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April 20, 2006

Questioning Social Structures through the Lens of Katrina

Living Room Dialogue with Kathleen Kanet

I. Introduction given by Kathleen Kanet

Hurricane Katrina ripped the mask off of the poverty and festering racism which exists in the United States. This disaster forced us to look at these issues and especially how they have affected children. We saw firsthand the pictures of children on the rooftops of their former homes and in the Superdome with their families. We continue to see the suffering to this day, and recently, the Children's Defense Fund has issued a Call to Conscience and Action regarding these terrible situations. Most of the concern lies with the children's health and mental conditions.

Dr. Raymond Crowel, Vice President, Mental Health and Substance Services at the National Mental Health Association, says:

"The psychological impact of Katrina is unparalleled to any disaster we've had in America, especially for our children. What this means for Katrina's children is that, minimally, 30,000 or 50,000 children are now dealing with emotional issues...up to an additional 500,000 children are struggling with the loss of not only family, but homes and neighborhoods that have been destroyed along with the very fabric of their community...The trauma experienced by these children may result in increased rates of divorce, drug abuse, alcoholism and high unemployment as they become adults."

Kathleen went on to discuss poverty statistics. The group was alarmed at the information. Many could not believe that 37 million Americans are living below the poverty line and that 13 million are children. It was also disturbing to hear that parents who earn minimum wage still cannot cover the most basic of expenses.

II. Interpreting levels of reality

The key to turning this situation around is rooted in structural change. Kathleen explained that there are three levels of reality: personal, interpersonal, and structural. Even though all levels are integral, we are only beginning to see humanity through other structures. For instance, we too often allow structures to do to others what we would never do to them personally. And if we are not involved in trying to change unjust structures then we are not living a good and just life.

On a personal level, we may see children and families living in poverty and think, "They are poor because they are lazy, irresponsible, drug addicted, etc." On the interpersonal level, we might think, "They are victims of poor parenting, poor education, poor nutrition, etc." However, the structural level demands a higher level of thinking. While our structures ultimately create the laws that oppress and kill people and that do not allow them enough money to live adequately, we could someday turn these structures around. We could work for laws and policies that ensure a living wage for all and the right to a better life.

Transformation requires the building of structures, systems and relationships which promote a more human, more just and more peaceful world, and then also the changing of structures, systems, and relationships which work to dehumanize people. All these were put into place by human beings, and thus, humans can help change them.

Kathleen went on to read the heartfelt story of Leondra, a child who lost everything in the wake of the hurricane.

III. Discussion

As the discussion opened up, some people said that they don't think the situation will change, while others were more hopeful, saying that the situation can change---if we keep pushing for it. We can't be angels solely within our own homes, said Kathleen. We have to extend beyond and serve as angels out in our streets and communities.

The first step is to VOTE! People everywhere, and even in New Orleans, have the potential to vote for officials who will do good things in their communities. Sadly, we are keeping the wrong people in power. The officials voted for by us are the same officials who leave their communities behind. Unfortunately, many people say, "Well, that's just the way it is. You can't fight city hall." But this is the wrong attitude. Change needs to happen, or something drastic will force it to happen.

One participant asked, "Why doesn't change happen even when new people are voted into Congress?" The recent votes don't demonstrate much promise. Another participant observed that we're neglecting to follow the morals our country was founded on. We must return to a focus on the common good.

The following interesting questions were brought up:

  • Why wasn't the reaction to Katrina equal to that of 9/11? Did it have to do with the fact that more underpriveleged people lived in the south?
  • Why, so many months later, are these people still not getting help? Is it a conscious act of racism and discrimination?
  • Why did they not fix the levees before the hurricane hit? (The levees were only meant to sustain a level 3 storm).
  • Why did they allocate only so much money to the levee construction? Where did the rest of the money go?

The discussion began to wind down as participants pondered the isolation of society, especially for those groups accustomed to living comfortably. We're too satisfied with working hard to attain our own comfort and nothing more. Unknowingly, we look down on those who are not at this level of comfort. But this is not our right. We must spend time with those in another reality (i.e the victims of Katrina) so that we can feel for them. The challenge is keeping our emotions consistent in order to have the energy to start a movement, in order to continue the struggle. Even one small change in our social structure has the power to someday blossom into something greater. We must never give up.


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