An Open Letter to Our Friends and Supporters
Southern Institute for Education and Research
Tulane University
January 30, 2006

I wanted to update you on the progress that we have made since Hurricane Katrina. Our office building on the Tulane University Campus was submerged under six feet of water for several days. We lost virtually all of our office equipment and furnishing to flood waters and black mold. Nevertheless, we consider ourselves fortunate. Our staff is safe and all of our teachers survived, though thousands have lost their jobs because of school closings.

The Southern Institute never ceased operations and only seven weeks after Katrina struck we conducted our annual conference for tolerance and Holocaust education teachers. I am proud to say that the Deep South¬s largest and most successful Holocaust education organization literally made it through ¬hell or high-water.

Our greatest challenge today is overcoming our temporary financial crisis. While we never ceased program work, we did lose our fundraising capacity due to lack of phone and mail service for several months. Today, the Southern Institute faces a financial crisis, but one that I am confident will soon pass. Most of our supporters understand that our work against prejudice and racial polarization is now more important than ever. With a network in the Gulf Coast South of 4,000 teachers trained in tolerance and Holocaust education, the Southern Institute is well positioned to provide distressed communities with the tools to ensure good ethnic relations and positive school environments.

Life Inside the Storm

Before I discuss our new plans, I want to share a little about my own experience during the hurricane. I was one of the few people who never left New Orleans during Katrina, so I had the unique experience of watching history unfold from the inside.

My wife and I decided not to evacuate from our home in Uptown New Orleans since it was above sea level and had never flooded before. In the ensuing days, we began to assist the elderly and poor people who had not evacuated the unflooded neighborhoods on high ground. There were thousands of these ¬holdouts.¬ Many could not evacuate because they lacked transportation; others refused to leave because they owned pets and the emergency shelters refused to accept animals (even boat rescue teams refused to take pets). People were being forced to choose between saving themselves or saving their pets. Sometimes the consequences were tragic: one of my neighbors had to shoot his dog in order to evacuate. He did not want to risk having his dog die of starvation or thirst in his absence.

My wife and I devoted most of our time assisting these evacuation holdouts, providing them with food, water, and, when possible, medical help. On September 2, we learned that 20,000 refugees had gathered at the Morial Convention Center and that officials were refusing to provide them with food or water. We immediately loaded up the Southern Institute car with food and water and began running relief supplies to the center. The refugees were living in horrible conditions but they conducted themselves in an orderly fashion and they were deeply grateful for the meager help I could offer. I made three more trips to the Convention Center that morning until I was stopped at gunpoint by city and state police. Later that day the Louisiana National Guard finally brought in supplies and began to evacuate the center.

We Never Close!

The floodwaters surrounding our office building did not recede for several days, so I eventually found someone with a canoe and I retrieved some computer equipment and files from our building. I set up a temporary office in our laundry room (computer on the washer, printer on the dryer). We had no electricity or running water, but we had car batteries and voltage converters to power the office equipment.

We set about organizing our annual conference of tolerance and Holocaust education teachers, which we had previously scheduled for October 21. This was no easy task since we had no land phones or mail service and the city was still under martial law. We worked out of our laundry room office and Plater Robinson, our education director, and I held daily planning meetings on a park bench¬ across from the giraffes at Audubon Zoo!

The conference was a great success, attracting teachers from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama, creating a network of teachers who can help with the transition of displaced students through training in cross-cultural communication and trauma stress management. Our principal goal was to prevent a natural disaster from evolving into a race relations disaster.

Preventing the Human Disaster

We have thought long and hard about how the Southern Institute can best respond to the post-Katrina reality. We believe that the Institute can play a crucial role in the recovery process. The Institute has a technically sophisticated outreach program and a network of hundreds of volunteer teachers which enable us to reach all 2,700 public and private secondary school in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle. That includes 10,000 school contacts, of whom 4,000 are teachers who have attended our workshops on tolerance and Holocaust education or training seminars on cross-cultural communication.

Many of our teachers are working with displaced students whose lives and families have been profoundly disrupted. Most current programs designed to address the psychological problems of displaced students focus on ¬natural disaster¬ trauma stress. Unfortunately, these mental health programs fail to address the trauma stress of the ethnic and racial group conflict that occurred during the evacuation, rescue, and recovery phases of the disaster. It would be shortsighted to ignore¬†the experience of group suffering by focusing solely on the natural disasters; we must prepare to deal with the effect that both natural and human-made disasters have had upon African-Americans in the region, particularly those who have not returned.

In coming years, displaced African-American students will require special assistance to cope with the trauma stress and culture shock. Since most poor African American students from New Orleans are dispersed around the nation and not likely to return to the city in the near future, it is imperative that we provide the host schools with training services that enable teachers to effectively communicate across cultural barriers and identify and manage post-trauma stress in students. This is one of our top new program priorities.

Using the Lessons of the Holocaust to Heal the wounds of Katrina

Katrina transformed prejudice and tolerance into real moral choices. A generation of children in the Deep South became first-hand witnesses to the capacity of humans to either help or harm one another.

In response to this new reality, the Southern Institute is creating a ¬Katrina Oral History Program¬ for middle and high school students. The program will use oral histories of the Holocaust and Katrina for a comparative study that will increase students¬ understanding of the causes of prejudice and the power of the individual to remedy injustice. Students will compare the experiences of the Holocaust and Katrina by using the same social and psychological theories that the Southern Institute currently uses to teach the Holocaust, i. e. categories of social behavior including Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, and Rescuers. Through their own stories and the testimony of friends and neighbors, students will learn why people behave in helpful and hurtful ways in different circumstances. More importantly, they will learn how to create a personal moral compass that can guide them on a path of compassion and forgiveness even in times of uncertainty and popular passions.

These two new programs of racial healing and ethics education build on the Southern Institute¬s traditional strengths while addressing the new problems and possibilities posed by Katrina.

For the time being, we are housed in an office building off-campus, but we will soon return to our old building on Willow Street on the Tulane campus. We went through some difficult and trying times during the storm. We could have evacuated and waited for life to return to normal, but for years the Southern Institute has taught young people that they have a moral obligation to stand between evil and the innocent. This was as good an opportunity as any to demonstrate what we meant.

Lance Hill
Executive Director
Southern Institute for Education and Research