Judy Reese Morse is the Deputy Mayor for Citywide Initiatives for the City of New Orleans, which means she oversees Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office and is responsible for overseeing policy development and strategic planning for economic development, education, social innovation, cultural economy, and more.
There are three programs that have come out of the Mayor’s Office under her leadership that are having a significant impact on social equity and social justice in the City of New Orleans: #EquityNewOrleans, an initiative to ensure equity in city policy; NOLA for Life, the city’s comprehensive strategy to reduce murder among young Black men; and the Welcome Table New Orleans, an initiative on race, reconciliation, and community building.
Morse’s interest in equity, fairness, and justice comes from an early age observing the work her father did.
“He was a freedom rider during the Civil Rights movement,” Morse explains. “He was a member of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Growing up I always heard about the importance of equity and justice and fairness – unless all of us are saved, none of us are saved. That’s a truism that really matters today. We have to think about how the world affects all of us, not just any one of us. I had that as my backdrop growing up.”
She started working with Mayor Landrieu when he was still the Lieutenant Governor. “From day one I was drawn to his vision of a new South, one focused on its diversity as a strength and not a weakness, that saw itself as a place that provided opportunities for all people and where the state was economically strong. It was just a really exciting vision that he had not just for Louisiana but for the Southern part of country that really resonated with me.”
Morse, who has worked at all levels of government – federal, state, and now local in the Mayor’s Office – has always been attracted to the idea of finding a common ground among different people and looking at how policies, programs, and services can come together so that not only can everyone be served, but they can be served well.
“Places thrive when everyone has the opportunity to do well, so that really speaks to my interest in this work,” she says. “I have had the great fortune as Deputy Mayor to actually lead several of these efforts here in our city.”
Morse came on board with the Landrieu administration as Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff in 2010. Since Mayor Landrieu’s reelection in 2014, Morse has been the Deputy Mayor for Citywide Initiatives and in that role has had the opportunity to be much closer to the work that has been a priority for the Mayor’s Office.
It began with NOLA for Life in 2012, a citywide murder reduction strategy for young African American men ages 16-24. It is a five-pillar comprehensive strategy that focuses on law enforcement, prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation.
“There are nearly 30 programs that fit into at least one of those four buckets,” Morse explains. “We have a number of partner nonprofit organization involved to help young men make different choices and to offer some prevention programs before they get to a point where they have to make a good choice or a bad choice. We also have a very strong enforcement component for those who have to deal with the enforcement side of the work.”
She says that the goal on the enforcement side is not to arrest people but that the choice is really up to the individuals themselves.
“If you are in a position and are ready to make a different choice, then we have partners who can help you make a different choice and redirect you,” she says. “It has been a very successful initiative. Our goal was to reduce the murder rate. Since it was introduced in 2012, every year has seen some of the lowest murder rates of the last 40 years. We feel confident this is an effective strategy. We now have to focus on execution and staying committed on all parts of the initiative. It takes a great commitment to see a sustained change.”
Welcome Table New Orleans launched in 2014 as a three-year citywide racial recognition initiative gathering New Orleans residents ages 18 and over from across the city to meet once a month in facilitated circles to tackle issues of race on their own and as a circle come up with a reconciliation project that addresses those issues – something that would raise awareness of the need for racial reconciliation.
It was a 12- to 18-month process for every circle, and they ended up with eight citizen circles meeting in six different parts of city after an open call was put out for participants.
“The people participating are the real trailblazers and real heroes, in my opinion,” says Morse. “They’ve taken on a difficult topic and struggled with it.”
The projects that developed from these circles include two youth symposiums where young middle schoolers from public and private schools – Black, white, Latino, and Vietnamese –are using curriculum developed on the subject of race. There are murals popping up, a genealogy project in which students learn about their histories and backgrounds (with inevitable surprises), a three-part film series, and an “equity circle” built space in the city where people can sit and have these same kinds of conversations that also has a playground for kids to play while the adults talk. There is also a Mother’s Circle for mothers who have lost a child to gun violence, which has already led a peace march in the city, led an effort to reconcile with mothers of perpetrators, and will lead a five-part workshop series called “From Tragedy to Triumph” that focuses on different parts of the healing process.
“Each of these projects is designed to help people understand the need for discussions about race and why reconciliation is necessary,” says Morse, “whether there are agreements, disagreements, or people agree to disagree but also find a common ground or get to a space where they say, ‘I understand something now I didn’t before,’ or, ‘I’ve changed my way of thinking as a result of this process.'”
With the exception of one circle that agreed to be filmed (that film is available to view on the Welcome Table New Orleans website), each circle was kept confidential to allow people the space to share and be honest and not have anything they say be used against them.
“With the racial reconciliation initiative, we were bringing people together to look inside themselves and ask themselves tough questions about race and racism and the impact of racism in our city and our country, then extend to have that dialogue with other residents, many of whom are different than they are, then take the next step to figure out how to work together on projects in New Orleans to see if they could see through their differences and come to an understanding in order to work together towards a common goal.”
The next progression of that work is to look at the system itself – the City of New Orleans government – and whether or not that system is delivering its programs and services and making policy decisions with racial equity in mind based on data and external input. From that came #EquityNewOrleans.
Launched in 2016, #EquityNewOrleans is another citywide initiative that assesses the role of equity in government, conducting a quantitative and qualitative process that will lead to a strategy for equity in government so that the city will have well-researched data as well as a very strong qualitative component that will have engaged a number of people across the city to make recommendations about what equity in government looks like.
So, what does equity in government look like? That is a question that the Mayor’s Office will attempt to answer in April 2017, after spending a year on the process of developing their strategy for creating an equity-minded government.
“It has both a quantitative and qualitative side, so we are collecting data from departments across city government so we actually know information about how we are currently delivering programs and services,” Morse explains. “There is a strong quality component as well; no matter where they live, residents think someone else is getting better services, that the grass is always greener.”
To develop this strategy, the City has been hosting focus groups and community listening sessions, asking hundreds of people so far questions like: What is your vision of equity? What do you think the government should do? What is the government’s responsibility?
“People talk about jobs, affordable housing, transportation and mobility, contracting, health, quality of city services, a number of issues,” says Morse. “It has been exciting to hear from so many diverse people across the city who want to share their equity vision with us, for the city to be able to represent its equity vision and have a dialogue about what they’ve heard and help us to fill in the blanks of what we might be missing. In many ways this is a new way to engage residents. Normally when you think about a public meeting, it’s often someone from the city who speaks and people line up at a microphone to share their thoughts, and it’s often high-pitched and filled with passion and anger. We don’t just have residents tell us about what they thought about what we said but they also talk to each other and hear from each other. Not only do we get to share with residents what it is we see as a possibility and also hear back from them after reporting out, but this also gives them opportunities to hear something different and from someone other than just us.”
While all of these programs are products of the current administration, Morse says that the Mayor’s Office will give a “long-term, strong recommendation” to the next administration that the government continue to invest in this body of work beyond this administration.
“We will ask future mayors and public administrators to consider equity whenever they’re developing policy, that equity be the lens and that we really build it into the bones of city government, into the government’s DNA, because if you do that then there will always be a commitment to address some of the historical inequities,” Morse says. “We will require the policy makers ask themselves the questions, ‘Are we being equitable in developing this policy? Are we addressing equity if we design the program in this way?’ That structure and that system is what is most important about #EquityNewOrleans.”
So why is New Orleans taking on all of these very complex, highly sensitive emotional issues? Morse explains it with one word: leadership.
“We have a mayor who has decided that in order for our city to grow and develop to its full potential it has to address these huge issues,” she says. “After Katrina and the oil spill, these huge disasters that had befallen city, we can’t run away from the challenges we face. We have to face them and move on. We can’t go over, under, or around issues of race; we have to go through it. Race has been and remains the most challenging issue. As long as there is a process to address it that engages residents that looks inside government and has the government assess itself that can address equity and deal with issues of race, then the city is on its way to continue to make progress in this area. And as long as there is progress then there is the potential for great things to happen.”