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Opportunities and Tensions in a
Post-Katrina “Brain Gain”
Marla Nelson & Renia Ehrenfeucht
Department of Planning & Urban Studies
University of New Orleans
New Orleans Political Economy Workshop | September 10, 2010
N.O. a beacon for young people
Women: 61%; Men: 39% men
White: 77%; African American: 17%; Asian: 5%
28% were originally from New Orleans
31% were living in New Orleans pre-Katrina
Median age: 29
The importance of making an impact
My husband and I were really interested in coming
down after Katrina and Rita hit. . . we just felt like it
was a call to action. . . it was like ‘this is our civil rights
struggle, this is our war’, in a sense, that we really
should be engaged in.
Before [Katrina] I was two-car garage, two little dogs
[guy], running a small business … and now I want to do
what’s best for the community. It’s a completely
different line of work.
Professional opportunities
In New York or Washington, I think, you’re immediately
replaceable. There are a million people, not a million,
but scores of people, hundreds of people, just like you.
And I think it’s hard to be – a little harder to be noticed or
recognized there. And I think New Orleans is a smaller
pond. It’s a little easier to be a bigger fish in a smaller
Looking at the job I have now, I am able to get a wider
range of responsibilities that I would in a similar job in a
bigger city…You have an opportunity to grow up a lot
Professional opportunities
I’d love to stay here. But I can’t imagine that I will be
able to and still progress professionally the way that I
want to. . . There’s no middle management here. I can't
even get promoted at my own job, and so my only
option, if I want to stay in what I'm doing, is to start my
own company…I feel like DC is probably where I'm
going to have to go back again if I want to continue to
do policy work which I do.
Work-life balance
Part of [coming to New Orleans] was looking for
somewhere where we could do productive work, but not
have it consume who we were.
It’s exciting in DC because everyone is very mission
focused. And there was still plenty of that happening
here in New Orleans, so it felt like a nice combination of
people being there for the value of what they were
doing, the mission they were doing, without having the
same sort of attitude that if you weren’t at work, you
weren’t, you know, doing your job somehow, you were
I’m working with a coalition of young professionals … some
young professionals …who aren't from here don't get …why
everything ends up breaking down along racial lines and why
… every discussion, discussion about master planning
becomes about race, a discussion about transparency is
about race, a discussion about public schools becomes about
race and they don't understand … the tension behind a lot
these issues and why people bring up race … but I also meet
with a group of older civic and political African-American
leaders and there’s a lack of trust of the white community
that I can’t completely dismiss.
What I learned in my ten years of doing development work … is
that that’s how [residents] look at anyone…You don’t know what
the history is in the neighborhood. You have to learn to work
with people in order to overcome those barriers. That’s going to
be a barrier anywhere you are…What I found is once you start
answering phone calls and following through, they don’t care if
you’re from Mars. They know that you care about doing the work
in the community, and that’s the end of the story for them
The shift in attitude to make this place some place that works
a little better is actually a little troubling. I want it to work,
but it’s part of the ethos of the place to have it not work quite
so well. People always say it’s the northern most Caribbean
city, and if you make it into a Seattle, it no longer has that
character, and I don’t really know where we draw the line,
and all these people coming in to fix the city, and how we fix it
without just changing the character of the place. So I have
thought about that a lot because I’m part of it. I’m part of the
influx of people that doesn’t expect a city to run this way,
expect it to run a little bit better.

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