Those who were hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath were the poor. They were also part of the fabric of a city, which, without them, would lose much of its soul. New Orleans is not only the most culturally rich city in America; it is also one of the most disproportionately unfair cities in our country. Why? Because for many who did not benefit from pre Katrina New Orleans, the storm forced them to realize that living away from their home meant more opportunity. Yet New Orleans has the highest retention rate and return rates of any place in the country. Why? Because it is a fantastic place to live, work and play....if you can find a job, afford the rent, and have your child accepted into one of the top charter schools.
President Obama's visit to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Katrina, focused on the areas that need help the most: the areas of town such the Lower 9th and Treme, and the schools and young people, who were and still are, the most at risk. New Orleans has some of the most amazing schools in the country, including NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where world class musicians and artists thrive, and Benjamin Franklin High School, as well as schools which have turned themselves around since the hurricane. Education is vital for the children who live here and whose parents often did not have the same educational opportunities. The President focused on schools, and praised the city's unique celebratory culture expressed through music, food, and even the joyful second line parades that make many funerals an expression of all that is the best about this place. But the President also got down to business and reminded us of the work still to be done, and that many of the city's residents have not benefitted from the positive change of this past decade.
The joy expressed by the children at the Phillis Wheatley Elementary school, when the President came to visit yesterday, is overwhelming as this video demonstrates: https://www.facebook.com/FirstLineNOLA/videos/1609721775943935/?pnref=story
What is most impactful about the President's visit to the school, and with young leaders in the community, some of whom were not born or were young children when the hurricane hit and the levees broke, is that Obama is Another Myself. He is not only a role model but he is going to the very places, spending time and giving respect to the very people, who have the hardest work still ahead of them, to build a better and more sustainable future. A president who cares enough to make them, and their neighborhoods his focus gives the parents of these students and young people hope. This kind of focus is reminiscent of the hard work the President's mother, the late Ann Dunham, one of the early pioneers in the world of microlending, did in Indonesia. She showed her son through example, that through hard work, education and believing that there is a way to make a difference, to create change, even in the most dire of circumstances.
President Obama did not have to come to New Orleans, he came because he wanted to be present. The President did not take Governor Bobby Jindal's advice and avoid the subject of Climate Change, mainly because that would be hypocritical. When you fly into New Orleans, you realize that the city is an island, surrounded by the brakish water marshes and Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the nearby Gulf. The storm and the reality of one of the fastest eroding coastlines on the planet, affects the poor the most. The Lower Ninth became one with the surrounding wetlands during the storm and many have not returned to the neighborhood. Project Homecoming, Project Home Again, and Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation are still doing good work, and because homes were built which could make it through another storm and flood, some have been able to return to the Lower Ninth. But it is impossible to live here and ignore the reality, the one children criss crossing the city to charter schools see on their daily bus rides. The hipsters from Brooklyn and across the country may be moving into the Bywater, Treme, and St. Claude (Upper 9th Ward)) neighborhoods, but this means these traditional New Orleans neighborhoods are no longer affordable.
The President did the right thing by going to struggling neighborhoods and spending time with not just the officials and government representatives, but with the young people, the children, who could see in a man who, through the dedication, love and hard work of his extended family, a mother dedicated to education, and grandparents who were there for him, a mirror of themselves and what they too could accomplish.
Thank you so much Mr. President for bringing your words of hope, your heartfelt presence to this city, because the people here have been through so much. We are so lucky to have you in office, focusing on the needs of those like the disenfranchised in New Orleans. It is because of your hard work and dedication that so may will be given a chance to become all that they can be.
Vivian Norris is the director of the documentary, Obama Mama, on the life and work of the President's mother, Ann Dunham. She teaches Global Communications and Policy at Tulane University in New Orleans.