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