Deon Haywood is the Executive Director of Woman With a Vision, a New Orleans social justice non-profit founded in 1991 by a grassroots collective of African-American women in response to the spread of HIV/AIDS in communities of color. According to the WWAV website, “We envision an environment in which there is no war against women’s bodies, in which women have spaces to come together and share their stories, in which women are empowered to make decisions concerning their own bodies and lives, and in which women have the necessary support to realize their hopes, dreams, and full potential.”
Jordan Flaherty: Has New Orleans recovered from Hurricane Katrina?
Deon Haywood: Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, I have mixed feelings about the recovery. I understand progress and I understand growth, and I understand what business does, especially being born and raised in the city where tourism is what makes money for people and provides jobs for people. The other side of me feels like enough hasn’t been done. There are still neighborhoods where homes are missing, where there are schools that have not been rebuilt or reopened, and where there are no stores. And some people aren’t home and can’t get home, because they are dealing with insurance and what it means to get back in their homes nine years later. I understand what the city needs to grow, but I’m saddened that it’s moving a whole lot of people out and those people being left out are the people who are native New Orleanians, people that built this city. I despise the way that, sometimes, local media makes it look like the people here are poor and don’t want anything and they don’t do anything and we need these people to come in and make it better. That would be a white supremacist framework, now wouldn’t it?
JF: How are people are being left out?
DH: Look at the medical corridor. We have taken away an entire neighborhood to build huge medical facilities. They say it’s going to bring in medical students, medical professionals, it’s going to change the face of New Orleans. When I look at Tulane Avenue, I can’t help but think Tulane Avenue hasn’t been a whole lot of things in a long time. You have new businesses moving in complaining about the people. Well, who are the people? The people they are complaining about are the marginalized people, people that we work with, or just the working poor struggling to survive. They are blaming their lack of business success on the people who are living in the neighborhoods where they have moved into. That’s funny because if you go a block off of Tulane Avenue, to Broad and Banks Street, there are three corner stores. Those stores are vibrant and busy and they provide a need. People cash checks, pay their bills, shop for food. So some businesses are already making money, but it’s the people who move in and assume that they will be serving a higher class or a certain class of people that complain. If you move into a neighborhood, did you introduce yourself? Did you talk to the community? Did you hire anyone from the community so they would feel like they had buy in, like they are a part of what your vision? The more we opened all of these new, beautiful things that are supposed to make Tulane Avenue so beautiful, the opening and the beginning of the city as people come in, we’re pushing people out. We’re doing exactly what happened in Brooklyn, exactly what we see happen in DC. The people who need public transportation, and need to be close to the medical corridor services, are being forced out to areas that don’t have those things.
JF: Can you say more about the new arrivals and the changing demographics of the city?
DH: A perfect example, and I find this happens to us a lot now, when my partner and I go to dinner we find that we’re the only African American people to walk in, and we’re stared at like we are the newcomers. But I’ve been here. I knew what this was before you made it this. I find it amusing, but I think it speaks to a larger issue, that the newcomers don’t expect to see people like me walk through their door because they are really not trying to cater to me and the people who live here. They are trying to cater to the people like them who they think are coming here. Which means that there is no place for us. I’ve had that experience at least five times in the last year, where I have walked in somewhere because somebody said “oh, this place is really cool you should try it.” Well, I don’t know if I like all of the cool places that have opened up because I don’t feel like you’re looking for me. You’re not looking for my business, you’re looking for that new business that’s coming in.
When I think about the newcomers it amazes me because, when you think about imperialism, when you think about colonialism, it’s always about the takeover. I’m going to come in and I’m going to create and I’m going to build. I get that you took an old building that was dilapidated, blighted property and you made it viable. I understand that. But if you are making it viable, why would you want to erase the people who are here?
If I had to bring race into the issue, I actually think I fear what’s going to happen in this city. A lot of the newcomers are coming from places where they don’t normally see people like me. Let’s be real, in Portland, Seattle or even in some places like New York how often do you see African-American people? They don’t. New Orleans is a city that historically has always been largely African-American and the newcomers are surprised by that and they don’t see us as a part of the plan. How do you walk into a place where people are happily living as they choose – not that things can’t improve or be better – but you come in and you want to make changes. You know, everything going on around loud music, “this is noise.”
Our neighborhoods, I don’t think they were designed to be quiet. When you think about the history of this city: pirates, thieves, bandits whatever you want to call it – women of the night – I mean this is what this city was built on. Now we want quiet neighborhoods. Well, we have those outside of the city. But to come in and try to get the city council to pass an ordinance and different things so live music is not played in neighborhoods because it’s disturbing you, why move to that neighborhood? Why move there? Why try to change something that most people find really pleasurable and see it as a part of who we are and the uniqueness of the city? Because you don’t like it. It’s not familiar to you.
JF: What are the issues your clients are facing?
DH: One of the things we do at Woman With a Vision, when we talk to our clients whenever they come in and we’re doing a group and we’re speaking somewhere, we always tell people never count yourself as a victim. If you are here today, you’re a survivor. In this world today, you’re a survivor. If you are a formerly incarcerated person, if you’re involved in sex work, you’re a drug using person, a former drug using person, your past doesn’t define you, the here and now define you. Not only does the here and now define you, we’re powerful people, all of us.
I think a lot of the challenges are related to housing. Housing is the first tenet of public health. If you’re housed, and you know you have the safety of a building around you then it’s the first step to having better public health. I’m not just talking about people who are living under the bridge and are labeled the chronically homeless, I’m talking about everyday people who work, I’m talking about families and family members – not just clients, but family members. When you think about the rent, you know, when you think about rental prices being higher. If you’re a formerly incarcerated person, you know what they tell you: when you come out, you get a job and you live a good life and a just life. Well, what does that look like if you can’t feed yourself because they won’t hire you? What does that look like when you can’t find housing? Most apartment complexes now, owners are doing background checks even for a traditional double or a duplex. I also feel like that is being done by people who have bought up property and are not even from here. Maybe some local homeowners or property owners do the same thing, but a lot of it has to do with this decision of, who am I letting in and who am I keeping out? That to me is how our clients are affected: In neighborhoods they’ve traditionally lived in, they can’t get in because they are being forced out.
JF: We were promised a national conversation on race after Hurricane Katrina. Have we taken any steps forward on the issue of race since then?
DH: The issue of race in this country is going to continue to be difficult unless we’re really ready to, as they say, roll up our sleeves and dig in. Like, everything that has happened in the last couple of weeks with Planned Parenthood and the reproductive justice issues coming out, you know, like they’ve found the answer when we have a whole history of Black women that have been screaming about what reproductive justice really is.
Then, yet another murder of a young Black man, again, that has made national attention. And then a young Black man that was killed last week in New Orleans. Someone asked me, “Well, what do you think?” And I mean, what am I supposed to think this time? Because this is not new, it’s been happening and it happens every day. Even the ones we don’t hear about. It happens every day. Unless we are ready, in the city of New Orleans, or in the country, to talk about oppression and how everything we do in this country operates out of a white supremacist framework, and how to control another person because of their race, we’re going to continue to have a problem.
A friend of mine who is a consultant came to the city of New Orleans to look at some programs that the city is going to be funded for. And they said to me, “Oh my God, there wasn’t one Black person at the table but all these programs are geared towards African-American youth.” They asked me, “Are there no programs for African-American youth in the city run by community organizations?” Yes there are. There are tons of them who are doing amazing work. Why weren’t they at that table? I know the answer. I’m sure many people know the answer.
We’re really talking about trust. If you don’t trust that people know what they need to do for themselves, if you don’t trust that those of us who know oppression, and understand racism, as complex an issue as it is, if we don’t understand that those of us who feel it, and live it every day, know the answers for ourselves, then I don’t know if we’re ready. It is my dream that one day we’ll be ready to have that conversation. I think people want to, but we seem to keep going about it the same way because we aren’t even talking to the people who are most affected. Until we do that, we’re not going to make any difference.
• Interview by Jordan Flaherty, produced by GRITtv for The Laura Flanders Show on the TeleSUR English news network. You can watch the interview online here. “This transcript has been edited for length and clarity” — Jordan.