An interview with Rebecca Hummel '03
Like the rest of the country, Rebecca Hummel '03 followed the news as
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Moving into her
Cambridge, Mass., apartment, the Harvard University grad student read
the headlines and watched the talking heads on network news-unaware of
the impact that the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes to hit
the Gulf would ultimately have on her. "I was certainly more distracted
and not tuned into all the details of it," Hummel says. "I don't think I
ever allowed myself to truly digest the reality of what was going on."
When Hummel learned of Kennedy School of Government students putting
political theory into public practice in New Orleans, Hummel consulted
fellow Pomona alum Nick Grudin '01. Grudin was already working with the
Broadmoor Improvement Association to structure a redevelopment plan to
rebuild the Broadmoor community and encouraged Hummel to also get
involved. In spring 2006, Hummel made her first trip to Broadmoor, a
tight-knit community of 2,900 homes marked by its racial and
socioeconomic diversity. She has returned to the community two
additional times, spending months in FEMA trailers helping what could
have been a condemned community rebuild itself.
In a region characterized by racial tension and political finger pointing,
the Kennedy School students are facilitating a community-driven planning
process that they hope will serve as the blueprint for future recovery
efforts. In her second year at Harvard, Hummel has become a major figure
in a rebuilding process that has helped the New Orleans neighborhood of
Broadmoor get back on its feet.
Why did you decide to take part in the Broadmoor Project?
I felt a little bit guilty that I hadn't paid attention very much
when Katrina hit. It was right when I was starting school and moving to
Boston. I obviously read the papers and looked at the horrifying images
on TV, but I hadn't really allowed myself to engage in it. When the
opportunity came around, I decided to give it a shot.
It was actually very good that I didn't come with any preconceived
notions. I came at it very open-minded and very humbly, and I just had
the most rich, challenging, crazy week of working in the FEMA trailers
with the community groups, with all these committees that were talking
about what are the visions for bringing the community back. It was
What is a community-driven planning process?
Back in January of 2006, there was a report that came out that said
that certain neighborhoods should not be rebuilt, and Broadmoor was one
of them because of the extent of the damage and because it was prone to
flooding. Many people in Broadmoor who had come back and were rebuilding
their houses thought, "No, we want our neighborhood to come back. We
love our neighborhood." So, they decided to drive their own recovery.
They didn't wait around for the city council or the mayor or the
governor of Louisiana to tell them this is how you do it. They had a
neighborhood association. They had a couple of key leaders who really
started to rally the people. They started meeting in trailers. They
started meeting in church spaces. Our role at Harvard was very much a
In the community-driven planning process, you have to have the
dialogue. You have to have the debate. It's a really powerful thing when
you see it in action. I learned a lot about community and the process
and what that really means and what that means to people whose
communities have been truly threatened.
What was the most enjoyable part of your work in Broadmoor?
Definitely getting to know the people down there. They are amazing.
They are the ones that make me want to get up earlier in the morning and
stay later at night working on all of this stuff because of their
energy. The power of the human spirit is truly inspirational.
It made the work I did so much more relevant because I was staring at the
people I was helping straight in the face. It wasn't as if I was in some
air-conditioned office, typing away all day. I was in the trailers
sweating and dealing with cockroaches just like everyone else, but it
was OK-that's what actually made it so interesting.
Do you feel that you made an impact?
My project has evolved in a really neat way. Part of it was just that
I learned about what this community group is doing. It was really about
digesting a lot of information and listening and thinking about it and
What I'm doing now, which I think is going to make the biggest impact
for the Gulf Coast area, is this guidebook that I've created, a guide to
community-driven recovery. It's a useful book because it shows all the
different pieces of that process, and I've compiled it in such a way
that is very user-friendly. If that can help other New Orleans
neighborhoods in the next year and other communities in the years to
come that are faced with these disaster situations, that's probably the
biggest impact I can make.
After months of hands-on volunteer work and research, Hummel has
compiled a final draft of the guidebook and is trying to find funding to
distribute the manuals across the Gulf Coast region. When the book is
published, it will serve as a detailed log of the community's efforts as
well as the work of the Harvard students who worked on the "Broadmoor
Project," which garnered the support of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and
the leaders of other New Orleans neighborhoods hoping to implement their
own community-driven recovery efforts. With plans to return to Broadmoor
in the near future, Hummel intends to continue working with community
groups in the region. Two years after the disaster that claimed nearly
1,500 lives and displaced thousands of residents, Hummel hopes that her
work will not only expedite the recovery but offer hope to Katrina's
victims who feel neglected now that the news cameras have left.
"Whenever I go back, there's an excitement because it's still something
that I care about, and they appreciate that," Hummel says. "There's
something powerful about the people of New Orleans knowing that they
haven't been forgotten."
by Travis Kaya '10