New Orleans, Part 2 of 2

I spent three days in New Orleans at Newcomb College Institute’s Inaugural Summit. (That’s me up there, absolutely crashed after speaking; I think I’m listening to and watching Asali Devan, a spoken word poet whom I really liked.)

There I heard a number of interesting speakers, including Dr. Azadeh Tabazadeh, a Persian-American who is Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. Nearly ten years ago, Dr. Tabazadeh realized that human activity was helping to destroy the ozone layer, and showed how. Her work helped lay the foundation for the 1996 ban on CFC manufacturing: she showed that coolants from air conditioners and refrigerators, rather than volcanic eruptions, were doing most of the damage. Dr. Tabazadeh, who is now a senior research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, then became one of the first scientists to make the connection between ozone depletion and global warming. Her presentation on global warming was incredibly good, in that she explained a complex, technical subject very well for a non-technical audience, simplifying the science rather than dumbing it down.

But Saturday was a knockout day. Two conference speakers presented back to back, both from New Orleans.

The first speaker was Ruthie Frierson, founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans and her comrade, Stephanie Hayes. Mrs. Frierson, of an old white New Orleans family, is a former teacher and a realtor who understood that before New Orleans could rebuild, people had to have security. Physical security. Which meant that the levee system would have to be reformed, and as an adjunct to that, so would the property assessor system, so that your property tax assessment would not depend upon whom you knew, or didn’t, whose palm you greased, or not. When the state legislature in Baton Rouge rejected levee board reform–which meant consolidating area levee boards, traditionally used for patronage and political connections, into two regional levee boards by professionals whose work was transparent to the citizens whose lives and property depended upon their work–Frierson contacted friends who contacted friends, who contacted…you get the idea…and thus was born a grassroots movement that is now Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans.

The big, red one is for rage, you understand. Many people had died and many, many more had lost everything because of this attitude, and she didn’t want to see it happen again.

Both the levee board and property assessor reform measures required constitutional amendments, and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans began, not just urging people to vote for the amendments, but to take a personal and active interest in making certain they passed. The results probably shocked a lot of legislators, who are too often used to thinking of people as voters and taxpayers to be manipulated, rather than citizens: the levee board amendment passed with 94% approval from the voters in Orleans Parish and 82% of the voters statewide. The constitutional amendment consolidating New Orleans’ tax assessor’s offices from seven into one also passed overwhelmingly: 70% in favor in New Orleans, 62% statewide, and these numbers cut across race, class and gender lines. Frierson and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans are now turning their sights on the criminal justice system.

Mrs. Frierson was followed Carol Bebelle, Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, which amongst other things works to find grants for the poor black artists of New Orleans. Two things struck me about Bebelle: the great beauty of her speaking voice and the unadorned elegance of her message. She spoke–as near as I could tell without notes–more coherently than anyone else I have ever heard or read, of the connection between literacy and democracy, work and peaceable citizens, art and the life of a community. If you want a democracy, people must be literate, which requires good schools at the elementary through the high school level. If you want people not to commit crime, they must have good jobs (for which, of course, high school ought to prepare them. If you want people to have dignity and self-respect, you must involve them in their culture. And the people who create culture–who create the beautiful, the fascinating, the informative from the commonplace, even the nothing–must be paid. Specifically, the black people of New Orleans, who contribute so much to Mardi Gras as Mardi Gras Indians and by their participation in and creation of so much of the rest of the city’s complex, layered culture, must get some of the money their efforts, often funded by themselves and their families, bring into the city. Too often, artists, like writers, are expected to give their work away for a little publicity, rather than be paid honestly for their work, for it takes time, skill, education, serious criticism to become an artist or a writer, and this attempt to get creativity cheap kills artistic endeavor; Bebelle made very clear how this practice has impoverished New Orleans. Race was a strong minor theme in her speech, handled with a power and grace that is very different from the usual norm of black folks beating up on white folks for things they may or may not have done.

For me, hearing Bebelle speak was a revelation. All civilized societies, but especially democracy, depended upon an enabling civic triad that the American Founders understood and borrowed from the Greek and Roman Republics. This civic triad is composed of, in modern language: free meaningful practical and liberal education, through high school, that prepares students for the political and material world they will inherit, add to, preserve and cherish, as adults; meaningful work that enables a materially dignified standard of living; and participation in the common defense, a continuum ranging from neighborhood watch up to federal foreign service in expeditionary wars, in order to ensure that the great majority of people are not at the mercy of an armed minority, for good or ill. (It is easy to see how modern America’s civic triad is weak and shaky to the point of collapse, especially for black people, whom family historian Stephanie Coontz has called our first post-industrial discards.)

But Bebelle made me realize something terribly important was missing from that civic triad, and that is beauty, for which today’s commercialized consumption is a very poor substitute. I am not saying that there was ever a golden age of craftsmanship that everyone had access to: having worked for 5 years in Dumbarton House, I know very well that much of what survives was made for an elite that often existed upon slave and indentured labor. In later years, after the abolition of slavery and indentured servitude, it would become the duty of the upper classes to consume what the lower orders made, in order to employ them. It was a revolution when Henry Ford paid his workers enough to be able to buy what they made. But people also crave beauty: they will paint on cave walls images whose power and emotion still stun us, and if they wear little or nothing, they will still ornament their skin and hair. In common with many others who pondered the issue, I used to think ornamentation of person and home was an expression of socio-economic stratus. Bebelle’s presentation has led me to wonder if the converse is true as well, that status is a way to assert, I can have beauty and you can’t. One means of enforcing this is in the sumptuary laws so common across time and space; a more contemporary way, for example, in New Orleans, is to make money off the people who act
ually produce the culture while not bothering to find a way for that money to pay those creators for their time, materials and expertise.

These thoughts are enough to chew upon for a while. But here’s another. Taken together, these women, especially Mrs. Frierson and Ms. Bebelle, are making a huge, positive contribution to their city and their state, even their nation. There are people–men and women alike–of the caliber of these women in every city and state of this nation. They need to be found and supported because they are not usually going to be part of institutions: they deal in the basics, and they get them right. They’re not engaged in obfuscating either failure, to keep the money coming, or success to keep other people from figuring out how to replicate it (although I have frankly seen that to be far rarer). They are natural aristocrats whose great nobility lies not merely in their own embrace of standards, but their ability to mobilize other people to act, with dignity and self-respect, on behalf not only of themselves and their larger world.

In this era of global climate change and a national treasury drained by the war in Iraq, the fate of New Orleans is a harbinger of things to come. But it is also true that a few thousand people like Frierson and Bebelle acting in a coordinated manner, can save this Republic. This is because their actions are clearly based upon a belief, whether examined or unconscious, that the average citizen is intelligent, energetic and concerned, and only needs to be spoken to as if they are, to act.


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