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Resilience Force partners to create pathway to recovery for people in New Orleans

American Cities, Health

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it created not only a nationwide health crisis, but an economic crisis as well. The City of New Orleans was an early epicenter, with low-income and communities of color bearing a disproportionate burden of the impact.

But by having the right people, training and partnerships in place, one organization has shown how it’s possible to create a pathway to recovery rooted in equity and dignity for communities. Resilience Force is a national movement born out of Hurricane Katrina working to transform America’s response to disasters by strengthening and securing America’s resilience workforce – those responsible for response and recovery when disaster strikes.

Together with its partners, the organization drew from the success and learnings of its climate work to respond to the pandemic and has not only gotten lifesaving shots in arms, but also helped people pivot to new careers.

“We saw that there was a health care disaster, but there was also an unemployment disaster,” said Resilience Force’s Lousiana Director LaTanja Silvester. Silvester, who spent 10 years leading worker empowerment efforts for the Service Employees International Union Local 21, is a veteran activist who has dedicated her career to improving the lives of Louisiana residents.

To address this dual disaster, the City of New Orleans and Resilience Force harnessed what they learned from climate disaster response and recovery to launch the New Orleans Resilience Corps, a 3-year pilot program that trains people dislocated from the service and hospitality industry and transitions them into higher paying jobs as community health workers.

In collaboration with the city and NOLA Ready, Resilience Force deployed these community health workers in areas of the New Orleans most heavily impacted by COVID-19 and in areas with high vaccine hesitancy.

“There was so much misinformation and disinformation out there that folks were confused. What was different for us addressing that was our approach. We went from just giving folks information to actually sitting down and having more in-depth conversations, meeting them where they are,” Silvester said.

What was key was that the information came from trusted messengers in the community.

“We hired culturally competent people to go into communities and have courageous conversations. People knew them,” Silvester said. “I always talk about Miss Pam from the Seventh Ward – people know Miss Pam. So when Miss Pam brought information and had conversations with her community members about things like the COVID-19 vaccine, testing or how to self-quarantine, it was the special sauce that helped us get to where we are here in New Orleans.”

With more community health workers on the ground, the Resilience Corps also supports contact tracing in partnership with the Louisiana Health Department and distributes food and hygiene kits to individuals with COVID-19 or exposed to COVID-19. In addition, the Corps provides COVID-19 testing and vaccination information through flyers, community events, and at testing and vaccination sites, including enrollment for the vaccine and answering community health questions.

As a result, in just the first six months of the program, community health workers reached more than 10,000 people going door-to-door and supported more than 1,200 hours of food and supply deliveries to households that had been exposed or had an active case of COVID-19. Their works also helped increase trust and improve accessibility for testing and vaccination sites amongst Black and Latinx communities, driving a 67 percent vaccination rate compared to 52 percent statewide.

Looking ahead, while many of the 58 participants to date have continued on in their careers as community health workers, Resilience Force is working closely with the city and other institutions to create pathways into other sectors – particularly those that will help New Orleans build resilience to worsening climate disasters. Examples include emergency navigators, patient care technicians, nurses aides and assistants, social workers, water resource managers, solar and wind energy technicians, social service workers, and more.

“This is a workforce development program. We want to train people, give them the right skills and get them into long-term sustainable jobs, because what we learned during COVID is that if you work in the hospitality industry, your income can disappear in an instant. So we wanted to provide people with options. If you want to go back and work in hospitality, you can, but if you want to continue on this pathway in health care, we are providing those opportunities for you as well,” Silvester said.

“What’s important is that we do what’s best for the community and for the individuals in this program, but most importantly, what’s best for New Orleans,” Silvester said.

As the city struggles with ongoing gun violence, Silvester wants to build off the relationships and trust that community health workers have gained on the ground to tackle that problem next.

On a larger scale, the hope is that this model can be replicated across the country to help cities build climate resilience effectively, equitably and sustainably.

Regardless of the issue, Resilience Force believes its model serves as a scalable template for other cities and national programs by creating the playbook for private-public partnerships, leveraging philanthropic investments to unlock federal dollars and create opportunities for private partnerships with local companies and organizations.