by Kelli Hill
The story of New Orleans has always been one of resilience and survival. Hurricane Katrina left the city 80 percent underwater in 2005, and in the year that followed, the city lost 90,000 jobs and about half of its population. Now, more than 10 years later, the city continues to move forward, tackling issues of education, employment and poverty.
At the heart of this progress are local and grassroots movements, taking charge to create long-term change. Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric traveled to New Orleans to meet some of the community activists who are working to ensure that New Orleans will be better for the next generation.
At Southern University of New Orleans, the Honoré Center for Undergraduate Student Achievement is addressing two important challenges facing education in New Orleans: a low college graduation rate and a lack of teacher diversity in urban schools.
“When you look at the numbers of African-American males who start college and have finished six years later, those numbers are abysmal,” says Warren Bell, director of the program. “Combine that with the other really scary statistic that nationwide, African-American males as classroom teachers are below 5% by just about anybody’s estimate.” The program offers scholarships to African-American men from disadvantaged backgrounds to complete college and earn a degree in teaching.
In return, the participants, known as the “Honoré Men,” will go back into the classroom to teach for two years in New Orleans, giving back to their community and serving as role models for the students.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, a community hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, Rashida Ferdinand of the Sankofa Community Development Corporation emphasizes the importance of health and wellness to the development of the community as a whole.
Ferdinand has built a community garden, a fresh market and mobile market offering fresh produce to local residents living in the Lower Ninth’s notorious food desert, and transforming local blight into an opportunity to reinvigorate the neighborhood from the ground up.
In New Orleans’ French Quarter, third-generation restaurateur Dickie Brennan is training Nola’s next generation of chefs. Through both his chef-in-residence program and his work with Café Reconcile, a program that trains at-risk youth the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business, Brennan is making sure the city is set to staff its ever-growing food service industry.
Brennan’s goals are two-fold: to nurture the unique entrepreneurial spirit he believes the city possesses, and address the lack of local culinary talent in a booming restaurant market.
“This is one of the finest communities. And it all boils down to people,” says Brennan. “We do programs like Café Reconcile and individuals are connecting, coming into success, it’s the way a community should be.”
Restaurants in New Orleans are also getting hooked — pun intended — on the sustainable seafood movement taking shape in the city. Today, local chefs and fishermen are teaming up to teach residents how to use “bycatch,” or fish caught unintentionally. These partnerships are a win-win for fishermen trying to keep popular fish stock intact, as well as chefs looking to add variety to local fare.
“You know, it’s better business. People are starting to realize that sustainability is something more than just a catch phrase. It’s about people’s relationships with each other, and people’s relationships with their environment,” explains Dana Honn, chef and owner of Café Carmo.
Brandan “Bmike” Odums is a street artist and social activist making his mark in New Orleans with his message-driven, graffiti-style murals. Couric visited Odums at his latest exhibit, StudioBE, in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bywater neighborhood.
“I come from a tradition that says art for art’s sake is not the reason you do art, you know. Art was always, the way I was taught, used to [enhance] community, used to educate, used to inspire. And that’s what I try to do with the work. The personal context for me is the fact that I’m speaking for New Orleans. I’m speaking for people in New Orleans that need that platform, that need to be heard,” says Odums.
He’s on a mission to shape the minds of the city’s youth, many of whom are still facing an uphill battle in Nola’s revitalization.
“If the simplest thing that happens in this exhibit is that a group of young folk come in here and see some of these paintings and see some of these historic messages and say, ‘You know what? I’m valuable,’ they’re gonna walk out the door and they’re gonna do what’s necessary to change this city. They’re gonna do what’s necessary to make this place better. And that’s what I’m hopin’ to encourage and inspire,” says Odums.