â€œEveryone knows what needs to be done itâ€™s just a matter of weather or not the necessary changes will be made or the same old tradition of corruption and civic disengagement will continue.â€
-WWOZ Street Talk producer David Weinberg
Hi, Aaron Henkin here, your host for the NPR Station Showcase with PRX. Each week on this podcast, we drop in at one of the more than three hundred public radio stations across the US and give a little extra attention to the excellent work thatâ€™s being locally by radio-makers around the country. This week we check in again at WWOZ in New Orleans, Louisiana, where producer David Weinberg has been working to document the cultural life of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. David recently put together a report for the WWOZ Street Talk series about an initiative designed to get the cityâ€™s high school students interested in a professional skill that their town needs dearly right now: building and architectural design. Hereâ€™s more from David:
David, you and I last corresponded in January, and you had this to say about what daily life was like for you where you live in the Seventh Ward: â€œAbout half of the houses in my neighborhood are not only empty but visibly destroyed. There are lots of broken windows and piles of peopleâ€™s possessions still strewn across overgrown lawns. It definitely takes its toll on you, especially seeing the kids in my neighborhood playing amongst the heaps mold-ridden debris outside many of the homes. I walk my dog everyday and itâ€™s rare that I donâ€™t hear shouting and arguments coming from inside a house. People are tired of living in a place that looks like a war zone.â€ Have you seen any changes for the better in the past 6 months?
Progress in my neighborhood is happening very slowly. I would say half a dozen more houses have been gutted and are livable since last we spoke. There is a church almost finished being remodeled and the FEMA trailer park that was near my house has been cleared of all residents and all the trailers are gone. But overall the area hasn’t changed a whole lot.
You got to talk with a lot of kids for this student design story, and I wonder how has their reaction to the aftermath of Katrina been different than older folks? Are the kids more or less resilient and optimistic about the future than their elders, do you think?
I think their reaction is varied. Some kids evacuated early, didn’t lose a lot and saw the experience as an adventure. But there are kids who saw some pretty traumatic things. There are kids I have spoken with whose parents never came back from being evacuated and they are living with friends and family. Then there are the kids who were evacuated and were attending public schools in other places and they are coming back and saying, “Hey, we are getting shafted here.” In some cases itâ€™s made kids ask a lot of questions about why things are they way they are here. I do think the kids are a little more resilient. I also think that they are more willing to see the possibility for change as a more realistic goal then a lot of the elders.
The people behind this student design initiative are operating on the principle that design can empower kids and give them a better vision of their futureâ€¦ did you see that philosophy in effect when you visited with the students?
I think a lot of kids definitely feel more empowered after these projects. Anytime you are able to give kids real hands-on projects on a real-life scale, you are able to get past the “when are we ever going to use this?” argument and that has a lot of weight with kids – especially the projects that dealt with actual buildings. The kids that worked on the school courtyard project are spending every day seeing the fruits of their own labor. Thatâ€™s pretty big to these kids. It also gives them a feeling that the adults in their lives believe in them and trust them with things that matter.
The design classes are an interesting way to make young people feel invested in staying where they liveâ€¦ what else do you think these kids are going to need in order to keep them from leaving New Orleans for better opportunities after high school?
New Orleans has always been a place where most people who grew up here stayed here and to some extent I don’t think that is going to change a whole lot. But the future New Orleanians are going to have to do more than just stay. They are going to inherit a whole lot of problems from the past generations. The schools for the most part are still a mess, the crime is at an all time high and a huge chunk of the economy has been washed away. The schools especially are in a real experimental stage; the city has brought in all these high-priced hotshots from outside the state, there are an unprecedented number of charter schools, and tons of new teachers. But it still feels like everything is on a trial and error basis. Everyone knows what needs to be done itâ€™s just a matter of weather or not the necessary changes will be made or the same old tradition of corruption and civic disengagement will continue. Either way itâ€™s going to be a lot of work, and despite what promises are made by politicians and educators. Itâ€™s going to take a long time to fix the system.
You can hear more from David Weinberg and WWOZâ€™s â€œStreet Talkâ€ series online at the Public Radio Exchange. Thatâ€™s where producers from around the world share their work. Log on, write your own reviews, and have a say in what ends up on the radio at: www.prx.org.