John Edwards, Cleaning Up in New Orleans

Hundreds of college students trade the beach for the bayou as they spend spring break cleaning up New Orleans. Host Ed Gordon talks with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who's leading one student work effort.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News this is NEWS AND NOTES, I'm Ed Gordon.

For many college students, spring break means traveling to warmer climates for a week-long party. But this year, hundreds of college kids are trading the beach for the Bayou and heading to New Orleans to help that city rebuild

This week, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards organized one of several student work programs. His is called Opportunity Rocks. It brought together an estimated 700 kids from 85 schools across the country to help clean up New Orleans. Senator Edwards' project is underway right now, and he joins us via phone from the Crescent City.

Senator, I have to beg your indulgence and our listeners' indulgence today for a voice that has clearly left me. But we appreciate your time and welcome you back to the program.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Senator, North Carolina): Thank you, Ed. Thanks for having me.

GORDON: Let me ask you why you decided to get involved with this project.

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, basically, what happened was last fall, as part of Opportunity Rocks, a group that I helped put together, I traveled around college campuses to organize young people around the issue of poverty, getting them involved in advocacy, getting them involved in volunteering in their community; and we got a remarkable response. Thousands and thousands of kids signed up to help. And it just occurred to me that with all the work that needed to be done in New Orleans, this was an opportunity for young people to show what their character really was to the rest of the country and come here and do work.

I have to be honest with you, when I put out the word that I was asking for college students to give up their spring break and to come to New Orleans and do dirty, hard work all day long, sleeping in tents, I honestly thought the response, I thought, we'd be lucky if we got 150 or 100 kids. Well, we ended up with 700 here. We could have had more, but there was no place to put them. There were that many students who wanted to come. And they're working their rear ends off. I can tell you it's amazing seeing them out here working, sweating and doing really nasty, grueling work to help the people of New Orleans.

GORDON: We'll be talking to a couple of those students in just a moment. But I'm told by one of the students that you gave the rallying call, if you will, on Wednesday and you really fired the students up. What did you tell them?

Mr. EDWARDS: I told them I was proud of them. I told them their generation has an opportunity to change the country. And I've seen other young people change America before, young people from college campuses. Specifically. I talk to them about the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the incredible force that young people on college campuses were in that movement, speaking out against the war in Vietnam. And I told them, you can't wait for someone else to do this; you have to do it. You shouldn't wait for me or anyone, your parents or anyone else to tell you what's right and what needs to be done, because you know what's right.

The most remarkable thing is this is not just talk for them. I was in the houses working with them yesterday all day long. This is hard work. And seeing these kids just so inspired by what they're doing is a wonderful thing.

GORDON: This is part and parcel for you of a larger anti-poverty campaign. Talk to us about how this ties in. Clearly, you'll be able to talk about pre-Katrina in New Orleans and the poverty that besieged not only city but many cities across the country.

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, as everyone knows, as all your listeners know, what Katrina did was expose the face of poverty to a lot of Americans who didn't want to know about, and this is a very vivid example of what exists all over the country. It's not unique to New Orleans. What we have is, you have poor people clustered together in particular parts of the city. In this case you don't just have economic segregation, you have racial segregation. You have exactly the same thing, as we all know, in cities all across America. And I think this issue of 37 million people who live in poverty everyday is the great moral issue of our time.

We have a responsibility to do something about it, to give opportunity and hope to families that are out there struggling. I've spent the last year or so meeting with families all over the country in 25 or so states now just working with them and hearing their struggles. We're working at the University of North Carolina at the Poverty Center that I'm the director of, on specific ideas that will help families who live in poverty help identify the problems, come up with new forward looking ideas about how to solve it.

What these young people are doing is demonstrating that there is a large swath of America who know that this is a huge issue, who see it as a moral issue and what to do something about it.

GORDON: Senator, how do we keep the young people engaged beyond spring break, and quite frankly America from not suffering Katrina fatigue and to make sure that they understand that this is a long term project?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, I think in a couple of ways. One is for us to continue to show the country what's happening here. We've been working here in New Orleans, and what you see is the devastation is so wide and so deep. And the work that's necessary to rehabilitate New Orleans, to rehabilitate and reconstruct these communities is going to take a long time, and it's going to have to be intense.

So we need the country to first to recognize the work is not only not finished, it's barely begun. There is much left to be done. And then secondly, and I believe this very strongly, I think there is an opportunity if can get out of the same old politics that's been going on in America for so long, and actually just do the right thing and inspire the country around a cause that America will respond to. What I always say is while the government has been an incredible mess response to the hurricane, the American people haven't. I mean the volunteering, what we're seeing with these young people, the contribution, taking families into communities all across the country. What's needed is leadership. These young people need some leadership.

But it's also true that America needs leadership, principled, moral leadership, because the country will want to do the right thing. There needs to be sustained, a long term leadership in order for that to happen. We need, me along with others, we need to provide it.

GORDON: All right, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards. He's the director of the Center on Poverty Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As always, Senator, thanks for joining us.

Mr. EDWARDS: Ed, thank you so much.

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