The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Nov 22, 2010

Lessons from Biloxi: Honoring Memories by Looking Toward the Future

Posted by Knight Foundation

I was recently reminded of the insights that grieving can provide us on the subject of hope. I was in Biloxi, Miss. last week to accept an award on behalf of Knight Foundation, which was being honored as Philanthropist of the Year by the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

It was a festive event, complete with Hawaiian leis and an Elvis impersonator. So I don't mean to suggest that anything somber was taking place. But Biloxi was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina five years ago.

It killed people. It lifted barges out of the river and deposited them on top of inland buildings. It destroyed root systems for trees. It seemed very much like an act of an angry God.

Since joining foundation-land, I've learned that hurricanes like this or the floods in Grand Forks, S.D. or the economic collapse in Detroit, Mich. are called "mobilizing events." It's a very sanitized phrase to describe the sudden extinction of things once eternal and the disillusionment that seeps in in the aftermath of that knowledge.

The storm did change Biloxi forever, but because of the people, it did not destroy it. Our CEO Alberto Ibarügen has written about his visit to Biloxi at the urging of his friend Ricky Matthews, former publisher of the Sun Herald. His eyewitness experience of the combination of anguish and resolve is just one of the many ripples still reverberating in our hearts and minds today.

I don't mean for this entry to be a solemn one. 'But before I can share the hopeful thing, you must at least touch upon the inner struggle that human beings face in the wake of cataclysmic phrases like "post-Katrina" or even "great recession."

When Alberto recounted stories of children searching for their parents following the storm or people clearing their yard and sweeping their stoops, I heard a full range of ways that we *cling* to life after the storm. The storm is like a death and human beings respond by clinging to life.

Now, five years later Biloxi has new schools, homes, hotels, neighborhoods and casinos. They still get an influx of thousands of volunteers per year who are eager to participate in such a visible, phoenix-type experience.

Our former program director and current local advisor, Adele Lyons, drove me around town and I learned more about the history and diversity of Biloxi. The waterfront is gorgeous. The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum has rare and magnificent collections of Mississippi's world-acclaimed artists. And though he wasn't at the museum, the world should remember that Elvis was made in Mississippi as well.

So pause right here.

The story of Biloxi's continuing turnaround is so visibly impressive to an outsider like me that I wondered aloud to Adele and Denny Mecham (who runs the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum) and others at my table, "Why isn't someone doing heritage tourism here?"

You get this influx of thousands of volunteers who get to know something about the place already, I'm sure that they'd be willing to tell friends and family about the other attractions here. I've stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel and the Beau Rivage. For the price of a regular bed in Miami, you can get the baller's suite in Biloxi.

Plus taking a bus tour and hearing the stories of Katrina's devastation while you look upon new houses, new schools and new community centers is about as inspiring of an alternative vacation as any I can imagine.

They let me fantasize about this for a while and then one of the guests at our table confided.

"You know, when you're here, you don't see it the same," she sighed a little and looked into her memory as she spoke. "An outsider sees what we have, but we can still remember what we've lost."

And there it is. The lesson of Biloxi and Detroit and countless other places.

The people there are grieving their losses. They can remember fondly the way that it was and it will never be that way again. I don't blame them for remembering their love who is never coming back.

But I'd encourage all of us to honor that memory by looking forward. Retain your love of the place but build upon the new opportunities. Know your neighbors, get involved. Let new ways of thinking about this place become new ways of living in it.

That's not a lesson about Biloxi or Detroit. That's about love, loss and life itself.

Happy Thanksgiving to any and all who are determined to make it better.

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