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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Still More Eloquent Voices Heard From

From NYC’s deputy schools chancellor to Spike Lee’s co-producer, a diverse cast of speakers weighs in

While the panel discussion at September’s launch event for the “Teaching The Levees” curriculum produced the most fireworks, the surrounding cast of speakers also spoke poignantly about Katrina, its aftermath, and the need for civic education in America.

Marcia Lyles, Deputy Chancellor of New York City’s public school system, spoke about the tension in America between education as a “a way of preparing an informed citizenry and a sorting system that determines who will run our society and who will take out our garbage.”

Reflecting on civics courses she took during her own high school years in which students debated U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the persistence of lynchings in modern America, she said that the city’s public schools today are compelling students to actively grapple with tough questions.

“We’re focusing on cultural diversity – how we honor those who are different, what we know about ourselves, and how we look at power, authority and governance,” she said. “Because while we may not have breaking levees here in New York City, we have other catastrophes, and we want our students to understand that, as in New Orleans, those who are poor are most vulnerable. And we are trying to empower them to make a difference and fulfill their responsibilities to their communities and beyond.”

Watching the Spike Lee documentary was “painful” for her, Lyles said, because she felt both guilt and relief that the tragedy did not directly affect her – but also because it made her feel helpless.

“So I’m grateful there are educational organizations who would take on a project like this,” she said. “Ultimately, we have to take this kind of discussion out of our living rooms and into the classroom, because that’s where the learning will happen.”

Darren Walker, executive vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation and a Gulf Coast native, said that New Orleans, while similar to other poor U.S. cities of comparable size, was special not only by virtue of the Katrina disaster, but also because it “embodies the often contradictory aspirations of the American ideal.

“The day after Katrina, I got a call from a colleague in Nairobi who said, essentially, ‘Stop lecturing us in Nairobi about poverty and exclusion,’” Walker said. “You see, they thought there that the kind of problems occurring in New Orleans simply didn’t exist and couldn’t occur in America.”

Rebuilding the city, Walker said, is going to take more than the traditional three Rs – “revitalization, renewal and rebuilding” – it’s going to require a fourth R as well: return.

“The new New Orleans must allow people who want to return to have that opportunity,” he said, alluding to the many interviews in the Spike Lee documentary with people who feel that the city’s continuing desolation reflects the desire of a ruling elite to drive away people who are poor and of color. “That’s an absolute imperative.”

Jackie Glover, executive vice president of HBO, which produced the documentary, said that Spike Lee’s film grew out of a desire on the part of both the director and HBO itself to go beyond the wrenching news footage of Katrina that had already aired widely on TV.

“We had seen the people standing on cars and on roofs, but we didn’t know them,” Glover said. “Spike gave them a voice – they opened up to him, they trusted him. We knew he could tell the story in a way no one else could.”

And Sam Pollard, Lee’s co-producer and close collaborator, said the development of a curriculum based on the documentary created a rare and special opportunity to keep the film’s message alive and reach a far broader audience over an extended period of time.

“It’s an amazing thing for documentary filmmakers to see their work given to students around the country learn more about this incredible chapter in our country’s history,” Pollard said. “This film is going to have a longer shelf life, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

Pollard showed a ten-minute clip from the film in which a range of New Orleans residents expressed their outrage at being labeled “refugees” by the media and local and national politicians.

“I’m a citizen of the U.S.A., and you’re calling me a refugee?” one man in the film said. “What kind of shit is that? Did the storm blow away our citizenship, too?”

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