White House Gulf Coast Philanthropic Briefing – September 13, 2010

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the first ever White House Gulf Coast Philanthropic Briefing hosted by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (the "Initiative") in partnership with Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy ("AAPIP") and the Corporation for National and Community Service ("CNCS").  The briefing was more of a convening and sharing of information among various departments of the federal government, several philanthropic leaders, and key community leaders working in the Gulf Coast with populations affected by the BP oil spill.

Southeast Asian-Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the Gulf oil spill.  According to the Initiative, "[t]he BP oil spill's disruption of the seafood industry threatens the livelihoods of at least 80% of the Southeast Asian American families in the region."

Kiran Ahuja, Executive Director of the Initiative, and Peggy Saika, President and Executive Director of AAPIP, delivered the introduction.  Ms. Saika noted that helping the Southeast Asian community in the Gulf Coast represented only the beginning of the required philanthropic efforts and that all affected communities must be considered over the long haul.

Sonal Shah, Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation, discussed the Administration's priority:  building public-private partnerships.  This has involved repeated "testing, trying, and improving."  Ms. Shah raised the issue of finding ways to reach the smaller organizations.  Asim Mishra, Deputy Chief of Staff, CNCS, added that the Administration has been actively including faith-based organizations and new immigrants in the discussion for solutions.  Tina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, reiterated the President's commitment to the Gulf Coast.  And Brian McGowan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, provided a description of the deployment of interdepartmental staff, extensive information gathering from a wide array of communities and community groups, compilation and analysis of data, and transition from response to recovery.  

Kathy Im of the MacArthur Foundation noted that the level of government response was much higher than what has been portrayed in the media.  Danielle Reyes of the Meyer Foundation (and AAPIP's Board Chair) added that the reports to be released in October by the Economic Development Administration can and should be used by foundations to expedite philanthropy's response without the need for each foundation to conduct its own due diligence and complex analysis that might take years.

A highlight of the briefing was the report given to us by Father Vien Nguyen, Chair, MQVN-Community Development Corporation.  He emphasized with passion that the goal of the recovery effort was not to return to pre-Katrina life.  The South, Louisiana and New Orleans all were challenged with disproportionate levels of poverty, declining economies, and poor education.  Then, they were hit with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the BP oil spill.  But returning to pre-Katrina life is not what the communities want.  They want better.  Capping the oil well marked the beginning, not the end, of the work to be done.  The language access issue is not a problem; it's simply a hurdle.  And Father Nguyen and the Gulf Coast communities are proposing workable solutions. Already, they have established a charter school, medical clinics, urban farming, and aquaculture.

Minh Nguyen, Executive Director of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, spoke about his organization's valuable work, his background, and the impact of the oil spill on his family and community.  Regarding recovery, he said, "If we don't do this, no one else will. It's scary, but at the same time, empowering."  He reiterated that the community understands the problems and knows the solutions.  But it needs capacity-building support for long-term recovery.  Mr. Nguyen also noted that after Katrina, the affected communities lost faith in government, but there has been a different response post-oil spill that has created hope.

Cynthia Choi of AAPIP provided background about the history of philanthropy to AAPI communities in the Gulf Coast (0.3% of total philanthropic support in the area).  She noted that the bulk of support to the area went to organizations not headquartered in the Gulf Coast area and called for a greater balance.

The agencies appeared ready to support philanthropy's lead.  But foundations will want to know what the agencies are prepared to do as well.  AAPIP appears primed to coordinate the concerted efforts.  Ms. Saika indicated that other interested funders would be consulted before a proposal was made for next steps.

You can read some of the other remarks made during the briefing on Twitter using hashtag: #WHGCPB.

Additional Resources:

A Village Called Versailles - When they lost their homes, they found their voice

In a New Orleans neighborhood called Versailles, a tight-knit group of Vietnamese Americans overcame obstacles to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, only to have their homes threatened by a new government-imposed toxic landfill. A VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES is the empowering story of how the Versailles people, who have already suffered so much in their lifetime, turn a devastating disaster into a catalyst for change and a chance for a better future.

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