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Launching "Levees"

On Thursday, September 6th, TC launched "Teaching The Levees: A Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement," a 100-page teaching tool developed by TC faculty, students, staff and alumni. The curriculum is cued to the four-hour HBO documentary by Spike Lee, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Act," which captures firsthand the plight of New Orleans and its people during and after Hurricane Katrina.

A debut event for a new civic curriculum sounds a call to action in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

“There is a culture in this country in which we don’t take responsibility for anything. If we’re among the privileged, if our wealth was passed on from family to family, we live in our own little society and we make everything else disappear. You compare that with the Netherlands, where they still talk about the flood of 1953, about how they all came together and how it’ll never happen again – how they rebuilt for the next 10,000 years. And the only saving grace so far in New Orleans is that the Dutch have been willing to come talk to us.”

Those sentiments, uttered by New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, captured the spirit of  the launch event held in September for “Teaching The Levees: A Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement,” a 100-page teaching tool developed by TC faculty, students, staff and alumni. The curriculum is cued to the four-hour HBO documentary by Spike Lee, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Act,” which captures firsthand the plight of New Orleans and its people during and after Hurricane Katrina. 

The curriculum – which is being distributed free of charge to 30,000 teachers nationwide, together with a DVD of the film -- bills itself as a vehicle for prompting the kind of difficult discussions about race and class that typically don’t happen in American classrooms. Certainly if the launch event, attended by over 600 people in TC’s Cowin Conference Center, was any indication, that goal seems sure to be realized

“It’s important that our launch event today be a call to action as well as a discussion that seeks to make sense of something that’s incomprehensible,” said Margaret Crocco, Professor of Social Studies and Education, and lead architect of the curriculum, which was developed with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and in conjunction with HBO. 

Citing Martin Luther King’s observation during the Civil Rights era that “there are in the white South millions of people of good will whose voices are yet unheard, whose course is yet unclear, and whose courageous acts are yet unseen,”  Crocco said that if America fails to address the issues raised by Katrina and its aftermath, “history will have to record the appalling silence of this period. So we must leave here today heeding King’s call, keeping alive honest conversations about race and class in this country.”

TC President Susan Fuhrman, following Crocco to the podium, called the launch event a celebration “of the power of art and education to extract lessons from even the most tragic events,” and described “Teaching The Levees” as “an extraordinary curriculum that expands upon an extraordinary film.

“I can think of no other curriculum crafted so indelibly around a single historical event, yet reaching beyond it to deal with themes that are timeless,” she said. “It  has the power to bring together educators and students from around the world.”

The nearly three-hour program featured remarks by a large cast of guest speakers, including Marcia Lyles, Deputy Chancellor of New York City Public Schools; Darren Walker of the Rockefeller Foundation; Jackie Glover of HBO; and Sam Pollard, co-producer of “When The Levees Broke.”  However, the heart of the proceedings was a panel discussion chaired by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert that featured Hedge-Morrell; Columbia University President Lee Bollinger; Gloria Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin; and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. of Princeton University.

Herbert’s first question – “Have we learned anything from the Katrina experience? And are you optimistic or pessimistic as a result?– triggered impassioned answers from all the speakers.

Hedge-Morrell, whose district includes the heavily damaged Ninth Ward, said that one painful lesson for her has been how “the media instantly made the victims the problem.

“Any time the media has reported on poor people of color in this whole tragedy, it’s always been the glass half empty. They focus on the Ninth Ward to show that the area was poor and destitute to begin with and that there’s no need to rebuild it. They don’t say that the vast majority of people there were property owners, taxpayers and productive citizens.” In contrast, when the media has portrayed wealthier people – primarily those who are white – the stories have a sense of hope and the possibility for recovery, Hedge-Morrell said.

On the brighter side, she added, “I continue to see that the American people are unbelievable. We’ve had such an influx of citizens – people taking off from their jobs, people on break from college, people spending a year of their life – to help rebuild.”

Ladson-Billings, the Kellner Family Professor in Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that “the jury is out” for her on whether the country has learned anything from Katrina.

“I tell my students to see me as neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but as ‘pissimistic’, because I’m so pissed off,” she said, drawing a laugh. “We teach Kent State in this country, but absent Jackson State [where the National Guard also fired on students, killing two, in the spring of 1970]. We teach Martin Luther King as a peaceful warrior, but we never say that his country turned on him. And we celebrate the anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education, but to kids who are still sitting in segregated classrooms.

“It’s a pattern of behavior –we have to make up our minds as citizens that it matters when people die, or when people lose everything they have. We live in a country where some people matter more than others, even in death. Because we know how exactly how many soldiers have died in Iraq, but we’re still saying about New Orleans that we don’t know.”

Glaude, Professor at Princeton University and senior fellow at the Jamestown Project, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on democracy and social issues, said that people have drawn different and often contrasting lessons from Katrina.
“For some, Katrina has taught that government is bad, that government is irresponsible in delivering services to its citizenry, and they see Katrina as an argument for getting ridding of bureaucracy and red tape,” said Glaude, author of the recently published In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America. “For others, the lesson is that government has a role, but that the systematic dismantling in recent years of the New Deal has made government unable to respond.
“For me, I keep going back to my man James Baldwin, because throughout all of this we keep encountering American innocence. People say, ‘I didn’t know there were all these poor people in this country.’ Well – really? Y’all don’t have tracks in your neighborhood, and y’all never drive through the wrong side?”

As for the future – “I’m never optimistic, I’m from Mississippi – I’m a hopeful Negro, and I’m wary of any Negro who’s optimistic,” Glaude said, adding that he used the term “Negro” to mark a historical experience. “I come out of the blues tradition – I’m not a Pangloss, I don’t believe this is the best of all possible worlds. My hopefulness looks  the nastiness of life in the face, yet musters the resources to laugh, smile and sing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ so that we don’t stand hushed as witnesses before death.”

Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University and an ardent defender of affirmative action in higher education, said that the Katrina experience has confirmed for him the feeling that “we’ve lost a sense of national purpose, a mission or will to deal with issues of race, class and inner city deprivation.

“My whole training at Columbia was around the significance of Brown and that meant for American society,” said Bollinger, who attended Columbia as a student in the late 1960s. “It wasn’t just about segregation or race – it was a whole way of understanding societal reform. And from that moment until about fifteen years ago, there was a sense that these were strong issues that needed to be addressed. Every institution in society, from the military to industry, felt you had to do something about these issues. But somehow over the past fifteen years, that’s changed. There’s been a stunning reversal, in which the great mission of trying to address these issues has been turned around to be viewed as somehow discriminatory against whites and others – a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Bollinger said that the recent Supreme Court decision striking down racial balance efforts in public schools in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, was something “I could never have imagined in my lifetime.

“That the Supreme Court would say that Brown prohibits local school boards from trying to address issues of racial segregation – how did we get to that point?”

Herbert also asked the panelists if they thought a meaningful national conversation on race and class will ever take place. The answers ranged from guarded to despairing.

“I doubt we’ll ever have such a conversation because then we’ll have to talk about the complicity of every single person,” said Ladson-Billings. “People say about racism or slavery, ‘Well, it’s the South.’ But it was the textile factories in New England that were buying the cotton picked by Southern slaves.”

Glaude said that conversation about race is hindered by “a deodorized representation of the ‘60s.

“Part of the problem with how we talk about race in America is that there’s this thinking of the African American struggle has having won out,” he said. “We’re still stuck in ‘I have a dream.’”

Hedge-Morrell suggested that honest conversation begins with truth in reporting, observing that “St. Bernard Parish, which is 98 percent white, was totally wiped out, and you never saw that on CNN or Anderson Cooper. And just today I read a statistic that more whites died in New Orleans than African Americans. You ever hear that on TV?”

Bollinger said that economics may be eclipsing issues not only of race and class, but also of democratic values. “This is an amazing time, and there’s no question that economic activity today is incredibly generative of a new life, with very real benefits for many people,” he said. “But economic value isn’t the only thing we live by. There are higher values – being part of a community, of a society; a sense of fairness – all those things that are enshrined in the Constitution. That’s the kind of discussion that needs to be held, but it’s being crowded out by events like Iraq and the dominance of the economic era we’re living in.”

What’s needed, he added, is some galvanizing event that will motivate people to change the terms of the discussion. “You’d think Katrina would do that, but it hasn’t done it yet. So I’m more baffled today than I was three to five years ago.”

As the discussion came to a close, it was Ladson-Billings who perhaps most poignantly described the current lack of civic engagement around issues of the sort raised by Katrina – and who offered the best hope for the future.

“I’m most frustrated by the almost total evacuation of the public space,” she said. “I’m old enough to remember a time when the word ‘public’ was not pejorative. I got my public polio vaccine. People in my family moved into public housing that was safe, reliable and affordable, to get away from unscrupulous private landlords. And if you wanted to move forward in society, you went to public schools

“Now we all want to live in private, gated communities. Consumerism prevents us from seeing ourselves as public citizens. You might remember that after 9/11, our head of state urged us to go out and shop. Well, I say, Don’t reduce me to a consumer. What can I do to really help people?”

Still, Ladson Billings said, she takes hope from the thought that “we’re not that old of a nation. We’re a teen-aged nation, and that comes with all the calamity and optimism associated with that age, as anyone who has tried to live with teen-agers knows. Adolescents grow physically quite quickly, but their minds don’t catch up to that growth for a while. And that’s where I think we are now. We’re this large, physically powerful nation, but there’s lots of room for our minds to grow.”

Published Friday, Sep. 7, 2007


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