A Stew of Hope and Despair
My plane touched down at National Airport just last night, and I'm still digesting all that I experienced during my 10-day stay in New Orleans.
For many years, I have been traveling outside of the country, particularly to Africa, so as to better understand how others live and make sense of the world. The awakening tore through me like a bolt of lightning during my first trip to South Africa in 1992, a period of strange and historic transition towards a democratic election.
The poverty and the squalor that I saw first-hand in the black townships was nothing short of astounding and life-changing. It was a call to action. I vowed to continue visiting places and meeting people whose lives were compromised by lack of food and shelter. In my own way, I have told their stories and kept them in my hearts, traveling to Uganda and AIDS-ravaged Zambia. The fire within me was still there, but I let other things get in the way and that fire had gone dim, more like a pilot light on the stove.
Until last week.
All the years I was traveling abroad, I gave little thought to those in need in my own back yard.
Until last week.
Nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi are still in bad shape -- of the mind blowing variety. There are neighborhoods and towns that remain deserted, blocks and miles of homes leveled or left in shambles. There are people still living hand to mouth who can't survive without the assistance of relief services and three hot meals a day.
In the richest country in the world, in an oil-rich state, in a city known for convention business and all-night partying, people are hungry and living in trailer parks.
Maybe y'all are tired of hearing about Katrina, and that's what the citizens of the Gulf Coast are terrified about. More than anything. "Please don't forget us" is a plea I heard repeatedly during my stay.
The rebuilding is slow, but it is happening, brick by brick, crumb by crumb.
*On Sunday, the Martin Luther King Jr. High School in the Lower Ninth Ward officially re-opened, busying itself for its first academic year to begin in August.
*On Monday, there was a groundbreaking in the back yard of the Samuel J. Green Charter School, home to the Edible Schoolyard, the brainchild of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Amounting to one-third of an acre, the Edible Schoolyard's outdoor space will include a state-of-the-art kitchen and classrooms for the K-8 students who hail from all over the city.
*Since last fall, two farmers' markets have opened in the impoverished Lower and Upper Ninth Wards, making fresh food accessible in neighborhoods that have been without a supermarket for nearly a generation. A third one is in the works later this year. And a culinary program is getting started at nearby Frederick Douglass High School.
* I couldn't help but smile when I spotted a sign that says "We're Home!" staked in the front yard of a newly rebuilt home in Pass Christian, Miss.
It is indeed a stew of hope and despair, with resiliency thrown in for good measure. Rich or poor, black or white, these people are hanging in.
New Orleans is still that city where anything wacky goes, where everybody calls you darlin' and you're fixin' to go somewhere, where 24-hour bars and "go" cups are commonplace, where people look at each other in the eye, where food means everything.
And for the first time in 15 years, I am humbled, I am inspired and I am catapulted into action. I am forever changed, and I will be going back, again and again.
Since Gulf Coast folks are still up to their necks resuscitating and rebuilding in earnest, I'll pass on the message that I heard over and again last week:
"Come visit. We'd love to see you and talk to you and break bread with you."
Join me this Thursday at 1 ET about my experiences in the Gulf Coast. Details to come.
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