Princeton Course Takes Students to Post-Katrina New Orleans

Princeton University professor Melissa Harris Lacewell teaches a course called "Race, Disaster, and American Politics." Her students decided they needed to see post-Katrina New Orleans for themselves. Tony Cox catches up with Melissa and two of her students, Aita Amaize and Conrad Legendy.

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya, who is on vacation.

A year and half after Katrina, New Orleans continues to struggle. Earlier this week, Senators held a hearing there to investigate the city's slow recovery. They found only bureaucracy and finger-pointing.

Paying particular attention, though, is NEWS & NOTES regular contributor Melissa Harris-Lacewell. She's an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. But she also teaches a class called "Race, Disaster and American Politics," a class that talked a lot about New Orleans and finally decided they should be doing more.

So all this week, Melissa and 13 Princeton students have been down in New Orleans putting both their hands and their heads to work. Melissa Harris-Lacewell joins us now from New Orleans. With her are two of her students, both seniors: Aita Maize and Conrad Legendy.

Welcome everybody.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Nice to be here.

COX: Melissa, let me start with you. This is quite an assignment, what do you hope your students learn from this?

Ms. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I'm pretty sure that this is an assignment that my students gave to me and not the other way around. I was prepared just to teach a class about the intersections between race, disaster, and American politics. And my big goal in that class was to push students to think about disaster beyond just tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes, and instead to really think about the underlying social disasters of racial, gendered and poverty inequality.

But these students really on their own initiatives said, you know what, Professor Lacewell? We've learned a lot, but we want to see it. We want to put our hands in it. And so they told me we were heading to New Orleans for a week. They set up the time so that they could be gutting houses during the day. And it's been my contribution simply to connect them with community leaders and elected officials here on the ground. I think mostly they are testing to make sure the things I said in class were true.

COX: I believe that. Let's find out exactly what they have learned. I'll turn first to Aida. Is New Orleans what you expected?

Ms. AITA MAIZE (Student, Princeton University): We'll, actually, I've been down here. I was down here last year around the same time on another service trip that I coordinated with Student Volunteers Council back at the university. I think it has been what I expected and definitely enriched by what I learned in class.

A lot of the same things I'm seeing, you know, the poor and the black communities far worse than the others. And, you know, definitely a lot more work still to be done. So it's definitely been more of an enriching experience having taken the class.

COX: And what about you, Conrad?

Mr. CONRAD LEGENDY (Student, Princeton University): Yeah, it was - it's very different from what I expected because, you know, externally, everything - well a lot looks found. It's only when you enter houses when you see that everything really is - it's not in good shape.

As for the people, people's political views are pretty much what I expected than to be a year and a half down the line and really very little progress. So people are telling me that, you know, the government was no good before, but now they have absolutely no faith.

COX: Now were you all there during the time that the hearings were being held on Monday? And if you were, Melissa, what was your student and your observation about what may or may not come out of that meeting, that gathering?

Ms. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yes, we were here on Monday. And again, the students were, unlike many people in the government, both local and federal, were really doing work. They were out there laboring in mold up to their ears, helping to take these houses down to studs so that they can be rebuilt.

We did, however, have an opportunity to speak with some state level elected official. And had a long conversation about the relationship between the state of Louisiana, the city of New Orleans and the federal government and whether or not there's any expectation that the federal government is really going to do its part. That the city and the state have been working so hard to just try to figure out the simple question of infrastructure. How to get schools, and housing, and banking, and grocery stores, and gas stations back our line. And meanwhile, feeling that they have been largely abandoned by both the federal government and the national populous.

COX: Aita, let me ask you: Is there something that you saw - and this is actually for both you and Conrad - is there something that you saw or experienced during your week in New Orleans that you think the country doesn't get yet, that the country hasn't seen, that the country is not really getting the correct picture of?

Ms. MAIZE: I would say I feel like people are still bombarded with that image of, you know, the refugees, the black families trying to escape or, you know, trying to get to higher ground. And I feel like what we really need to understand is that these are property owners. These are former homeowners. These are citizens, these are people who had wholesome lives. Or, you know, if they didn't, they were living, you know, at a relatively stable - in a relatively stable estate.

We went in houses, we saw, you know, greeting cards, we saw calendars, we saw toys, we saw all these things that are comforts of, you know, American life. So I feel like as a country we need to realize that these were people just like many of us.

COX: Do you think there are, Conrad, misconceptions still coming out of what is taking place in New Orleans?

Mr. LEGENDY: Absolutely. I think that you have - you still see images of abandoned houses and you can see statistics about maybe 200,000 out of 500,000 people having returned. For one thing, if you look at actually what an abandoned neighborhood looks like, there are no words to describe it. It's devastated in a sense.

But beyond that, from our talks with elected state officials it really does seem like an absolutely unreasonable burden has placed on the city of New Orleans, where they're expecting the city and the state to cover the cost of reconstruction when the population, which would have to foot the bill ultimately, is just not here.

And you - in the whole disaster we've seen a lot of finger pointing. And ultimately the buck does stop at the federal level. And the federal government is the only government which is responsible to citizens who are not directly affected by Katrina. And, really, we can see on the ground that the only people who can make a difference here are the federal government.

COX: Well, Aita, you and Conrad are going to be leaving very soon. And I have two questions for you, actually. First is - is this going to mark the end of your work? I mean the assignment will be over. Or is this just the beginning of your involvement? Are you becoming activists in a sense?

Ms. MAIZE: Well, for me it's definitely not going to be the end. I've definitely been inspired by this type of work and I can - I want to continue to go into public health and, you know, into the service sector. So it's definitely added to my experience and will push me forward to continue in this type of work, definitely.

COX: Conrad, are you just beginning or have you had enough?

Mr. LEGENDY: No, I think I'm still also beginning. I haven't seen a place in America like New Orleans in my life. And, you know, there's not going to be anyone stopping me from talking about this for the next couple of months. And I'll be writing about it also in my senior's thesis, which is one of the reasons that I came down here.

COX: Well, Melissa, this has clearly been a formative experience for everyone. I imagine for you as well a great laboratory experiment, if can put it that way. What will you take back with you from this experience both as an instructor as well as, you know, a person of color?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I will tell you, anyone who is a teacher at any level knows that your students always teach you at least as much, and maybe more, than you teach them. And so, in part they're encouraging me - I've been to New Orleans several times since the disaster. But coming with the students, having an opportunity to see it through their eyes has been incredibly important. But also the other thing is that students, unlike many of us who are more jaded taxpayers and homeowners, are really constantly asking the question, what can we do?

You know, as relatively privileged persons living in central Jersey, connected with Princeton University, how can we bring our set of resources - financial, intellectual, social - to bear on New Orleans, and on racial and poverty, inequality in general in this country. And so I'm going to continue to keep asking that question, what beyond the classroom can we do to make a difference?

COX: Would you bring another class down?

Ms. MAIZE: Oh, absolutely. It's quite possible. This class will be dragging me down again. But I think that in general the more that we as teachers - again, at every level - are thinking about learning as going beyond books and lectures, and instead really try to incorporate how our service and our connection with other human being is the greatest learning experiences that we have. That we could look all day at the maps and the pictures, but it's not until you're standing on the ground, until you smell the mold, until you see again the family pictures that had been destroyed that you can finally allow the Katrina experience to touch you in a way that I think makes it not just about other people but about what it means to be an American.

COX: Let me follow-up on that with you, Melissa, in terms of your being there with this young people and observing them, observing what is taking place in New Orleans. We have about a minute left. What did you see as you watched your students, in their faces, in their eyes, in their reaction to what it was they were experiencing?

Prof. LACEWELL: Well, I'll say the number one thing that made me really proud is that last night my students, led by Conrad, but in a collective effort said, you know, what can we do? And actually came up with a policy idea. An idea that says what we ought to do is have a federal government subsidy to encourage students and other young people to be part of a constant volunteer activism force.

So the next time there's a disaster anywhere in this country - terrorism or natural disaster - we have a set of hands already on deck. And they talked about wouldn't it be amazing if the federal government, for example, would forgive $10,000 of your federal student loan if you went down and contributed three months to helping to rebuild after any given disaster.

And so for me it was more kind of the pride of watching these young people developing real solutions, trying to think through the kinds of incentives and plans that would be possible so that you don't have to be from a privileged place like Princeton University, but in fact students from all over the country would be supported by their government in helping their fellow citizen.

COX: Melissa, Conrad, Aita thank you very much.

Ms. MAIZE: Thank you.

Mr. LEGENDY: Thank you.

COX: Melissa Harris Lacewell is an associate professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University. Aita Maize and Conrad Legendy are both seniors at Princeton.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Just ahead, the Chinese president is back in Africa again. Just what is the agenda? We'll talk about that. And later, the latest from inside Washington on Political Corner.

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