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'Agenda' Connects New Orleans Diaspora

New America Media, News Report, Brittany Owens Posted: Apr 23, 2008

Editor's Note: Started as a way to inform people about local politics, the New Orleans Agenda e-newsletter took on a more powerful role in the years after Hurricane Katrina -- connecting the scattered community and informing them about policies that will affect their ability to return home. Brittany Owens is an intern with New America Media.

NEW ORLEANS Publisher Vincent Sylvain has been participating in civic service throughout his career. He has worked as a political consultant, managed nearly two-dozen political campaigns in this Southern city and advocated for voting rights.

I fell in love with New Orleans when I arrived with my grandfather in his produce truck at the French Market," he said.

Sylvain grew up in Saint John Parish, just 15 feet from a sugar cane field. He has nine sisters and was the first of 10 children. As a boy, he lived with his grandfather a farmer on the cane fields.

In 2002, Sylvain started the New Orleans Agenda an e-newsletter as a series of e-mails about New Orleans politics for residents. Quickly, the number of subscribers grew to 20,000.

The Agenda's format as a "push" medium, dropping content in a subscriber's e-mail box instead of making users "pull" content from a website, made it easier for readers to get information about their community. The Agenda soon became one of the top news outlets that made it a priority to deliver a message to the people of New Orleans.

"I wanted to help make certain that the community of New Orleans has a voice and that they remain at the table," said Sylvain.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, many residents of the region lost their homes as well as communication with their families and friends. Sylvain's Agenda was already a vital voice in local politics. It found a new purpose: reconnecting far-flung residents while asserting their right to return. Sylvain maintained an e-mail database of residents and sent messages to victims of the storm.

"I sent a message out for subscribers to keep the faith. I just hope everyone made it to a safe place," said Sylvain. "I'm a survivor myself."

The Agenda catapulted to an even wider readership base with 60,000 subscribers since Hurricane Katrina. During the storm and immediately after it, readers used the newsletter to locate their loved ones and determine who had survived.

"People saw the New Orleans Agenda and saw messages appearing to loved ones in the newsletter and knew that they could send a specific message in New Orleans and their family and friends would receive it," said Sylvain.

Today, his newsletter is used as a smoke signal for what is happening in New Orleans.

According to Sylvain, Katrina accelerated a process to change the face of public housing that had already been put in motion. The Agenda champions the right of return to New Orleans for those displaced by Katrina.

"The New Orleans Agenda helps to drive issues and coveys the views of the [people of New Orleans] out there. There are different perspectives and viewpoints that many people don't agree with and they are surprised when I publish both sides of the issues," says Sylvain.

The Agenda is free and all revenue comes from advertising. It informs subscribers on policy initiatives from FEMA, the Red Cross, and other social services in the area. It also keeps residents up to date on government land reform projects throughout the city.

While 65 to 70 percent of the subscribers are African American, there is also a large base of Japanese and French subscribers. The Agenda is only written in English, but Sylvain recently published his first Spanish-language piece on voter information. He is also courting the Latino and Asian communities.

Meanwhile, the e-newsletter continues to help people nationwide find family and friends.

"For many it was like stepping on a slave ship and not knowing where they're going," said Sylvain, referring to the separation of families during Hurricane Katrina.

Related Articles:

Katrina, Rita and the Houma Tribe: A Nation Recovers

New Orleans Ethnic Media Hold First Convening

In New Orleans: Affordable Housing Activists Tasered, Arrested

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