As advertised... timely content, provocative questions, differing answers, New Orleans still a work in progress.
September 14, 2013
Panel: Creating Community for Writers of Color: MelaNated Writers Collective
Moderator: Jarvis Q. DeBerry Pulitzer Prize recipient,editorial writer and columnist, has written for The Times-Picayune since 1997.
Panelists: Jewel Bush, founder of the MelaNated Writers Collective; Thaddeus Baker, a media coordinator and journalist; Kelly Harris, poet and founder of Poems & Pink Ribbons; Gian Smith, writer, actor, and video producer, spoken word poet.
Writers are writers. The color of their skin doesn't preclude having common issues. Is my writing good, does it make sense, do I have the authority to say this, what do I gain or lose by working in solitary vs. in collaboration are questions writers of any color think about and the panel considered. The writers on this panel appear to be in their late twenties, early thirties.
Cross cultural content and context: barriers to an audience
Kelly Harris, one of the young black writers is vexed that white audiences don't make an effort to dig into her work. Once in a college poetry class in Cambridge, MA, Kelly Harris, the only black writer in her class, said that fellow writers didn't know who Mahalia Jackson was, said if they didn't get it, other readers would not either. Their teacher agreed. Kelly, the only black writer in the group says,
"Why can't a white audience cross over to a black writer by doing some research, taking time to learn something about our culture? Black authors have always had to cross over to a white audience." Kelly says. She did not remove the reference. "How much do I have to explain?" she asks.
Harris reads a 1926 essay by Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." It urges black people to represent themselves and their experiences honestly and without fear, worry less about how white audiences receive it.
"We're underrepresented," Gian Smith says. "One of my favorite movies was 'Love Jones,' a heartfelt, layered depiction of life about the relationship between two young black artists. I haven't seen another movie like this since it was produced in 1997," he says.
"Tons of people will take in "The Hangover". Is there no audience for a well done film depicting black life," he wonders.
Voice, point of view
Jewel Bush, from Chicago, wondered if she could write authoritatively about New Orleans. Over time, as she became adjusted to New Orleans culture, she writes now with a sense of place.
Kelly Harris says she "still get pissed off with New Orleans and has to call it out."
Advice to non-black writers
Do your research. You may not be a day laborer but you can talk with them, write about them but be sure you're writing from your own perspective. And be honest with what you don't know.
Is not an obligatory subject. Thad Baker has only written twice about it. Jewel Bush has many unpublished poems and a novella about it. A consensus agrees that Katrina may have given writers the opportunity to tell the world about New Orleans but the storm doesn't have to be a required subject. New Orleans being New Orleans, there are plenty of things to write about besides the storm, shootings, or second line parades.
IMHO Rising Tide conferences in the future would be well served to have one "melanated" panel every year to touch on subjects from a race-based point of view.
Education stil a hot button topic.
Nikki Napolean, parent advocate
Marta Jewson, freelance journalist covering charter schools
Aesha Rasheed, board member of Morris Jeff Community School and founder of New Orleans Parent Organizing Network
Jaimmé Collins, attorney at Adams & Reese, which represents some charter schools
Steve Beatty, editor of The Lens
Urban schools are a mixed bag everywhere and in post Katrina New Orleans the bag is soggy paper one. The panelists, a parent, a journalist, a former reporter now parent advocate, an attorney whose clients are mostly charter schools, and the editor of The Lens, focus most of their attention on accountability, access, and transparency of Charter School boards that have multiplied in NOLA since 2005. Public education in New Orleans presently involves the Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish School Board and five different types of charter schools, says Attorney Jaimme Collins.
In general, panelists say that Charter Schools have improved the education system in NOLA but, as one says, "not better enough" and with no apparent sense of urgency. They also agree the charter schools can do much better. There are more than 40 charter school boards in New Orleans and not much uniformity between them. For example, there is no universal application form to attend a charter school. School board meetings are often a problem. Some boards do not comply with public meeting and public records laws which makes it difficult to get information and assess quality. (Ex cited by Steve Beatty - some agendas say "Old Business," "New Business," "Adjourn" -- there's no indication what will be discussed,)
Community engagement: communication between the school and parents is often sketchy, meeting agendas sent out by email 24 hours in advance, much too short a lead time. Parent attendance is inconsistent. Transportation and sufficient advance notice are cited as two examples.
Charter schools vary in their level of infrastructure and organization, some cannot readily Information regarding past meetings and decisions. Panelists agree that important decisions are made at committee levels and rubber stamped at the board meetings. Parents have virtually no way to know about committee meetings and therefore lack input into school policy at that level.
Some boards seem clueless, meeting in a closed circle, talking to each other, hardly audible to anyone in attendance and defeats a constitutional right to observe an open meeting.
Most panelists agree that when a school is failing, it is a leadership problem.(Personally, I don't think it's that simple. What about whether the school is required to take all applicants, have a lottery system, or can pick the most promising students and refuse students with cognitive disabilities?)
It appears insulting, exclusionary, or inexcusably insensitive that some boards persist in holding meetings in the middle of the day like the Orleans Parish School Board used to do. Parents who work can't attend, nor can parents who live a distance away, don't own cars and have to rely on time-consuming connections via public transportation.
Levers for change: a school gets around $5000 per student, if a parent is not satisfied, move the student to another better performing school.
Closing observation: The Lens and other organizations "are exhausted," says Lens editor Steve Beatty. He suggests creating a Charter School Reporting Corps to cover the meetings of the 40 plus charter school boards.They can't affect change on their own. Right now there isn't sufficient broad-based, public demand that will drive charter schools to become more responsive.
The overriding question for charter schools is the children in them being better educated. The results are uneven and data is disputed.
The discussion of education in New Orleans could take days: poverty, crime, class issues affect how a kid learns but data for these conditions are not immediately measurable. Nevertheless, charter schools are a good beginning.
Sidebar: Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education and supporter of Charter Schools, has just published a book rebuking the Charter School movement.
Lt General Russel L. Honoré (Retired)
Lt General Russel L. Honoré (Retired)
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/conten is on you ist/article/2005/09/11/AR2005091101484.html
CNN called him "the John Wayne dude". If there is one man who can transform the presently toxic relationship between the oil industry and the state of Louisiana it is Lieut. Gen. Russel L. Honoré. Three minutes after being introduced, the general steps away from the podium, walks a few steps down off the stage. For the next 50 minutes, he stands at floor level, paces back and forth, addressing the audience with a battle plan. At 6'2" with the rugged frame of a man descended from Creole farmers, the man has a commanding presence. He needs no microphone. We read him loud and clear.
Layered between his back story and anecdotes is his message: stand up to big oil, stand up for ourselves as Louisiana citizens and protect our state resources and our health from being damaged further by the oil and gas industry's practices.
An accomplished speaker and motivator, General Honoré has his talking points in order. He's not afraid to make them to farmers, fishermen,politicians, or voters.
"The challenge is to keep our economy going and make the state a safer place, we can do better."
He talks about three leadership points.
First point, the ability to inspire others to willingly follow you - put the accent on willingly.
"We need to look at environmental justice, and everyone has a stake in it, farmers, duck hunters, oil workers, and chefs. 35% of America's seafood comes from the Gulf of Mexico. When I was flying over the gulf, I asked the helicopter pilot 'What are those streams of oil?' The pilot tells me they are orphan wells that have been abandoned, that oil seeping from them is degrading the aquifer. The farmers in Crowley where they produce the world's best rice in the world need to know that arsenic is leeching into the aquifer and will ruin their crop and their reputation. Same with duck hunters and local chefs. Some day the chefs will be importing shrimp from China if we don't act."
2 Have a cause and a purpose
3 Have leadership
He talks about General George Washington. Where was he when he crossed the Delaware with his decimated army, most of his farmer/soldiers having gone home? In the front of the boat. We didn't have a navy, he says, so where did he get the boats? He uses what we call TOPS in Louisiana , "Take Other People's Stuff" he says, to laughter from the crowd.
"This is about environmental justice, it is a war is a war we can win," he says."It is a war for equity and we are on the right side of what is right."
"The mission is to have safe air and safe water," he shouts, "and our time is now!" The audience cheers.
"What are we up against?" he asks rhetorically. "They give us playgrounds and college buildings but they despoil our environment."
He throws in personal backstory and homespun wisdom: "When I was a boy my teacher told me three things. You're not the sharpest knife in the basket so learn these lessons," she said.
1 Learn to do routine things well...homework, brush your teeth, respect your elders
2 Don't be afraid to take on the impossible.
3 Don’t be afraid to act if you’ll be criticized for doing it.
"Why are we the poorest state in America? Oil is bleeding us," he says.
“We cant mess with oil! ” people say to him when he brings up the subject. (Heck, I
even wondered about that when I talked during lunch with Kellan Lyman of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.)
"Have standards," he says, "You break it, you fix it. When it comes to oil, we need to call out BP for messing up the Gulf. We need a cultural shift. In a democracy, you can turn a situation around," Honoré says. "Change is going to have to come through the legislature. They won't pass a law requiring companies clean up their mess until the people make it miserable for them. Self-regulation is not an option."
"Eight governors haven’t changed oil policy. Orphan wells, 12,000 of them, are still not properly capped. Abandoned wells, those A-frame structures in the water, we let them get away with it . In Plaquemine two men fishing crashed into a partially submerged A-frame, one man died."
"People pass by oil buildings on the coast and point to all the new trucks in the lot. Look at the license plates, most are from Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, not Louisiana. The crews have one female, one African American male and most are from out of state."
The general is winding up. "You need to tell the legislature to regulate and if they don't, you have to make it miserable for them. This is our time. This is our battle. This is our time!" he exhorts.
"The oil executives created a problem they don't have to live with, they live in Texas. You have to have a voice, you have to live in harmony with the oil industry, they've done it in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia."
General Honoré challenges every one of us in the room and listening online.
"You are social media, bring ten people into the mix. This is for the environment and for social justice and for poor people. Be vocal. Tell politicians that if you run for office you cant take money from oil and gas companies, it corrupts. Get media involved, show that democracy cannot be co-opted, can't be bought. Tell the rice farmers about the arsenic leeching into aquifer and the consequences, tell the NOLA chefs. I hesitate to use the words but - community organize."
"This is our generation's war. We have to get young people involved the way they were involved protesting the Vietnam War or pushing the right to vote.Civil disobedience is an option if it will cause change."
Earlier in his remarks, Lt. General Russel Honoré said, "Every generation's got something to do that is big, that will change this nation, that will change this world."
Social media, new media, all of us in the room, have work to do, big work.
Beyond Tourism, Beyond Recovery: a divide between the promoters and citizens?
BEYOND TOURISM BEYOND ECONOMY
Brian Boyles poses the central question..."At Kermit’s finale at Vaughan’s, I marveled at all the lives dependent on that long-running gig, how the bar was now world famous, and how any tourism official could point to it as a paradigm: authentic New Orleans embraced by free-spending outsiders for the benefit of hard-working locals.
“They have a point,” I thought. “Perhaps this is the future.”
In an important sense I was mistaken, of course. That particular factory disappeared with a statement on Facebook. But the model remains and expands, translating local culture into tourist dollars. We wrestle over culture because ours is invaluable and makes us love living here, but we need to examine the money that culture generates and how it’s distributed, the stability of those incomes, and how much we should depend on tourists to pay our rents and mortgages."
The panel on tourism and recovery is starting now. The moderator is Charles Maldonado of The Lens, and the panelists are music educator Brice Miller, professor and author Kevin Gotham, Meg Lousteau of VCPORA (Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents, and Associates), planner Robin Keegan and NOTMC (New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation) president Mark Romig.
Tourism and the tourism industry is not going to save New Orleans from underemployment, poverty, educational disparity, and crime. New Orleans has a poverty rate of 29 percent, nearly double the national average, according to the latest Greater New Orleans Community Data Center report. It is estimated that 13 million tourists visit New Orleans annually presently.
Bourbon Street, in the midst of the French Quarter, is a destination many tourists extrapolate as being the soul of New Orleans. In recent years it has become a caricature of itself. Meg Lousteau says most tourists have no interest in the culture or architecture surrounding the Quarter. The "let the good times roll" lightheartedness of past years often descends into public hurdy-gurdy ugliness and bachelor parties renting floats to carouse through the French Quarter.
The unanswered question is how much is tourism changing or degrading New Orleans unique flavor. Even with an infusion of tourists, there is no trickle-down effect on the fortunes of the musicians, entertainers, hotel workers, cooks service workers on whose back the economy is based. Unemployment among black men in New Orleans in 2011 was 52%.
New Orleans schools will not have prepared them with the education to take advantage of the businesses the New Orleans Business Alliance is attempting to attract. The average salary of someone employed in the service industry is $26,000, barely enough for a single person to survive on let alone someone with a family. Increasing wages, providing a living wage, was struck down by the state legislature. If the city is going to invest in tourism, it needs to ensure that the people who work in it can afford to live here.
The New Orleans Business Alliance has issued a five-year plan, "prosperity Nola," to promote business investment and increased tourism economy.
One of its goals is to expand tourist interest in areas outside the French Quarter, to spread the tourist money around. Not everyone agrees. Brice Miller says that there hasn't been enough connection with the people in those communities to see if they want their neighborhoods to be marketed as tourist attractions. Miller says that before Katrina there were 18 clubs in Tremé, now there's one. Neighborhood people frequented the clubs, but new regulations make it difficult for clubs to re-open. He suggests the city open an office to engage cultural communities like Tremé, the way they open offices for the tourist economy. In the battle between money for the tourist dollar and residents and workers, it appears that money is winning.
People tweeted and blogged continually during the conference.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.