New Orleans Kids Speak Out on the Spill
New Orleans Kids Speak Out on the Spill
Photo: Colin M. Lenton
In a few less-than-quiet classrooms in New Orleans, about 15
middle and high school students have been gathered together for
over the past
five weeks discussing what they want to do about the BP oil spill. This was not
the way they’d originally planned to spend their summer vacation.
In fact, they’d planned to spend it envisioning how New Orleans schools could be improved by 2015, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
For most of these young people, Katrina was, of course, the biggest event to rock their lives, causing some to lose family members, some to lose homes, and most to be temporarily relocated to other communities. But it was also the event that got them out of New Orleans, where both the illiteracy and murder rates are among the highest in the nation, and allowed them to see what other schools look like.
“The bathrooms were the biggest things for me,” recalls Dudley Grady, Jr., who is now a student at Xavier University of Louisiana. “To see a clean restroom in school? I’d never seen that before. To see toilet paper, soap, mirrors on the wall that were not broken? I’d never seen that,” he repeats.
After returning home, Grady joined other students with similar experiences and—under the wise and supportive guidance of founder Jane Wholey and some other very committed adults from New Orleans and around the nation—formed a new group called the Rethinkers: Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools.
Over the past four years, the Rethinkers have gathered for six weeks every summer, concluding the yearly programs with some uniquely attention-getting news conferences at which they’ve announced recommendations for how New Orleans schools should rethink bathrooms, food and cafeterias, and a myriad of policies and practices to promote a climate of dignity and respect.
Many of their recommendations (with the noteable exception of optional use of metal detectors in elementary schools) have been met with approval, and the group has attracted attention from media outlets ranging from the Times-Picayune and Christian Science Monitor to the American Prospect and Rachael Ray show.
But this year's BP spill, which began spewing April 20, created a new focus.
To kids in New Orleans, the oil spill is not as dramatically obvious as Katrina was. Houses are not under water; they can’t even see the oil or the ships or the helicopters or most of the news crews from the city. But “this is as big and bigger than Katrina," says Angelamia Bachemin, the director of the New Orleans Jazz Hip Hop Orchestra who works with the Rethinkers.
“Katrina was devastating,” 19-year-old Grady adds. “But we know this will affect our lives forever.”
In one of several experiences designed to help students learn how the spill is already affecting the lives of local residents, several Rethinkers recently visited the Crescent City Farmers Market on St. Charles Avenue and talked to shrimpers.
Kay Brandhurst, whose family has been fishing since the seventeenth century, said she is still catching shrimp in Lake Pontchartrain, the second-largest saltwater lake in the United States. “But the oil spill makes me nervous for future seasons,” she tells the students. “It’s the unknown. It’s the unknown that is really scary.”
There are clearly a great many unknowns. These days, paramount on the minds of many shrimpers is not only what future seasons will bring but also, more imminently, what will happen during hurricane season, which runs till the end of November?
“If the wind blows the wrong way, it can pump the one little happy fishing ground we have full of oil,” says Brandhurst.
And with New Orleans’s economy intimately tied to the fishing industry, the students have begun to understand that the larger community’s future hinges a great deal on the fate of shrimpers like Brandhurst.
Finally, one student asks the group’s last question: “How can we help?”
“Lots of prayers,” says Brandhurst.
But these New Orleans students are offering something more than that. We'll report soon on their recommendations for what role schools should play in the wake of the spill.
In the meantime, what are your ideas?
This essay originally appeared in The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bennett/now-for-the-kids-say-on-t_b_6...