“We are the people, Sir”

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As I battled with my N’Awlins BBQ shrimp, I’d been chatting to Bobby a 23-year-old former high-school footballer who worked behind the bar. We’d been talking about American sport and the college football and basketball systems when I asked what, with the benefit of hindsight, was a pretty clumsy question;

“So, what happened to all the people who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina?”

He fixed me with a stare and said, “We are the people, Sir.”

Bobby went on to tell me about his experiences on Monday 29th August 2005 and the subsequent five years.

He spoke of waking in the night to find water pooling at the bottom of his bed – he slept on the second floor. His floor gave way as he tried to escape and in pitch black he somehow managed to get out of his house. He says he can’t really remember how he managed to get to a building that was high enough and big enough to cling to through the night with around 10-20 others, some of whom were unable to hold on all night. When he was “rescued” he was subjected to the unimaginable conditions in the Superdome.

He spoke of how he fought to protect his sister, who, miraculously, he had found by searching the area of the Superdome for hours.  I became immediately aware that as foreigners we had received the sanitised version of events through the news. A lot of what we heard was “conjecture” that authorities rallied to suppress or deny. According to Bobby, the authorities treated them as criminals rather than victims. There was no sanitation, babies had no nappies, some people had brought food enough for a day or two.

Bobby and his sister were bussed out of town a week or so later, but they had no idea of what they would face in the months and years ahead.

From other conversations I have had during my time in New Orleans it is clear that the authorities failed their people in almost unbelievable ways. Take for example the family who left their home when the mandatory evacuation orders were given. They took food and clothes for a few days. The house they lived in was in one of the poorer parts of town, where it was common practice for the house to be passed down from generation to generation. No-one could afford to pay for conveyancing or other legal processes. The house was fully paid for, but the “legal” owner had passed away many years before. This became an insurmountable issue when the current family came to apply for relief fund… they had no legal entitlement. This was compounded by the fact that when they came to try to enrol their kids back into school, the State Department would only admit those who had official papers documenting who they were and where they were from. They couldn’t re-apply for their documents because the State Dept had been hammered and remained off-line for months. When they finally got back online, they were overwhelmed by the volume of people needing new documentation and the processes involved in this. The majority of people in New Orleans had experienced hurricane warnings and evacuations numerous times before and always returned a couple of days later none the worse. Why would this time be any different? Food and clothes enough for a few days at most would suffice. I can’t think of a worse case of the boy who cried “Wolf.”

As a result, thousands of children and teenagers were refused entry to school. Denied what most of us consider a fundamental right. This compounded the fact that many of the poorer community in New Orleans already felt disenfranchised. This only affirmed their feelings.

Youth crime is rife, particularly among young black males. The aftermath of Katrina is still felt across the city today. Of the 24 stories that I have read on the front page of the local paper over the last 4 days, 19 relate to shooting homicides, with 17 of those involving teenagers.

The Youth Empowerment Project

This is where the Youth Empowerment Project step in. They run many programs across the city with limited funding but a seemingly infinite supply of energy, compassion and dedication.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Jerome, Glenis, Darrin and Kathleen from YEP. We discussed how they work in a number of ways with the youth of New Orleans. They work with predominantly young males aged 8-24, although many young women access the educational programs. They focus on preventative mentoring (to avoid going to prison) with kids as young as 8. They also run a reintegration program for juveniles who have been in the prison system and are out on parole, or bail. They run an educational program that aims to help the youth graduate highschool. The state school system won’t allow kids to graduate each year unless they pass a test, consequently some 18 year olds are still in Year 8. They also run the NOPLAY Program (New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth.)

 They focus on the kids as individuals, look at their strengths and try to provide a context for them. A lot of 8, 9 or 10 year olds are engaged in very “adult” activity. Treating them as “kids” may not work, although it was very interesting to hear that these hardened youngsters came alive when given the opportunity to do the simplest of things like scavenger hunts or having a movie night.

“How can my little boy be happy?”

I had the good fortune to be able to spend some time at the YEP afterschool drop-in centre. There I met some fantastic kids. We played computer games, and watched music videos. I also met one of the parents, Jane who spent time talking to me about her struggles. She told me she had to put her then 2-year-old son in a basket and try to float him down the street in the raging torrents. She told me how she had to stop him running over to the dead bodies that appeared to be everywhere. She told me how when she was finally able to return to the Lower 9th Ward where she lived, there was nothing left, and no-one appeared willing to help. She gets by on a few dollars a day. Her now 7-year-old son J’Michael, who I had been playing X-Box with, doesn’t understand why they have no lights up for Christmas, or any electricity for that matter. Jane started to cry as she said kids are meant to be happy at Christmas… “How can my little boy be happy?” she asked, then she added, “Thank God for these people here…”

During my stay I attended a fundraiser for YEP and met with two 18 year olds who had been mentored since they were paroled from the Juvenile Justice system at age 14.  They spoke of how the YEP team always went that extra mile. They spoke of them with such love that is often reserved only for the closest of family members. One of the boys is now working as an assistant PE teacher at the KIPP Primary School. He is planning on studying Information Technology at college.

The Sojourner Truth Academy

During my time in New Orleans I also went to Sojourner Truth Academy a Charter School (a charter school is essentially run by a board who have put a tender into the state dept) that is only 3 years old. Charter Schools appear to be the main way in which New Orleans is attempting to rebuild its education system. 

This was my first experience of having to walk through a metal detector to go to school. I sat in the reception area and saw first hand the challenges that the staff face. They handled the attitudes from students and parents alike with a grace and dignity that belied the fact that many of them were fresh out of college as Teach for America Corps members. I was able to sit with the two school social workers (akin to Australian school counsellors) Albert and Heather and we discussed the challenges that students, parents and teachers face in a school like this.

One thing that both the workers were  adamant on was that with regard to depression; it wasn’t a case of who had it and who didn’t; it was more a case of how badly did everyone suffer from it. They struggle every day with workloads that most of us would crumble under, but what was noticeable was the passion and dedication that poured out of Albert and Heather, as well as everyone I met who was involved with YEP.

A Tale of Two Cities

To be honest, I was completely unprepared for what I was going to face in New Orleans. I had decided to come here to see how they are addressing depression since Katrina. I felt a fraud very quickly… turning up and essentially saying, “Gee… it must have been tough for you, how’d you cope?”

The fact is, I’m not sure they are coping; they are just doing whatever it takes to get by; to try to give their kids a better shot than they got. Sure, the New Orleans you see on the TV travel shows is going great, and they need to perpetuate this in order to finance its regeneration but this side of New Orleans is only a small part of it.

I have spent my time here on the other side, and it has been the singular most humbling, inspiring and emotionally draining few days of my professional career.

I want to thank the teachers, youth workers, social workers and locals I met here who were so open to meeting with me and sharing their stories.

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