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As Free as the Water in New Orleans

When I arrived in New Orleans just out of college in August of 2002, with six others from Green Corps, the Field School for Environmental Organizing, I knew we’d have to hit the ground running. In only six weeks, the New Orleans’ Sewerage and Water Board would vote on whether or not to sell the city’s water system to the world’s two largest water companies, companies with a track record of dumping raw sewage into the Mississippi River, contaminating drinking water in other cities and driving up local water rates.

The seven of us were armed with skills we had learned in a month-long training program in grassroots organizing, and the conviction that water should be a basic human right—as a common resource that we all depend on. Beyond that we had a couple hundred dollars, some contacts in the labor community, and less than two months to block a billion-dollar bid.

Even before we found a place to live, we hit the streets and began gathering signatures and community volunteers. We phoned local organizations until we had built a coalition of over 60 churches, neighborhood associations, labor unions, and environmental organizations, all committed to protecting New Orleans’ water. Our volunteers pounded the pavement, generating over 5,000 public comments to the water board. They got neighbors to put signs on their lawns; overnight our blue “Vote NO on the bids” signs sprung up all over the city. We held press conferences every week, turning out dozens of citizens to water board meetings and public hearings. We even utilized a creative New Orleans-style technique: informal parades where we drove decorated cars through the city, throwing Mardi-Gras beads and using a bullhorn to urge people to call the mayor. Within weeks, our issue had generated front-page coverage, and after a month and a half of bleary-eyed strategy sessions and non-stop grassroots organizing we blocked the largest water privatization effort in the history of the U.S. What made the biggest impression on me is that grassroots organizing, person-to-person, actually works.