Ashana Bigard was born in New Orleans, went to school in New Orleans, and had her children in New Orleans. Just before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, she worked at an organization called Agenda for Children, where she was a parent coordinator and all-around community activist. She wasn’t making a lot of money, but she was pretty satisfied.
“My life was happy. It was simple,” Ashana said. For Ashana, life since Katrina has not resembled the bright landscapes of positive change she has seen advertised on the local news. The New Orleans she knew and loved has changed—and she no longer feels welcome there.
I asked Ashana to tell me what life was like before Katrina, and what it has been like since. This is what she told me:
I lived on Annunciation Street, two blocks from my daughter’s school, three blocks off of Magazine, and eight blocks from where I worked. Every morning I would walk my daughter to school and then walk to work at Agenda for Children. I got my exercise I would listen to my music walking everywhere. I was pretty happy.
It wasn’t just me—it was me, my mom, and my daughter lived in a three bed, two bath shotgun three blocks off of Magazine. My friends laughed at me for living there because we were paying $550 a month, and they all said that was too much to be paying, but I was willing to pay it because it was so convenient and nice. I liked it.
When Katrina hit, I was a little shellshocked; a little depressed, like everybody else. I was one of those people who stayed too long—until the day after. After my 17-hour car ride to Houston, I watched TV and cried my eyes out just like everybody else.
After the storm, I came back really quick because I worked at this organization called Agenda for Children as the parent coordinator. I worked in high schools and housing projects and homeless centers to lead workshops for parents, and after the storm, I wanted to hurry up and get the resources—because we all heard about all these resources coming into the city—to the parents I worked with.
But as soon as I got home, I found out that most of these resources didn’t exist for the children and families I was working for. They just weren’t there. But also, my rent had gone up from $550 to $1250. So, I could no longer afford to live there, because my wages had not gone up. In fact, they had gone down. I was going back and forth between Houston and New Orleans, and I had an apartment and Houston still because I couldn’t get rental assistance in New Orleans. I was staying at hotels and stuff. I wasn’t there full-time, so I started making low hourly wages instead of a salary.
I eventually found an apartment after the storm for $875 on Carondelet, but then that rent went up. I moved to OC Haley. I had to move from OC Haley because that rent went up, too.
Everyone imagines that people post-Katrina got these gigantic FEMA checks. I didn’t get a FEMA check. I wanted one—I even waited in the line for six hours in the hot sun in Houston to try to get one. They said I only qualified for an SBA loan, but I don’t know how. I was already in debt! I didn’t want a loan, but they told me that that if I didn’t take the loan, then I was telling the government that I didn’t want any assistance. Before you could get a grant, you had be turned down for an SBA loan. There are a lot of people who are stuck with post-Katrina debt because of Katrina—I am one of them.
Agenda for Children, meanwhile, had been operating on surplus funds and they ran out. I switched jobs to FLICC (Family and Friends of Louisiana Incarcerated Children.) Then FLICC started getting de-funded.
Personally, I think it’s because me and my co-worker came out really hard about the way charter schools were happening in New Orleans. We weren’t anti-charter, we were anti- the way charter schools were happening in New Orleans. But at the time, charter schools were thought to be the magic bullet. It was the only bipartisan issues that Democrats and Republicans were both in love with. We criticized what was happening, so we got punished for that, which meant being locked out of a job, and job opportunities.
We weren’t alone. It turned out that the new New Orleans didn’t really want the old New Orleans. Being born and raised in New Orleans made me old New Orleans. There were lots of people who had degrees and experience and were really good at what they did—they couldn’t get jobs.
I’m still an advocate, I still do organizing and workshops. I don’t get paid for most of it. I would like to get paid! The ideal situation is to work and do what you love and get paid to do it.
I feel like there are just these gigantic doors everywhere that are just locked to old New Orleanians. If you lived here before the storm, they don’t want you. Except for if a movie studio is shooting a scene with Mardi Gras Indians or something—that seems to be the exception. It’s depressing, but it’s the reality. This situation is forcing us to figure it out: are we going to take the doors off of the hinges, or are we going to live like this forever?
Sophie Lucido Johnson is a writer, illustrator, and comedian in New Orleans. She is the editor-in-chief of Neutrons Protons, and she blogs and makes comics at her website. Illustrations by the author.