ALUMNI PROFILES — Fall 2003
   

 
In her first year after college, Orli Cotel helped lead a successful campaign to keep New Orleans' water and sewer systems public.

Planting Seeds for Social Change

When Orli Cotel arrived in New Orleans in August 2002, she knew she had to move quickly. Organizing petition drives, writing press releases, finding volunteers to staff phone banks, and creating a coalition of civic organizations were all on her "to-do" list—and all had to be completed before the city board's vote, which was just six weeks away.

So far, Cotel's story may sound typical of any civic organizer. What made Cotel unique was her cause: not taxes, Iraq, education, nor any of the other typical dinner-table issues—but water. At the time, New Orleans was considering privatizing its water and sewer systems, a move that Cotel and her fellow activists opposed.

"The two largest water companies in the world, Suez and Vivendi, were trying to take control of and privatize the entire New Orleans municipal water system—and the companies had this horrendous track record, including a history of dumping raw sewage into the Mississippi River," says Cotel. "On top of that was the issue that water should be a human right. It's a resource that we all depend on, it shouldn't be an entity that companies are buying and selling and trading for a profit."

On October 16, 2002, Cotel achieved her goal: The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board rejected the privatization bids. Yet her work in New Orleans continued.

"After we had won the campaign, we set up community volunteers to keep working on the issue and to work to fix the water system without privatizing it. We kind of organized ourselves out of the picture, so then we moved on."

Cotel's successful New Orleans campaign was made possible through a year-long fellowship with Green Corps, a Boston-based environmental leadership training center. As with all Green Corps fellows, including former fellow Phil Radford, A.B. '89, Cotel began the program by spending a month in Boston, learning the fundamentals of grassroots organizing. Three days before the month was up, she received the call to go to New Orleans.

"I think of us as kind of the James Bond of the environmental movement," she says. "They call you up and say, 'You are needed here tomorrow—go.' And you go, with very few resources." In all, Cotel went through this process four times, as she later organized projects in California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Cotel traces her interest in Green Corps to an experience she had while an undergraduate, when she was a Danforth Scholarship recipient in recognition of her leadership in community service. She recalls her frustration while working on the Hispanic Youth Mentoring Program—an outreach program of the Spanish department that she co-founded—upon hearing that the students she was tutoring had formed a gang.

"I was talking with a friend of mine, who was working with Green Corps at the time, about my frustration," says Cotel, "and she cut me off and said, 'It sounds as if you feel frustrated because you are working so hard to build a really good staircase for these kids, but there is no second floor.' And I said, 'Yeah, that is exactly what I feel like.' Then she said, 'Well, my job is all about creating that second floor.'"

As she looks to the future, Cotel says that she wants to continue being an advocate for social change—and to continue empowering others to do so as well. "One of the great things I learned in the last year is that there are a lot of people who want to make a difference, but they just don't know how to do that. Green Corps gives you all the skill that you need to make that difference and to help others do so as well."

—Jonathan Greenberger, Arts & Sciences Class of '05