|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" listand 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 issuesbut
water. At the time, New Orleans was considering privatizing its
water and sewer systems, a move that Cotel and her fellow activists
"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 systemand 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 tomorrowgo.' And you go,
with very few resources." In all, Cotel went through this process
four times, as she later organized projects in California, Ohio,
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 Programan outreach program of the Spanish
department that she co-foundedupon 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 changeand 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."