. Since then, the Green New Deal remains an idea, a resolution that died in Congress. Still, the momentum born out of the Sunrise Movement’s chants remains alive. It’s that energy that makes a national Resilience Corps possible.
Though most people think of the Green New Deal as it relates to clean energy and energy efficiency, the framework focuses immensely on resiliency. That includes upgrading infrastructure, cleaning up pollution, and restoring natural ecosystems. The Green New Deal takes an all-of-the-above approach to resiliency—and that’s what the climate emergency requires.
“We have an opportunity to actually create a win-win situation for so many communities and for the country and for the planet,” says Mustafa Santiago Ali, the former environmental justice administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency who’s been helping develop a white paper for the White House’s implementation of a Civilian Climate Corps. “If we miss this opportunity, we are actually hurting our economy and missing out on creating a stronger next generation.”
The Civilian Climate Corps is another worker-centered model in response to the climate crisis. The vision involves putting young people to work on repairing our national environments, such as degraded wetlands or dilapidated parks. The Biden administration has come out in opposition of a Green New Deal, but many of its policies are in line with the framework. President Biden has promised to create 10 million new clean energy jobs.
He’d be foolish to ignore the potential in the resiliency sector—especially if he’s serious about centering racial equity. The Resilience Corps in New Orleans is one model to consider alongside the Civilian Climate Corps. Both can work in unison to bring a holistic-level of resiliency to our coasts and beyond. After all, restoring wetlands is also necessary if we want to reduce the force of hurricanes when they arrive. As is restoring coral reefs, mangroves, and marine habitat at large. Ignoring this element of resiliency puts vulnerable communities at risk.
“Racial, health, and climate inequities that we’re already seeing are likely to grow, and history has shown that,” says Matthews of the National Wildlife Federation. “So we can read a page [from history] to know how things have not worked out well and use models like this Resilience Corps and the Civilian Climate Corps to mitigate present issues and address those anticipated.”
Back in New Orleans, the city is already expanding its climate plans. The city has allocated $3 million to train up to 250 individuals on green infrastructure and water management. And the state is also busy pushing through projects to help restore its wetlands and fisheries. If New Orleans is going to withstand the next storm, its streets, buildings, and ecosystems need to reflect that reality. That means designing the city to absorb and divert water—rather than sinking beneath it. The green infrastructure program aims to attract businesses owned by people of color, as well as participants who are of color. Training should begin in April, says Villavaso. What’s key to success is that communities are involved every step of the way.
The world has entered a new era where time to adapt is running out. And yet there’s a slew of people desperate for work. President Biden’s already promised millions of jobs. All locals need is a little trust and investment so they’re not excluded from opportunities. They can handle the rest.