New Orleans

Unhappy Anniversary, New Orleans: Why 10 years is not enough time to heal

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It’s the week of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and I have struggled in writing this column.

I wanted to say something relevant and healing, but too much anger spilled on the screen. I’ve been reacting to exaggerated renderings of New Orleans’ recovery efforts. In particular, education reform has been made the ultimate hero, super villain or pitiful victim; it’s a character in a very personal story. And I become angry.

Ten years is not enough time to heal.

Related: Katrina might as well have hit New Orleans a day ago if you’re young, male and  black

Hurricane Katrina ripped the Mardi Gras mask off the face of the city and revealed her revelers’ true selves. Our humanity was laid bare outside the Convention Center, exposed by the scorching sun for the world to see.

Rusted scissors, coins and other debris sit on the floor of an elementary school in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, La. File Photo.

Rusted scissors, coins and other debris sit on the floor of an elementary school in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, La. File Photo.

The violent unmasking exposed who we were as a city, state and country.

Katrina and the breaches in the levees didn’t make us ugly; they just made us honest. From Aug. 29, 2005 for nearly a week, we had no choice but to accept our ugliness.

Now, New Orleans is commemorating the anniversary of Katrina as if it was getting ready for the Super Bowl. Because 10-year anniversaries mark traditional milestones, the stage that exposed our frailties has been built to show our strength in 2015. And it should. New Orleans owes it to herself to acknowledge hard working people who make the city a better place. There are everyday heroes that need validation.

Related: The lost children of Katrina

But out of respect, we must display the ugliness that necessitated reforms. We must show the problems that currently exist. If we don’t, we risk putting another mask on what residents know and feel.

It’s the masking that makes me angry. How did we relearn to cover our problems?

Sometimes I think we need a reminder – the slow, winding public policy disaster trapped thousands of low-income residents mercilessly for days without adequate shelter, food and healthcare.

Remember the thousands who were forced to evacuate and did not have the capacity to return to participate in their own recovery? The more than 1300 people who didn’t have to die did so because New Orleanians have been living with policy storms long before the levees breeched. Students needed reform.

Related: New Orleans may have a way to go, but it finally feels like home again to schools’ chief

Only after residents, public officials and urban planners could see our naked selves did we muster the courage to change our reality. Some could not stand the sight of black and brown bodies and pushed for policies that would have them disappear. However, most sought to change the conditions and policies that contributed to the spectacle.

Ten years later there have been successes. More students are going to college, which is the kind of hurricane preparedness black folk need. I will always look fondly at the work my colleagues and I put in to establish schools, hire local residents and teach students.

However, I also remember sitting at the New Orleans School Board meeting when the 7500 people were released from their jobs. I still hear the cries of parents with children with special needs who were not being served. I saw first hand how rigid school cultures pushed students out into neighborhoods and homes that were in flux.

Related: Did Obama come through for New Orleans schools after Katrina?

I’ve never had a problem reporting the good news and the bad. It’s in the black tradition. You can’t get to the great halleluiah without wading in the water. You can’t appreciate the destination without embracing the journey. A clear destination was set 10 years ago: Give residents the ability to evacuate from the inevitable storm, return home and participate in their own recovery. And we should never paint it otherwise. The journey for low-income residents is long and hard, and ten years haven’t put them in a position where we can truly be satisfied.

A note to anti-reformers, if we don’t acknowledge positive change and/or solutions, you’re just masking the wonderful work being performed by teachers, leaders and students who are committed to progress.  Unhinging isn’t a solution. Likewise, reformers can’t be sensitive to real criticisms coming from those who struggled. Audre Lorde’s words resonate, “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”

Lorde goes on to say, “As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.”

If you become angry at a column or quote that makes you upset, please see the scrutiny thousands endured 10 years ago. Have a side of grace with your plate of privilege.

We owe the victims of Katrina our brutal honesty. When I look out the education landscape, I see people so bitter that they cannot admit any progress. I also see folks who will lean on improvement beyond belief. Parents want excellent schools, not improvement. There simply are too few quality schools for families in New Orleans. If reform is not able to withstand authentic criticism, then it will truly never improve.

Moreover, defenses of reform have become insidious defenses of status quo. Wasn’t that a major critique of the former New Orleans Public Schools district? What we have isn’t good enough.

The aftermath of Katrina should have humbled us enough to be self-effacing. But 10 years later, I see re-masking of the problems that low-income people face every day in New Orleans. I’m privileged, and I haven’t healed. But I’m willing to accept the bad with the good. Most don’t have a choice.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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