In a New Orleans ward ravaged by climate change, leaders nurture the next generation

The Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development was founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now these community leaders are changing the way the Lower 9th Ward can become resilient to natural disaster — and inspiring the next generation along the way.

NEW ORLEANS — Arriving at Bayou Bienvenue, Arthur Johnson swings closed the door of his pickup truck and wipes the sweat across his brow.

“Says it feels like 108 today,” he murmurs.

About this series
Climate Visionaries highlights brilliant people around the world who are working to find climate solutions.

The blistering heat doesn’t stand in the way of today’s lesson. As daily afternoon storm clouds roll in, Johnson begins hiking up to a platform on the levee that protects the Lower 9th Ward, trailed by nine interns hoping to learn how they can help address the environmental challenges that have decimated — and continue to threaten — this community.

Johnson is the chief executive of the Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development (CSED), also known as Sustain the Nine, a nonprofit that was formed after Hurricane Katrina to revitalize the badly damaged Lower 9th Ward. The group embraces community as a climate solution, working to teach residents about their environment and how to use science, conservation and sustainable practices to enrich and protect it.

“It’s wetlands, so it’s supposed to be natural,” Johnson says, pointing out various plants the group has planted to prevent soil erosion. “It’s not supposed to be manicured and look so pretty. It’s a natural habitat. The birds and everything you see here — it’s a haven right in your own backyard.”

The levee was rebuilt by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Katrina, but CSED built the platform atop it in 2009 as a community classroom and gathering place. Johnson says that on any given day, he’ll see photographers, anglers or university students on the platform, taking in a view of the bayou. Johnson and his interns — local teens — test the temperature of the water and the soil.

“This wasn’t built because it was nice to do; it was built for education and experiments,” Johnson says, leaning over one of the platform’s railings. One of the interns points toward his feet on the deck with a device used to measure the temperature of the ground. It reads 150 degrees.

New Orleans is on the front lines of climate change’s wrath, vulnerable in a number of ways, including hotter temperatures and an eroding coastline. More than 90 percent Black, the Lower 9th Ward is a microcosm of a larger truth: Communities of color across the globe often suffer the most from climate change while contributing the least to its causation.

But this group of community activists is changing the way most vulnerable inhabitants of New Orleans can recover and become resilient to natural disaster — aiming to train its young people in ways that can be recreated in other cities, too.

“It’s not a million-dollar program. It’s not a $100,000 program. Hell, it’s not even a $50,000 program,” Johnson says. “But we do a lot with what we have.”

The old house on Chartres Street that serves as the group’s headquarters belonged to an elderly couple who didn’t return after Katrina. It sat empty for eight years until the group petitioned the city to fix it up and allow them to move in, leaving behind the small church office where the group started.

Johnson takes a seat in his office chair on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, with items including artwork and solar panels piled ceiling-high around him. He was born in Washington and explains that he relocated to New Orleans 12 years ago to rehabilitate the 9th Ward, where his mother is from and where he visited his grandmother “every year since I can remember.”

Johnson was brought onboard by Charles Allen, who co-founded CSED in 2006 along with Pam Dashiell, a resident of the Holy Cross neighborhood and a legendary local climate justice leader. (Dashiell died in 2009.) Dashiell and Allen, who is now the community engagement director at the National Audubon Society, first formed the group to address the immediate aftermath of Katrina, helping to breathe life back into the city and to ensure that what was rebuilt was constructed with sustainability and resilience in mind.

It is difficult to now find any environmental initiative in the Lower 9th Ward in which the group isn’t involved, often partnering with other nonprofit entities, environmental organizations or universities to secure grants and funding.

In May, the group partnered with Glass Half Full, another nonprofit organization, to bring glass recycling to the neighborhood for the first time. With $6,000, CSED built seven public drop-off locations and paid for a year’s service. The glass is converted into sand that is used for disaster relief and coastal restoration in New Orleans.

CSED also works to bring trees from a local Christmas tree drop program to the bayou. The old, dried trees collected with another local group, Common Ground Relief, are bundled and arranged in a pattern to capture sediment. As they degrade, they will become a fish hatchery before decomposing into organic matter that will provide nutrients to the ecosystem.

And in January, CSED established an official space in Metairie, in Jefferson Parish, for a cypress tree nursery, now home to more than 3,000 bald cypresses. Once the trees reach a certain level of maturity — typically around 3½ feet tall — CSED will plant them in the wetlands to reinforce coastal resilience and chip away at the massive loss of trees caused by hurricanes over the years.

Last year, Allen launched the group’s first internship program with the help of Bernard Singleton, a biology professor at nearby Dillard University, an HBCU. Now in its second summer, the program brings in teens for a month, five days a week, to run scientific experiments, study the environment of the Lower 9th Ward and learn from local mentors.

“The nursery, the internship, they — no pun intended — bear fruit. But I think the other win is the commitment and level of confidence that the community has in CSED,” Johnson says over the purr of a stationary fan pointed at his face.

“That’s built over time. There’s a level of trust. That’s something you can’t buy,” he says.

Volunteers and interns walk into CSED’s outdoor learning center. Christina Lehew, a volunteer at CSED, shows an intern the eggs of an invasive apple snail. The eggs of an invasive apple snail.

In New Orleans, time can be organized into two eras: before Katrina, and after Katrina — the latter a phrase used so frequently that it begins to sound like one word.

After Katrina, floodwater remained for almost five weeks, destroying everything below its surface — the inundation being the result of years of environmental mismanagement that saw levees fail on an epic scale.

After Katrina, the population of the Lower 9th Ward plunged from just over 14,000 in 2000 to about 4,000 by 2019, according to the Data Center. The average household income dropped from about $40,000 to $34,000.

Allen returned to Holy Cross, his neighborhood in the Lower 9th, on Oct. 9, 2005 — six weeks after Katrina struck and he had evacuated to Birmingham, Ala. After cleaning out his father’s house on Douglass Street, he began attending meetings around town focused on connecting neighborhoods with outside groups, academic institutions and governments willing to help develop small-scale recovery programs.

Today, Allen speaks passionately about finding solutions for those who did return, jumping from ideas about architecture to solar farms to microgrids.

“After Katrina, it’s more of what you call a ‘risk reduction system,’ because you never really eliminate the risk,” says Allen, settling his tall frame into a chair at the CSED headquarters. “It’s all about how we reduce the risk over time.”

In early 2006, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin unveiled the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, whose proposals included leaving certain areas of the city unpopulated. “Their effort kind of fell flat on its face,” Allen says.

“That was kind of disrespectful to a lot of folks that weren’t back yet, that were not able to be on the ground and in those conversations. To be told, ‘Oh, your neighborhood ought to just be a green space,’ ” Allen says. “ ‘Well, I’m not back yet. How can you tell me that?’ ”

Once the city shifted toward neighborhoods and residents leading their own recovery efforts, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources contacted Allen — who was working at Tulane University at the time as assistant director for external affairs — along with Dashiell. The department asked them to put together a strategy to rebuild the community with sustainability and resilience in mind.

Allen says his relationship with Dashiell was a “remarkable one,” with them “serving as sidekicks to one another, trying to cover as much of this work as we possibly could” in the aftermath of Katrina.

“The work back then — going back to 2005, 2006, 2007 — was all about how we pull together resources, money, you name it, to build and rebuild while learning critical lessons from the disaster,” Allen says. “That was the immediate thing, you know? We got to rebuild the levees. We got to rebuild the flood walls.”

In the years following Katrina, CSED took on an additional role in trying to protect the needs of the community as countless outside interests — including tourism companies, book authors and celebrities looking to help out — moved in.

“What we saw was the community was browbeat, because of Katrina, and the loss, and the slowness of recovery. And then they were feeling like they were being used, you know,” Johnson says. “Dissertations, theses, books were all written with people’s comments — people made money on the people here.”

CSED interns gather soil samples and test the air quality near Bayou Bienvenue.

In 2010, Allen asked Johnson, a good friend, to help with a grant that required matching funding. With a background in management and fundraising from his time working in medium and large nonprofits, such as the American Heart Association, Johnson agreed.

“I figured that I would come here, I anticipated at most, for three weeks. After the first week, the board asked me whether I would consider staying on permanently.”

With a laugh, Johnson adds, “long story short, I’m still here.”

Johnson has a calm demeanor and a husky voice. People file in and out of the house all day, each one popping their head into his office to say hello. Kids, adults, mentors, interns, volunteers, individuals dropping off lunch, neighbors and politicians stop by, each drawn to his orbit.

“We’ve always been about education. That’s one of our pillars as a community-based nonprofit, the whole idea of being able to share knowledge and expand knowledge to make sure that the community is able to converse and understand.”

When Johnson came on board, he immediately noticed a lack of engagement with residents at local environmental meetings. Experts brought in were speaking at people, not with them, he says. “You had these educator types, scientists, environmentalists — and residents were somewhat intimidated.”

On issues such as sea level rise and storm drain restoration, the center prioritizes keeping the neighbors scientifically informed. Johnson says that over time, residents began to feel comfortable engaging with decision-makers and expressing their concerns at the local, state and federal levels. And government leaders began to hear them.

“We said, ‘Look, if you have these big meetings in school auditoriums, that’s not a good way to get our community — meaning the underserved community and community of color — to hear from them,’ ” he continues. “You really have to go into their environment, and that allows them to feel more comfortable. You’d be more comfortable in your house than you’d be in mine, you know?”

In April, members of the Biden administration visited New Orleans, and Johnson and his staff gave White House environmental officials an “up close and personal look into how issues of environmental justice play out in the New Orleans area,” said Christine Harada, executive director of the Federal Permitting Council, which coordinates federal environmental reviews and select infrastructure projects, in an email. The administration specified “early and meaningful public input — particularly from disadvantaged communities” as part of its process in the Biden-Harris Permitting Action Plan, released after the passage of Biden’s infrastructure bill.

“They took us on a tour of the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle, where we saw firsthand the effects of infrastructure planning that did not prioritize the needs of the surrounding community, leading to devastation in the Lower 9th Ward during Hurricane Katrina,” Harada said. “We are incorporating the lessons learned from our discussions into our permitting work, as we strive to ensure all communities are factored into the federal permitting process at the start of any project.”

After the visit, the Permitting Council invited CSED to its next Environmental Justice Listening Session for Federal Agencies, which takes place this fall.

Johnson says that in the past, the “mistake of the bureaucratic process” has been inaccurate assumptions of what would benefit communities. He says he hopes to convey to the administration the importance of including local perspectives as decisions on climate policies and new developments get the green light. “We’ll be able to be a resource, particularly where the rubber meets the road,” Johnson says. “And particularly as it relates to underserved, overburdened communities of color that don’t always get a voice out there.”

Lehew, Singleton and interns gather information around a plot of land outside CSED’s outdoor learning center.

On the day Johnson visits the bayou with his interns, Christina Lehew, a project coordinator, treks down the other side of the platform to the wetlands. She begins pointing to parts of the coast — to birds, to marshland — speaking excitedly about the biodiversity and ideas the group has for preserving it, such as the Christmas tree- and glass-recycling projects.

“That’s the thing about doing environmental science and restoration work — you have to be creative in how you do it, so you end up finding really inspiring solutions,” says Lehew, who began working with CSED last year as a graduate fellow.

After an hour of exploring the bayou, Singleton, the Dillard biology professor, leads the group toward CSED’s outdoor learning center, a couple of football fields away. Built in 2016 in partnership with Tulane University, the center is on land that was ravaged during Katrina.

“The intent was to keep things as natural as possible. We didn’t want to do anything to block off the view [of the bayou] for these homeowners,” says Johnson, referring to a yellow house and a brick house that were renovated after Katrina. “But the homeowners like having us, because of the activity. After Katrina, there was no activity for a while, for years, which brought safety concerns.”

At the center, Singleton watches as one of the interns collects a soil sample and puts it in a small zip-top bag.

“What do you think? Is there lead and arsenic in the soil?” he asks.

“If there used to be a house here, then yeah,” replies the intern, matter-of-factly.

Singleton, a military veteran, returned to New Orleans once he completed his studies and his service. While teaching at Dillard University, his alma mater, he consulted for the city on some of the biggest environmental disasters New Orleans had faced before Katrina. After Katrina hit, Singleton evacuated and was offered a new position in Georgia, but he opted to return.

“I decided I wanted to be a part of bringing New Orleans back,” he says, adjusting the brim of his baseball cap, “U.S. Army veteran” written in faded yellow letters across it.

Johnson and Singleton dreamed up the center’s internship program years ago, which grew from seven students at its launch to nine interns this summer. They listen to lecturers from across the city, including leaders from universities, businesses, law firms, environmental groups and even the New Orleans government.

“That’s what we’re trying to do with them: Get them out there. Get them comfortable with meeting people and networking. Sharpen their skills of presenting and being able to put together and design a project in their own right,” Singleton says.

In 2016, Singleton notes, only 2.8 percent of all environmental science degrees went to Black Americans.

“The individuals who live in these communities are the ones most affected when there’s a disaster or environmental issue, but they are also the least represented,” he says. “So we’re hopefully influencing them to decide to go into the field of environmental science. But we also emphasize the fact that you can be in any career path and then make a difference in the environment.”

“You see them change. You know, he plays basketball,” Johnson says, referring to a 14-year-old intern. “When he first came to the program, that was basically the one thing he wanted to focus on. Now, he wants to be a scientist and a basketball player. And he can do that.”

The last of the experiments have been completed — or at least, as many as could be done before the heat became too much to bear.

As the group migrates back toward the cars, the student Arthur mentioned begins to describe his ambitious athletic and scientific aspirations, echoing Johnson’s words.

“Yeah, I can do it,” he says, looking down at the bag of soil in his hands. “I can do anything.”

About this story

Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Illustration animation by Emma Kumer. Design and development by Hailey Haymond. Copy editing by Allison Cho.