Grounding New Orleans

While recognizing that patience is a virtue and confessing she has little, social entrepreneur Yasmin Bowers tirelessly works to consciously re-establish the ravaged infrastructure and community of post-Katrina New Orleans.

Three months after Yasmin Bowers '05 graduated from Clark, Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans, leaving a legacy of physical devastation and social disruption that is still in remediation three years later. Little did Bowers know then that post-Katrina, post-Rita New Orleans would provide the venue for her social entrepreneurial venture, Consciously Rebuilding, Inc.

Two years after Katrina, Bowers teamed with graduate school classmate Andrea Floyd to found Consciously Rebuilding, a nonprofit agency that aims to promote the building and rebuilding of New Orleans in an environmentally sustainable, responsible and accountable manner. Consciously Rebuilding has been recognized by Social Entrepreneurship of New Orleans in "Courageous Social Innovation" and by the All Day Buffet as one of the New Orleans 100 most innovative organizations to aid the city's recovery since Katrina.

Taking matters into her hands

As a high school student, Bowers decided that environmental stewardship would be her life work. Since experiencing what she describes as that "life-changing epiphany," Bowers has earned a bachelor's in environmental science and policy at Clark, where her primary focus was on ecology and geographic information science, and a master's in public health at Tulane University in New Orleans, where her focus was water quality management.

A native of Atlanta, Bowers was steered to New Orleans by her mother, a social worker. Bowers says she knew that New Orleans was a place where she could make a difference, and she decided to direct her energies to the revitalization effort.

"I knew that I wasn't satisfied with the rebuilding efforts or my contribution to make them environmentally or socially conscious," she explains. "Andrea and I decided to take matters into our own hands and start a nonprofit to involve the community in the rebuilding process and share our knowledge of environmental health with the everyday person."

Community education, especially in the area of environmental health, and outreach to marginalized and vulnerable populations are key components of Consciously Rebuilding's approach. To date, Consciously Rebuilding has conducted "Healthy Living Expo" workshops for New Orleans's Upper Ninth Ward as well as the Holy Cross and Central City neighborhoods to educate residents about environmental health and indoor air quality, sustainability, emergency preparedness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and saving energy while saving money. Vendors providing a variety of related services also attended. Consciously Rebuilding also sponsors "That's Green" action plans and home-auditing programs that show residents how green building can not only improve personal health, but also benefit them financially.

To provide affordable green housing for people returning to New Orleans, Consciously Rebuilding has also partnered with H.M. Social Services, which offers social services to low-income communities including supported independent living, counseling, drug treatment and sex-offender treatment. Eight units targeted for use as supportive/transitional housing are being renovated to incorporate energy efficiency while preserving the structures' historical and architectural integrity. Bowers points out that participating residents contribute social and economic value to the rebuilding process and learn principles that can be applied to daily life. Participants are encouraged to complete the cycle of stewardship by taking part in future events.

Rebuilding takes time

Working for change in post-Katrina New Orleans has not been easy for Bowers and Floyd. During the organization's first year, Bowers spent three months as a Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, through the Mount Sinai School of Medicine International Exchange Program. While in South Africa she participated in research focused on health disparities among marginalized and vulnerable populations. That experience gave her some much-needed time to step back and re-evaluate her organization's efforts to bring about change, while wrestling with what she describes as "the beast of New Orleans politics." She says her time in Cape Town brought her peace of mind.

"Going to South Africa also taught me the importance of time. I want things to happen now, and sometimes they don't. I became grounded after learning about Nelson Mandela and the 27 years that he was a political prisoner. I remind myself of this to stop any thoughts of frustration. It is important for me not to lose sight of my vision by getting discouraged, because it takes time."

Bowers recalls one of her Clark professors, Eugenio Marcano, who counseled her as an undergraduate on finding patience and tenacity. Marcano also gave her a boost of confidence at a critical time early in her career.

"I started doing GIS consulting for a local engineer in New Orleans, and on my first assignment I panicked and doubted my abilities. I reached out to Dr. Marcano, and he just gave me the confidence to deal with the challenge. He helped me believe in myself."

Bowers also credits Clark geographer Gil Pontius for helping her acquire other skills relevant to making an organization succeed.

"Dr. Pontius taught me how to be a better scholar," she reflects. "He took my potential and made it a reality. He taught me writing, speaking and presentation skills that I use for my nonprofit and for my research. I know now why he pushed me —he wanted to bring out the best in me. It helped me become the person I am today."

Trust builds community

Bowers says that her organization's biggest achievement has been to gain the trust and support of the community it serves. "Consciously Rebuilding answers to the community—its members are our clients," she says. "Low-income communities often distrust new people, and this was amplified in New Orleans by the flood of nonprofits with empty promises that took advantage of post-Katrina dollars."

"We had an uphill climb to gain the trust of our community; but we fought for it and continue to fight for it. We want to get residents excited about life. What makes my day is when they attend an event and take all the information (along with the food) and ask us when we'll have another event. That's my greatest joy."

Visit consciouslyrebuilding.org to learn more.

By Anne Gibson Ph.D. '95