Here’s a typical day: We’re out the door before 8am (there are 4 bathrooms for 35 of us…) after a frenzy of pancake-flipping and coffee-pouring in the kitchen, spend a few hours with professors or guest lecturers, break for lunch on Magazine Street, and head out on public transportation to visit local organizations until 6 or 7, often followed by a group activity. There is a lot of reflecting and “debriefing” and synthesis… I think I’ll grow to enjoy this time. In addition to trying to keep up with the blog (internet access and dates with the iPad are limited) I’ve been rapidly filling a big leather journal with field notes, developed disposable photos, cutouts, journal assignments and thoughts. But while I have some free time—a continuation of the week follows!
On Tuesday we sat through a lecture on the U.S. health care system, this paradoxical fragmented thing we call a “system” that leaves 15% of our people uninsured and over 50% underinsured. High technology, limited access. Excess, deprivation. The mood changed when Keith Liederman paid us a visit. He’s the CEO of Kinsley House: the giant building down the street from our hostel where most classes and lectures happen. Kinsley House is hands-down awesome. As a United Way community impact partner and the oldest Settlement House in the South, its programs are focused exclusively on early intervention and prevention (!!) and serve over 7,000 community members! It was instrumental in rebuilding the community and houses a plethora of health/legal/childcare services within its brick walls. We returned at night to watch “When the Levees Broke,” an HBO documentary examining the aftermath of the hurricane through first-hand interviews with politicians, journalists, historians, and locals. Super poignant and eye-opening.
Another site visit this week was to Mid-City to visit the Neighborhood Story Project for a workshop and discussion. The non-profit was founded in 2004 as a book-making project based in the local community. They run writing and photography workshops, turning life histories into books, and the space has this really open artsy design with local photography on the walls and local authors filling the floor to ceiling bookcases. We engaged in a “free writing” workshop and were directed to write about a moment that has touched us in NOLA, not allowing our pencils to leave the paper for even a second. The exercise draws upon the raw energy of writing about the “texture of life,” and the end results were interesting.
Switching gears, we were fortunate enough to have John Renne, a transportation scholar and professor, come speak to us about urban planning in New Orleans and recovery post-Katrina. The same theme arose: big bureaucratic outside organizations vs grassroots efforts. A classic example he brought up was the failure of FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) long term recovery plan after the storm, which included high-paid experts entering the state and employing locals at unfairly low wages (and only temporarily), wasting a bajillion dollars and then exiting with absolutely no end product. Unanswerable questions swirled around among all aid agencies. Do we rebuild the past or try to restore wetlands or convert destroyed neighborhoods into profitable public spaces?Is it ethical for policy-makers to be planning and proposing new high-tech transportation systems when people still haven’t rebuilt their homes? Which recovery plan has authority? Turns out, the NOLA master plan did! Bringing everything together under one umbrella governed by the force of law translated to efficiency and collaboration. The non-profits have been most successful, surprise surprise, because they build local capacity.
Thursday we were visited by Cassandra Youmans, Louisiana’s Medical Director during and post-Katrina. Let’s talk about FEMA again. FEMA spent over $2 million on mobile trailer units after the storm to house families who lost their homes. Well-intentioned, okay. But these units were tainted by formaldehyde and were toxic and useless. Think about how many Habitat homes could have been built for that $2 million! Dr. Youmans expanded on our past lecture on US health care, detailing the imperative to consolidate and collaborate to provide comprehensive integrated care and increase access. She was an intimidating lady and her presence (and resume!) demanded respect; I vote that she gets the job of restructuring our failed health care system.
And now, my favorite site visit: The farmer’s market! Specifically, we spoke with Market Umbrella’s (marketumbrella.org) executive director Richard McCarthy and met with local vendors (read: sampled everything and bought bountiful fruits and veg). Since the 1990s, Market Umbrella has been creating an urban farmer’s market that gives consumers access to fresh, healthy produce while educating them about their agricultural roots and fostering a sustainable regional economy. They call themselves “architects of a public space.” I like that. We had ample time to peruse the offerings… herbs, pesto, gluten-free butternut squash soup, gallette des rois, shortbread,variety of citrus fruits (I bought pumpkin mandarins!), strawberries, creole cream cheese, and horchata from the nearby food truck of Latin American delights.
Just think for a minute about how cultural and historical food is, and what an asset it is to a society. Take gumbo for instance: you got Philippino rice, Italian redbeans and sausage, Cajun shrimp, and African okra– all blended by the French—creating this fantastic metaphor for the cultures of southern Louisiana. Dr. McCarthy explained the “informal economy” where the action’s at (which we’ll witness in India for sure) encompassing farmers markets. Understanding the policies and inner workings of markets gave me a newfound appreciation for them and desire to be involved. In this city, the markets run three times a week all year round; besides the peach farmers from Alabama, the vendors are all within 67 miles from the city. Each vendor pays $25 per market day- this flat rate is far more common than charging a percentage of profit. Shopping at farmers markets is a manifestation of reclaiming control over your life and your role in your community. It’s social engineering. Bringing people together. Anti-government/anti-regulation/anti-social services-farmers are selling to and fostering relationships with low-income populations on food stamps! Around the time that food stamps went electronic (genius, right? let’s deprive the poor, who have limited access to computers, even further) the markets were stigmatized as catering to the White and the wealthy. I find this still to be largely true. But markets in NOLA are reversing this with the wooden coin program. “Money is a proxy for trust, and wood is the local proxy.” Food stamps come in the form of debit cards, but vendors rarely invest in the terminals needed to process card payments. Now patrons pay at a terminal upon entering, and shop using wooden coins valued at 1, 2 or 5 dollars. Vendors can later turn them in for cash or credit. Also increasing access to healthy local produce are NOLA’s incentive programs. For six weeks each July, people on government food-subsidy programs are invited to the markets to double their purchases for free. The idea is that they’ll develop relationships with the vendors, enjoy the food, and feel a part of the community so after six weeks their participation in the system continues. The ingenuity of the informal sector is defeating American corporate homogenization!
Thursday night Indu and I stood in line at Preservation Hall in the heart of the French Quarter for an hour (chowing down on some barbecue shrimp as we waited in line) to experience the home of traditional New Orleans jazz. Preservation Hall’s performances are recognized as some of the world’s last “pure musical experiences” and we loved every second inside this old building dating back to the 1800s. The band, Rebirth, was incredibly intimate and authentic, and I think the no-pictures rule enabled me to really enjoy the moment. We sat on cushions in a crowd of about 70 people and soaked up the soulful tunes of the drummers and tuba, sax, trumpet and trombone players.
We ended the craze of week one with lunch with grassroots activists, eating pad thai in the sunny court yard of Kinsley house. I got to chat with Tatiana, a local who opened her home in the French Quarter as a hub and art house for artists traveling through or working in NOLA. She works as a business consultant at a non-profit to help entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses, and her advice concerning travel, photography, and career-building was really valuable. And at last, the weekend! Time to run, drink fresh-squeezed satsuma juice, explore the French market, walk along the Mississippi River, eat beignets at Cafe du Monde, explore the jazz scene on Frenchmen street, and indulge in an unbeatable dinner uptown at Jacque Imo’s with Sam, Arin, Karen and Keisha. Think mushroom-stuffed salmon with black beans and a garlic cream sauce. Preceded by a spinach salad with fried oyster, and accompanied by beets and sweet potato. The icing on the cake was when our darling waiter presented us with creme brulee, bread pudding, and cheesecake–all on the house, baby. And a box full of hot, fresh corn muffins for the road. Jacque Imo’s, you will not be forgotten. Great end to a great week.