Jainey Bavishi arrived at MIT the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

“I couldn’t believe the images I was seeing on TV were actually in my own country. I felt the need to really get involved,” says Bavishi, who recalls seeing houses blown off their foundations and people stranded on rooftops crying for help.

Now, this grad student from Charlotte, North Carolina, is working to establish a Gulf Coast funders’ collaborative to support and strengthen community capacity in the region affected by Katrina.

“My goal is to institutionalize a small grants and technical assistance program across the Gulf Coast to help resident leaders and community groups of marginalized and vulnerable communities — whether it’s because of race, class, or ethnicity,” says Bavishi, adding that low-income and minority populations were more affected by the storm, because their neighborhoods tended to be in lower-lying, more flood-prone areas of the city.

Before MIT, Bavishi worked in Orissa, India, in another post-disaster situation. A cyclone had hit one of the poorest regions five years earlier, and she learned about the struggle disaster entails. It was initially what drew her to the Gulf Coast.

Bavishi, who has now traveled to New Orleans 12 times, is working to organize a group of funders to launch the effort.

Her first trip to New Orleans, four months after Katrina, was startling. “Most of the city was dark. Many neighborhoods lacked electricity, and the National Guard was everywhere,” she says. “Every house had the rescue worker symbol, an orange X, that indicated how many were found inside. The city felt broken in every way.”

“This work is a step towards an equitable solution, but there’s a long road ahead,” she adds. “Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Rebuilding the city will take 15 or 20 years. It’s a drop in the bucket.”

And yet, Bavishi has hope. “Disasters present opportunities,” she says. “And there’s an opportunity to make New Orleans a bigger, better, stronger city, one that serves all its people, black, white, immigrant, indigenous, rich, and poor.”

“I have met amazing people in New Orleans, people who against all odds, with so much love, generosity, resiliency, and persistence are bringing their communities back. I’m just so inspired by the ability of people to work for a greater, common good.”