D’Ann Penner received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied belief and resistance among Cossacks, farmers and women in the formative years of the Soviet Union. Her first book on the famine of 1932-1933 was co-authored with Viktor Kondrashin and has been published in Russian. During long research trips to Russia, she conducted ethnographies of post-Soviet voting habits, discontent, and nostalgia. In 1997, she joined the Department of History at the University of Memphis, where she felt drawn to the mission of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. As Director, she was the lead P.I. on an oral interview project that documented the human rights violations experienced by 185 New Orleanians, largely of color, scattered by the hurricane and by FEMA. Overcoming: Post-“Katrina” narratives from the Crescent City and Beyond , co-authored with Keith C. Ferdinand, a cardiologist from the Lower Ninth Ward, will be a foretaste of the larger interpretative project.
While at Columbia, Penner worked on Always another Mountain: Community and Resilience after Katrina. Her argument is that in a post-modern world, Black New Orleans was not like most American cities where sociologists observe that blacks and whites have become more individualized and isolated. Pre-Katrina New Orleanians shared an extra-familial sense of connectedness and responsibility that impacted storm strategies—such as whether to leave and whom to care for after the storm--and ultimately kept down the final death toll from Hurricane Katrina in the city. In involuntary exile, however, the disruption of these networks has slowed down the healing process, undercut survival tactics, and increased cultural and social anomie. Nonetheless, the shared history of overcoming discrimination provides a reservoir of resilience and an effective toolkit of tactical weapons bodes well for the future of individual New Orleanians wherever they remain, even as it increases the emotional impact of the loss and heightens the odds against economic recovery. Professor Peter Bearman was Penner’s advisor.