Looking to Louisiana Communities for Good Ideas: A Grassroots Approach for How to Cope with the Pandemic

Frederick Weil, associate professor in the LSU Department of Sociology, has received a $106,668 RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a study on community cooperation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He and more than 50 LSU students begin in-depth interviews with families and community leaders this month to source novel solutions for how to meet basic needs in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Their goal is to build a toolbox of ideas to help communities everywhere.

 

Rick Weil interviews Ralph Sullivan, a New Orleans Black Pearl resident

Weil (left) interviews Ralph Sullivan (right), a resident of the Black Pearl neighborhood in New Orleans. Sullivan runs a home remodeling company but is mostly known in his own community for cooking barbequed oysters at second-line parades.

BATON ROUGE, July 7, 2020 – “An infectious disease makes the whole idea of coming together to solve problems really problematical, because people coming face to face could be the main source of danger,” Weil said. “But people are innovative and creative, and remain social, so I’m interested in the new things people are doing to help and support each other—while social distancing.”
 
“Of course, not everything people do will be applicable in other areas, in other communities and among other people,” Weil continued. “But let’s see what can and can’t be done.”
 
Weil knows of several community actions already that address many individual needs at once. The Krewe of Red Beans is a relatively new Mardi Gras organization in New Orleans that aside from elaborately costumed walking parades engage in service to the larger community. Krewe leader Devin De Wulf is on Weil’s wish list of interviewees since the group raised funds online to pay struggling restaurants to prepare meals for exhausted health care workers, to be delivered by musicians and artists in need of new income.
 
“In one action, his group took care of two, three, or four issues,” Weil explained. “That’s interesting, right?”
 
Weil is particularly attuned to community groups in New Orleans, where he did extensive surveys after Hurricane Katrina, funded twice by the National Science Foundation. With 7,000 survey responses, he was able to calculate averages for each neighborhood or census tract, which then made it possible to match his findings with lots of additional data, see correlations, and draw wider conclusions.

 

“Most places don’t have as much street life and street culture and as vibrant cultural organizations as New Orleans, but lots of places have clubs and organizations that people belong to that could help members if they learn what’s worked for others.”—Frederick Weil

 

“Before those studies, it had almost never been possible in any topic of research to say what the impact is of community cohesion and civic engagement,” Weil remarked. “Especially when the outcomes have to be measured at the aggregate level, such as the overall crime rate, or repopulation rate after Hurricane Katrina.”
 
He’d already gathered about 2,500 survey responses in New Orleans before his first NSF funding came through in 2006.
 
“If you have to hustle, you do what you need to do.”
 
Many of his interviewees might agree.
 
For his new study, funded by an NSF RAPID award to address challenges posed by COVID-19, Weil and more than 50 LSU students will rely on “familial” as well as familiar approaches. Phone and email surveys are notoriously low on responses and going around knocking on doors or doing in-person interviews isn’t safe in the current context. So, now what? They will complete three waves of surveys over a 12-month period with Weil speaking with up to 30 New Orleans community leaders—some of whom he knows from previous work—and students doing in-depth interviews with their own friends and family.
 
“As a flagship state university, we have a great advantage in that our student population is diverse,” Weil said. “Even if the students interview their own friends and family, we still manage to get a diverse sample in terms of race, ethnic, and income diversity. The student diversity itself takes care of that aspect. The only thing we’ll require is some age and gender diversity, so they have to interview at least one man and at least one woman, at least one person over 60 and at least one person under 30.”

 

Creole family in New Orleans’ 7th Ward, photo by Rick Weil

For many years, Weil has involved the undergraduate students in his sociology methods class in producing a series of photographic neighborhoods portraits, documenting 15-20 neighborhoods. Pictured here is one of his own photographs of a Creole family in New Orleans’ historic 7th Ward where African, French, and Spanish influences have mixed for centuries. “There was really nothing special going on at a time, but the photos capture a flavor of each place and gave me a chance to maintain a lot of my connections and ties, which enabled us to get this new COVID-19 NSF grant,” Weil said.

Other than having already established connections in New Orleans, it also made sense to Weil to focus his interview efforts there since the city has broad experience with community response to disasters. He emphasized the importance of getting to work immediately.
 
“If you wait to do a survey, you have to ask people how they felt before, and that’s always unreliable, asking people how they felt some time ago,” Weil explained, having seen how personal narratives shift over time, as after Hurricane Katrina.
 
Weil also ran the Baton Rouge component of the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey back in 2000, led by political scientist Robert Putnam whose work Weil knew from when he got his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1981. Social capital is a term that might have “boomer” or hippie overtones, but Weil sees many of the ideas he explored as a college student in the ’60s and ’70s coming back.
 
“When I was in college, we really did think we were supposed to save the world,” he said. “And this urge to save the world seemed embarrassing for a while, people scoffed at it, but now I think it’s back in fashion again.”

 

Frederick Weil, a community sociologist and disaster scholar, observes how some theories about social capital he explored in the ’60s and ’70s make new sense in the COVID-19 context, partly because of “damage to American society not seen for decades.”


It was largely theories about social capital that drove Weil to become a community sociologist, looking at how people make decisions together and conduct their civic life. Post-Katrina, he—along with many a Louisiana sociologist—became what you’d call a disaster scholar. Now, with COVID-19, those roles are merging again.
 
“This is a major disaster that’s threatening so many of us and we are still figuring out how to respond,” Weil said. “What companies do, what universities do, and what governments do really matter, but what I saw after Katrina is that the grassroots response, the community response, the regular-people response has just as much or maybe more effect than the institutional response on the resiliency of certain groups. They’re certainly both important, but we need best practices for the latter, which we don’t yet have—examples of positive and effective community actions that take into account social distancing.”
 
Other than “social capital,” Weil favors the term “synergy.” As an example, he mentions the forthcoming app Kula, which was developed by students and recent graduates—including members of his team—to connect volunteers with those in need of help, including food and prescription deliveries.
 
“As long as people can maintain their social ties, they’ll just get manifested in new and different ways,” he concluded. “People will reinvent how to do things remotely to accomplish what’s needed.”

 

More information about this study, other projects, as well as collections of Weil’s neighborhood portraits are available on his website, www.rickweil.com.

 

 

Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development
225-578-4774
ehahne@lsu.edu