History of the Committee for a Better New Orleans

The Committee for a Better New Orleans is the result of the 2002 merger of two New Orleans nonprofit organizations, the Metropolitan Area Committee and the Committee for a Better New Orleans.  To see a wonderful, brief video created for the 50th anniversary of CBNO and MAC, click here.

The Metropolitan Area Committee was founded in 1966 as the first major community organization in New Orleans to reach across race and class lines.  Over the years, its primary areas of focus were public education and good government issues, as well as putting on the annual Metropolitan Leadership Forum.  The Committee for a Better New Orleans was founded in 2000 with a similar commitment to comprehensive diversity, and with Task Forces in the areas of City Management, Economic Development, Education, Housing, Public Safety, and Transportation.  Its initial objective was to create a citizen platform for the 2002 mayoral and city council elections, producing the highly regarded Blueprint for a Better New Orleans.

In 2002 the two organizations, sharing similar philosophies and a number of board members, decided to merge.  The resulting Committee for a Better New Orleans is a multi-ethnic, multi-sector, multi-generational community organization working to bring all voices to the table to build a better future for all New Orleanians.

Today, CBNO fills a unique role in New Orleans.  With the most broad-based, diverse representation of any organization in the city and a focus on change at systemic levels, CBNO serves as a powerful catalyst and convener, bringing diverse interests to the table to comprehensively address and resolve the most critical issues.  Its board is representative of the full spectrum of race, class, age, and geography in New Orleans.  Priority projects at present include providing a framework for the people of New Orleans to come together to develop and implement a permanent, formal mechanism for citizen participation; working with NOCOG partners to promote open governance in areas such as city budgets, public records and open meetings and processes; and working with a coalition of partners to lead a community-wide conversation on the future of public education in New Orleans, with a focus on excellence, equity and sustainability.  In addition, the Bryan Bell Metropolitan Leadership Forum, first conducted in 1968, continues to be a highly acclaimed training ground for the leaders of today and tomorrow.

The Metropolitan Area Committee

An early MAC Annual Luncheon

In June 1966, Mr. Richard W. Freeman, President of the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), proposed to the Executive Committee that a conversation be opened on how BGR could best serve New Orleans.  The Executive Committee agreed, and reached the conclusion that what was needed was an action organization that could work in the community to advance some of the policy recommendations made by BGR.  The Executive Committee also agreed that such an organization would not be part of the BGR itself, proposing instead to form an entirely new entity.  The Executive Committee explained its thinking in the memo excerpted below:

The BGR has operated in recent years under severe limitations imposed on it by the Internal Revenue Service which had warned its Board of Directors that the Bureau would lose its tax exempt status as an education institution under the regulations of IRS if a substantial part of its efforts were devoted to what the IRS considered political action by recommending positions for or against issues being considered by the electorate.  Consequently, the Board of the Bureau has approved taking public positions on only an extremely limited number of key public questions.  It is believed that because of the requirements of IRS, the Bureau will be forced to continue this policy.  There can be no doubt that this has reduced the Bureau’s effectiveness in the eyes of its members and the general public.  The Bureau has also been confronted with an inability to attract and retain a complete research staff because of the limitations imposed on its ability to pay researchers, who are in extremely short supply, competitive salaries because of its limited budget.  This in turn has severely restricted its output of effective research.  This unfortunate combination of factors seemed to portend a downward trend for BGR in the future.

It was proposed that the new organization be named the Metropolitan Area Committee, that it be limited to Orleans and Jefferson Parishes at first, and that immediate action on the BGR’s city finance study, then in progress, be of first priority.  The BGR Board of Directors, at its meeting of August 9, 1966, unanimously agreed to the proposal.  There was much enthusiasm for organizing immediately, and the new organization included the leadership of business, labor, the universities, the clergy, and the African-American communities.   This made MAC the first major organization in New Orleans to bring people together across lines of race and class.

Initially, the primary purpose of the Metropolitan Area Committee was to endeavor to implement, through the appropriate public and political agencies, the findings indicated by the research of BGR.  However, leaders of both organizations emphasized the independence of MAC from BGR; MAC was under no obligation to follow each and every BGR policy recommendation, and as the new organization grew, it also undertook its own research, identified its own priorities and mission, and took its own positions on any number of issues.

In addition, in 1968 MAC launched the Metropolitan Leadership Forum (renamed the Bryan Bell Metropolitan Leadership Forum in 2009, after its guiding force of three decades).  This annual course has trained close to 2500 New Orleans area leaders in all sectors, including elected officials such as Sen. David Vitter, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson; business leaders such as Roger Ogden, Hugo Kahn and Pres Kabacoff; educational visionaries like Dr. Timothy Ryan and Dr. Anthony Recasner; and myriad other individuals who have made major contributions to the city and the region.

Over the next several decades, MAC became particularly well-known for its work in public education and in government accountability.    It was also the acknowledged leader in human relations in New Orleans; many historians attribute the fact that New Orleans never experienced the extreme racial turmoil that wracked so many other cities during the Civil Rights era to the dialogues that leaders on both sides of the racial equation conducted under the MAC aegis.

In the late 1990s, the Metropolitan Area Committee experienced some serious institutional challenges, which led to a recommendation to consolidate the organization considerably.  Even these changes were not successful in reversing the downward trend, and by the dawn of the new millennium, MAC consisted of one staff member, the Leadership Forum and little else besides its rich history.  It was this situation that spurred the 2002 merger with the Committee for a Better New Orleans, which preserved the Leadership Forum and the vital legacy of this historic New Orleans organization.

The Committee for a Better New Orleans

The Committee for a Better New Orleans (CBNO) was formed for the purpose of exploring critical issues facing New Orleans through honest and creative discussion, and developing a wide-ranging Blueprint of specific objectives to define a great future for the city.

Although committedly non-partisan and apolitical, the Committee for a Better New Orleans actually had its genesis in a political setting.  The first seeds of what would sprout into CBNO were planted by City Councilman Jim Singleton, who in September 1999 called a meeting of a small group of city leaders.  His purpose was to develop a broad-based platform, built on issues of true significance to the community, on which to run a campaign for mayor.  Councilman Singleton emphasized the need for a serious look at these issues from an inclusive approach.

Shortly after this meeting, Councilman Singleton approached businessman Joseph C. Canizaro, seeking his assistance in identifying and studying the major problems facing New Orleans.  Mr. Canizaro felt the concept had strong merit, but immediately viewed it as something that needed to go beyond a campaign agenda.  He urged the inclusion of the most broad and diverse group of people possible, recommended involving the presidents of the local universities, and strongly advised that the process be refocused as an apolitical, citywide initiative.  Councilman Singleton agreed to release the process to go forward in this manner, and Mr. Canizaro became the driving force behind the newly invigorated effort.

One of Mr. Canizaro’s first actions was to contact Dr. Norman Francis, President of Xavier University.  Dr. Francis expressed strong enthusiasm for the nascent project, and with his assistance, in January of 2000, the University Presidents Advisory Council was formed as a key component of CBNO.  In addition to bringing the incredible energy and resources of the colleges and universities of New Orleans to the table, this was also an important step in the depoliticizing of the process, which Dr. Francis emphasized from his very first conversations with Mr. Canizaro.

The beginning of the new year 2000 produced several other significant steps forward, generating the momentum that made CBNO a reality.  Several highly regarded business and community leaders committed to backing the initiative.  Joe Canizaro, Barbara Major and Dr. Francis were named as Chairs of the CBNO.

One key early decision was to preserve the apolitical nature of the project by including as Committee members only those individuals who were not holding or running for elected office.  This was based on broad consensus that the inclusiveness, credibility and openness of the project required that no one actively engaged in the political arena be allowed to serve on the Committee.  However, an intense effort was made to include representatives from all aspects of the community, including all political interests and factions; the theory was that the best way to ensure that CBNO would be apolitical was to include the entire political spectrum.  City government was represented by the inclusion and active participa­tion of several top non-elected officials.   Achieving the goal of broad community representation also required active participation by a cross-section of business and community leaders.

Further representation and input were ensured by the establishment of the Faith Based Advisory Committee, representing a cross-section of the religious denominations and associations in the City.

By March 2000, the CBNO Board of Directors began to take shape.  A Mission Statement was adopted, and the Committee structure and strategic planning process it would use began to crystallize.  Board members agreed that the hard issues facing New Orleans would be looked at openly, honestly, thoroughly, and without preconceptions.  Strong emphasis was placed on equal racial representation on the Committee, as well as multi-generational representation.  Nominations for Committee members were provided by the Board members, by the university presidents, by political leaders, and by other civic and religious leaders to whom Board members reached out.  Individuals were chosen based on expertise on the key issues, their contribution to the goal of broad community representation, and their ability to get things done in their communities.

As a growing number of important players in each issue area were identified, the Committee grew from an initial target of about fifty members to roughly triple that number.  This ensured tremendously broad community representation as well as preventing any individual or faction from dominating any of the issues.  As Ms. Major put it in a lighthearted moment, “We have enough people in here who hate each other to make sure this process works.”

To launch the process, CBNO commissioned Dr. Silas Lee to conduct a poll of New Orleans residents, focusing on their perceptions of government, other local institutions, and their top issues and concerns.  Out of this emerged six priority issues:  city management, education, economic development, housing, public safety, and transportation.  In addition, two overarching issues were identified:  Race Relations and Poverty, and Regionalism and Cooperation.

A Task Force on each of the individual issues was formed, and in September 2000, these groups began convening and looking in-depth at their specific issues.  Each Task Force was led by two co-chairs of different ethnic backgrounds, and consisted of twenty to thirty individuals representing every stakeholder (and perspective) for the issue at hand.  The Task Forces employed the following work plan:

  • Perform a SWOT (Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats) analysis of the issue.  This comprehensive overview of the issues provided the raw material from which each Task Force worked.
  • Select a manageable number of specific aspects of the issue, and develop goal statements for addressing them.  Given the many important facets of each issue, this task engendered some of the most impassioned debate of the entire process.  There was no illusion among members that many important issues were left on the table for another day.  However, the aspects that were selected embodied the most critical and immediate elements of the many problems facing the city, and the resulting goal statements were the first steps on the path to solutions.
  • Develop concrete objectives for each goal.  Representing the details of solving the problems identified in the previous steps, this task involved free-thinking, free-wheeling discussion and a willingness to go far beyond the limits of past and present solutions.  Every effort was made to ensure that the totality of the objectives for each goal truly addressed the concerns and needs of every segment of the community, and would have significant and permanent impact on the problems being addressed.
  • Develop an implementation plan for each objective, including responsible party, time frame, financial and human resources needed, and possible legislative changes that might be required.  As a strategic planning process, CBNO was different from most, in that with few exceptions the Committee and the Task Forces are not the implementers of the objectives.  However, for realism and credibility, members felt that it was essential to include implementation in their reports.  This very involved process took considerable time, represented a true reality check for the Task Forces, and frequently resulted in further refining of the goals and objectives.

Through this process, each Task Force developed an Action Plan for solving problems and moving the city forward on its issue, to be a key component of the final Blueprint document.   Since the end purpose of the entire process was to develop a comprehensive strategic plan that represented broad community consensus, at each step of the way Task Force members were asked to achieve their results by unanimous mutual agreement rather than by simple majority rule.  While extremely challenging, this assignment provoked tremendous creativity, ingenuity and cutting edge thinking on the part of Task Force members.

Once assembled into the first draft of the Blueprint for a Better New Orleans, the document was presented to the public.  In a series of public meetings, extensive public input was gathered, which led to significant edits and additions to the Blueprint.  This included an entire new overarching issue section, named Indigenous Culture.

After the public comment was incorporated, the final Blueprint for a Better New Orleans was released.  A publicity campaign helped the document reach a broad spectrum of the community.  Candidates for mayor and City Council were presented with the Blueprint and asked to sign pledges agreeing to work towards its implementation, which all the major candidates did.

After the election, the intent was to dissolve CBNO.  However, so many of the participants had become so invested during the process that many were reluctant to disband; further, there was concern that the Blueprint – despite the pledges from elected officials – would become yet another high quality study getting dusty on some forgotten shelf.  On the other hand, there was also concern about adding yet another nonprofit to the already-crowded field of such organizations in the city.

This time (early 2002) coincided with the considerable struggles of the Metropolitan Area Committee.  With the two organizations sharing a substantial number board members and similar views on inclusiveness and community representation, CBNO and MAC merged.  The resulting organization carried both names for about six years, before shortening the name and becoming today’s Committee for a Better New Orleans.