Dirty South Bureau

August 31, 2009

Waveland

Filed under: Class,Louisiana,New Orleans Politics,Other,The Feds — christian @ 1:12 am

I think I can speak for many of my fellow residents of New Orleans when I state that I wanted nothing to do with the Katrina Anniversary this year. Frankly, many folks have felt like that since 2006. At that time you really couldn’t help but remember the storm because so much of the physical evidence was here, in your face, day after day. By now, even though everyone’s lives have been permanently altered, many of the people I know are settling into a new reality. We want to move on. Many here will never be able to forget, so forgive those who want to.

I got the hell out of town. A trip to the beach seemed perfect. Of course, due to a number of unforseen circumstances, such as my friend Jewels almost getting arrested looking for my house (glad to know my part of the Irish Channel is well-patrolled), we ended up where the eye of the storm hit: Waveland, Mississippi. Go figure.

First we made it all the way out to Biloxi, where I got to check up on Sue at Le Bakery. I featured Sue in a radio piece I recorded about the Vietnamese community in Biloxi a few years ago, and was honored that she and all the Le Bakery staff remembered me. Of course, Sue made it easy; with her darling Southern Accent and her sign that “the bread will rise again”, it was too touching. That, and the vile disregard for the Vietnamese Community in the city’s official planning effort made for a hell of a story.

Biloxi looks pretty similar today, only with less debris. The empty lots still line stretches of Highway 90, steps leading to nothing, just like the ghosts of homes in the Lower 9th. The casinos are as big and as obscene as ever. The Vietnamese community in East Biloxi has largely not returned to their original neighborhood; similar to the gulf shore there is empty lot after empty lot. Sue says they’ve moved to the north part of town. However, also like New Orleans the official planning effort seems to have come to naught, so East Biloxi has been spared the fate of being erased with new casinos, hotels and a large park. (I have pity for planners. They’d be really dangerous people if anyone ever listened to them.)

Regardless, Le Bakery is still there. The banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwiches on French bread, are excellent, as are the sweets, including the yucca-coconut pastries.

However I can not speak as highly for the beaches in Biloxi. Despite the water being the temperature of God’s own bathtub, this part of the gulf features opaque brown water and you can walk out for about half a mile before the water rises above your knees. For someone from the West Coast like myself, this is hardly inspiring.

But Waveland was lovely. Taking 90 west from town, the water is clearer, and gently slopes in to the Gulf. We went in at a spot where Katrina had wiped our nearly everything, near a quansit-hut church, where the sign says “Katrina was big but God is bigger”. I was struck by how similar this expression of faith is to the Muslim saying “Allah akbar”. The clouds streaked the sky, and despite all the debris that must be somewhere in that water, there was nothing but mud in our toes and gentle waves.

For a little while I even forgot about the health care fight that is raging. In some ways it is welcome that now the rest of America is engaged in an issue that has been huge in post-Katrina New Orleans: access to health care. Sadly, it appears that many are engaged for all the wrong reasons; including an almost superstitious fear of “big government” (as if nearly a trillion dollars spent on foreign wars and spying on civilians under Bush was not big government). I am shocked at how many of my fellow Americans seem to equate Obama’s tepid version of a national health plan with Soviet-style central planning. Folks: wake up. The rest of the industrialized world has some form of universal health care, and they aren’t suffering under some awful tyranny; instead, they are healthier than we are because anyone can go to the doctor when they need to and get cared for. There are no death camps and there is no rationing. The closest thing to rationing that goes on is in this country, where those without coverage can’t get treated except in emergency rooms.

It would be one thing if those protesting the health plan were all affluent. But I see on television a number of what seems to be working people who have been so bamboozled by the right and the medical-industrial complex that they actually think they are better off under the current system. There really is no end to the ignorance some of my fellow Americans exhibit. This is the reason we’re last in geography, folks. Time to open at atlas once in a while, check out the BBC website, and learn about the rest of the world!

We can’t let a few misguided ignorant folks and wing-nuts get in the way of our having universal health care, just like any other advanced, affluent nation. This is personal for me. I for one spent over ten years without health coverage, and thank God I didn’t have any serious health problems. I am damn worried about how my brothers and I are going to take care of my mother’s medical expenses as she gets older. And I’m not even getting into my friends, most of whom are lucky to be healthy – now, because many of them don’t have medical coverage.

I’ve been lucky to make a few of the health care forums. Cao bullshitted us, but at least he had the courtesy to hold forums during the evening when working people could attend, whereas that worthless low-life Vitter had to hold his at 2:30 pm during a workday (Heelllloooo David… most of us aren’t running around on weekdays screwing prostitutes! We have jobs!). But the real prize goes to Mary Landrieu. A forum on Thursday at 2pm in Reserve? Now that you’ve made sure that the vast majority of those who can get there from the largest urban area in the state have cars and either don’t work or can get off Thursday afternoon, I’m sure you’ve had a real sampling of Louisiana, especially the uninsured. Way to go Mary.

For those of you outside the state, we in Louisiana have a bunch of the worst whores in government imaginable, and Mary Landrieu takes the cake – both for selling out to big pharma and the oil industry, giving us lip service all the while. For those of you here, it is time to get active, because you know for sure these swine – Vitter, Landrieu and Cao – aren’t going to do a damn thing unless you make them.

God is greater than this.

August 20, 2009

Morris X. Jeff, equity and the future

Filed under: Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Schools,Race — christian @ 12:04 am

I left the party at Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club tonight with a mix of emotions; both hope, sadness and a little ennui. Tonight the organization that is attempting to open a public school in the Bayou St. John neighborhood of Mid-City held a fundraiser, with support from Zulu and a range of local restaurants. Kermit Ruffins even played.

The crowd was an interesting mix. The people I knew were a mixture of educators, a few education bureaucrats, friends and family of the organizers and Morris X Jeff (the man for whom the school is named), social justice activists and some Zulu leaders. On a plaque in the corner was a statement of the values of the proposed school, that spoke to focus on inclusiveness and equity as well as academic excellence.

These values were reiterated by Brod Bagert, Jr., the president of Morris X Jeff Community Coalition. In his speech, he set forth a compelling vision of overcoming the failures of the old school system, and made some bold statements. He said that excellence and exclusivity were often spoken of in the same breath, and that they were out to create a school that proves that you can be both excellent and inclusive. Were it someone other than Bagert, I would think that he was simply pandering, but Bagert’s work as a community organizer and advocate for low-income communities precedes him. Before him, Educator Davina Allen, the vice-president of the coalition, spoke movingly about her parents’ journey from poverty in rural Jamaica to becoming successful professionals due to the possibilities created by the island nation’s education system.

I could not agree more with the vision Bagert and Allen set forth. There is only one problem: this goes against the entire history of the education system in New Orleans.

When I worked for the American Federation of Teachers in working to re-establish United Teachers of New Orleans, I thought that by defending the educational system against free-market restructuring, that I would be fighting for educational equity. It was a value that we preached, and that I continue to believe in. Certainly the new forms that were being set up were not equitable; after all the charters, poised as they are to compete against each other, are finding ways to get rid of the children who might bring down their precious test scores. And our educational vouchers, championed by Rep. Austin Badon from New Orleans East, are taking money that can and should be used to create a quality public educational system to subsidize unaccountable, elitist private options.

However the public educational system in New Orleans was not equitable before Katrina and in fact, to my knowledge, has never been equitable. Authors Joseph Logsdon and Donald DeVore give a compelling account of the failures of this system in their book Crescent City Schools. It’s a tragic history of underfunding and neglect for the education of African-Americans for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. After effective desegregation in the mid-1960′s, the system was again thrown into crisis, as white abandoned the public schools both by voting with their feet and refusing to support public funding for integrated schools. According to progressive educator and Vice-President of the Teachers’ Union Jim Randels, also damning was the move to city-wide magnet schools, which took the best students and left the majority of children in low-income neighborhoods behind in under-supported schools. Many will disagree on why, but the sad truth is that public schools in New Orleans have failed to live up to their promised role in the American dream, of supplying a quality education to all children.

Morris X. Jeff is currently applying for a charter. I’ve been very critical of charter schools in the past, and I feel I have good reason to do so. The charter school movement is complex, but here appears to be dominated by elements who are determined to privatize and remove any voice for teachers in the structuring of education (the ultimate arrogance of many operators is to think that people with no substantial educational background know better than teachers how to educate). More importantly, their model, based as it is upon competition, is fundamentally at odds with society-wide educational equity. Charter schools set out to create islands of excellence, and even when they succeed those islands will not address the other children left in the sea of failing schools.

But I am also loathe to suggest trying to opening a school either under the dysfunctional Recovery School District, or the Orleans Parish School Board, who do not seem to even want more schools to run. For the Morris X. Jeff community coalition, the options are complicated. Ultimately the organization was formed to open a school and they must work with the options they are given.

Many other educators whom I respect have taken the charter road, not the least of which is Principal Doris Hicks of Martin Luther King Junior Elementary. A union supporter, Hicks has been quite frank that it was a struggle to get the school open at all in the Lower 9th Ward and that opening it as a charter was the easiest way. There are those who have been vocally critical of post-storm educational restructuring and believe in collective bargaining on the board of McDonogh 42 charter as well.

I have to wonder if Bagert’s and Allen’s noble vision will survive the political realities of education in New Orleans, or the ancient and pernicious tendencies towards race and class stratification that so often define life in New Orleans. At the fundraiser, I saw a majority of white faces, and none of my former neighbors from the neighborhood situated between the Zulu Club and the old Morris X. Jeff. This gave me pause; but I also know the difficulties of engaging low-income populations, and the black neighborhood in Bayou St. John is far from affluent. However, to be a model that rises above the failures of the past, the Morris X. Jeff group will have to engage low-income African-Americans.

I believe that if anyone can successfully navigate the tortured post-Katrina education system and create a quality, equitable school, it will be Bagert and Allen, with the support of Zulu, the people in that room, and the others behind the Morris X. Jeff Community Coalition. I hope and pray they succeed.