New Orleans is an impossible place, a place up against the odds environmentally and long forgotten economically, a place where vanishing wetlands have left the city’s chin exposed and guard down like a tired prizefighter and with the next big storm playing the role of knockout blow. A bastion of crime and poverty, the city has been up against the odds since Bienville tried to carve out a home here. Then it was yellow fever, today the epidemic is violence. It takes a special sacrifice to live here, and is not for the faint of heart.
So why live here? Why live in a town where the job market perennially stinks – whether or not the national economy is tanking – the levees leak like sieves, the public education is comparable to Bolivia, the murder rate is akin to Mogadishu and the government is rotten like a festering Katrina-soaked house in the Lower 9?
I asked all of this and more to Nathan Rothstein, a young man who arrived in New Orleans from Boston when the floodwaters of Katrina ebbed.
In fact, Rothstein spends most of his days convincing young people to stay here and others to come. Is he on drugs? Not that I could tell. He seemed pretty level-headed, just another person, who, for better or for worse, fell under the spell of New Orleans.
A 24-year-old man, Rothstein heads NOLA YURP -- the New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals Initiatives -- a job network that connects young people with one another in New Orleans and whose mission is “to connect, retain and attract young professionals from diverse backgrounds for a sustainable New Orleans,” according to the website, which is quite the challenge pre-Katrina, but an even greater one post-Katrina, as people scattered all over the country, many to never return.
With a membership of over 2,800 people, the organization was started in spring of 2007, when he, Zach Kupperman and Ross Cantor started a website that featured young people and why they were here. They created a social network, where people could share job information and leads. He had been speaking to young students and many were looking for opportunities in the city but didn’t know where to look. The idea was born and planned to counteract the negative press New Orleans was getting from the Dinerral Shavers and Helen Hill murders.
The Wild, Wild West
“It was empty, and there were not many people here. It kinda had that wild, wild west feel to it,” he said of his early reactions of being in the city. “I was also around a group of people – some came to help out and were struck by what happened, some came because there was really nothing else to do.”
Two weeks removed from UMass-Amherst, he arrived in June of 2006, ten months after the Big One, working for Americorps gutting homes, settling in the rough and tumble, heavily flooded Tulane-Gravier area of Mid-City, but quickly became interested in rebuilding plans, such as the UNOP meetings.
“I went to every neighborhood meeting possible,” he said. Rothstein had wanted to get involved in city planning and organizing in college and here was a city with its canvas wiped clean, a perfect opportunity for a young man ready to change the world straight out of college.
“The city was basically investing in people,” he said of the input that was being asked at planning meetings, and that stirred the juices for him to want to stay. “They were raising the expectations for what people can do.”
Looking back to find that moment that crystallized his desire to stay, he recalled the UNOP plans he was participating in and attending: “At those moments when it was like, ‘What do you think would be best?’ or ‘How can we work together to make things happen?’ that was when I had feeling that I want to be a part of this.”
He went home for a week to Boston, but said that it didn’t feel the same. He quickly returned.
Saying that it was exciting being at the table, fresh from college, as plans were being drawn up to rebuild in New Orleans, he, however, quickly learned changing the world or fixing New Orleans wouldn’t be so easy.
“At the first UNOP meeting you could already see it going wrong,” he said. “They invited the whole city and put it in a room for 200 people.” What he was finding out was there wouldn’t be a social utopia built from the ashes; rather it was the decades-long divisions – class, race, politics and neighborhoods – that stratify the city emerging once more. Just like Rothstein, others saw the Katrina as their moment too, a moment to settle old scores, or grab power in a vacuum, or return power to the elite who run the city. It was a lesson no classroom could teach, but he was not deterred, and he isn’t now, feeling there could be ways to overcome those boundaries.
In addition to being apart of New Orleans’ rebirth, the culture grabbed him as well, especially the party atmosphere that many seek out in the city. While he sought to help create order in the city, the chaotic nightlife was an early attraction. “There are even less boundaries -- there are no rules,” he said of the nightlife which rivaled and surpassed the party school culture of UMass. “You can go out every single night of the week until 4, 5, 6 in the morning, and, I remember, we did.”
After the initial buzz wore off from lax rules and late nights at Ms. Mae’s, Rothstein learned something important enjoying those nights on Frenchmen Street, seeing music and having a good time. “There is something about a city, even now, that everyone that is here, in someway or another is connected in the sense they’re all sacrificing to be here: the roads don’t work, the health care is inadequate, the schools are bad, the job market is lousy. You’re probably making less than what some of your peers are making in New York and Boston.”
But with all of these problems, Rothstein believes, there is a bond unlike those other places that keeps the important sacrifice alive and the city relevant, and it burns in the hearts of many outsiders and natives alike.
So why sacrifice? Why not move somewhere else where the grass is greener, aside from the unique culture?
"There is a certain opportunity in the city right now because there is no blueprint for how to rebuild a city,” he said. “History is happening right now, and we’re going to look back and talk about this forever. The case that I make to young people, whether they’re from here or not, is you have the chance to be doing this -- given the responsibility -- that people won’t give you for 5, 10 years.”
(WWL-TV.com is profiling the new New Orleanians, people who have moved to the city post-Katrina for a variety of reasons, from charity causes to capitalist ones. If you know someone who has moved to the city since the storm, contact us and tell why this person should be profiled at firstname.lastname@example.org)
What are we celebrating when we light candles? Presents, donuts, candles, family…what? Are we enjoying our assimilation into American culture where they have Christmas and we have Chanukah so we can see our family and get unwanted clothes (well, in my case, the only clothes that make me look presentable)? Or are we remembering a crucial moment in Jewish Identity history, when the fate of our people could go in two directions. Do we succumb to the Seleucid Empire and accept their customs or do we stay the people of one god and keep our traditions?
Where our story picks up, the Jewish people were having a problem. There was no strategic plan and the vision was lost. The massiveness and wealth of the Hellenistic Empire was rubbing off, and some Jews felt that the Jewish Priesthood was out of touch with new ideas. But Judah and his Maccabeus felt passionate about the preservation of our traditions. He probably thought what Herzl had believed many years later after the Dreyfuss Trial: no matter how much we assimilate, we will always be Jews. If we do not know our traditions or our history, who are we? And this question can lead to a new role for Hanukkah. I think these are the things that we should celebrate. We should ask ourselves, and talk to our friends and family about what will it mean to be Jewish in the future. What problems do we see and what can we do to change our internal problems within the Jewish leadership and how do we have better relations with outside communities?
Growing up in the wealthy suburbs of Boston, I always felt uncomfortable when Hanukkah time came around. I knew my rich Jewish friends would receive gifts every night and my rich non-Jewish friends would receive excessive gifts with the latest in technology, music and anything else you could possibly want. But in my house, Hanukkah was not considered to be the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. I could see the struggle my parents had. Do we assimilate into the Americanized version of Hanukkah and give our children gifts or do we help shape their identity and allow them to appreciate how they are different? As I got used to the fact that I was not going to get a lot of presents, I would quickly reply to my friends questions about what new gift I would not be playing with, “ well, Hanukkah is not that big of a deal in our house.” But now I understand the importance.
As young people who are shaping our identity and our relationship to Judaism, we have to find parts of the story that are relevant. This story has everything to do with not assimilating and is once again a lesson to be learned. Nobody Jewish should tell us how we should practice Judaism, while at the same time, we cannot practice our religion based on what everyone else is doing. The oil burning for eight days is a nice story, but let’s also talk about the story of a problem, discontent amongst our people, and ultimately, what makes us unique as a Jewish people?
A lot of groups have come together to try to create a diverse coalition of young people who can act as ambassadors to the city. The people most likely to move to the city are recent college graduates and the people who are most likely to convince them are their peers. We have compiled a great group of steering committee members and are now calling for applicants to complete the team. We did not just want to make decisions about who would be the next leaders of the city, and instead are allowing everyone to apply. Our first event will be an Economic Development Tour on January 30th, where the team will meet with leaders from the business community, NASA, and the Port.
This past week, I spoke at Harvard and NYU about New Orleans. More than three years after the failure of the levees, New Orleans and its issues are still relevant to the rest of the country.
At Harvard, students were eager for knowledge about a place they had heard that needed them, but had no network to connect them to the city. For many students, who are idealistic and want to work to equal the playing field, Teach For America has done an extraordinary job of appealing to them. Some of the workshop participants were planning to go to New Orleans as part of the TFA corps, another was a football player from New Orleans, and there were also several young women who wanted to go to New Orleans, but did not know where to start in their job search.
During the undergraduate experience, college students spend hours developing their intellectual capital. They are reading, discussing, writing, thinking critically about current issues, but if they want to pursue their passion in fighting for economic and social justice, it is not clear how they can continue to grow intellectually as they enter the job world. In many cases, even in the non-profit and public service sector, their intellectual potential is not cultivated. I understand the importance of experience and building capacity through time spent on the job, but College career centers need to do a better job of figuring out ways to connect students to jobs that allow them to pursue their passion.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers, he writes about how great success can be attributed to “extraordinary opportunity.” New Orleans provides this opportunity for thousands of young people from around the country. The failure of levees was a tragic event that damaged 80% of the city, leaving an American city to have to rebuild itself from the ground up. With no precedent or guidebook, creative solutions were applied to solve the city’s most serious problems. The city is still ripe for change and is the perfect city for young people across the country to contribute to this revitalization and act as agents for change and advocates for the people of New Orleans.
Another exciting part of doing these workshops at college campuses, is to get people who are all interested in New Orleans, in the same room talking to each other and getting to hear what they are working on. In New York, the people in the room all were passionate about New Orleans- some were from New Orleans, some had spent time there, and some were moving there and wanted more information.
Instead of promoting an event with a flyer and facebook, I am working with the people at All Day Buffet to create a web page that explains the event, and then allows people to sign up. We can see who is coming, and then get their email. My friend Mike Karnjanaprakorn and I will speak to students about the exciting ideas and projects that are coming out of New Orleans and how they can get involved. RSVP here
Erin Fitzpatrick, came down in March 2008, to photograph Umass alumn in New Orleans. Here is her article.
Young Israelis tell us about their immigration process. They have similar problems with new immigrants learning the language, the culture and the history while at the same time feeling resentment from the immigrants before them.
The people of Israel are fascinated by New Orleans. While I was there, they never asked, "why are you rebuilding the city?" The questions always was, "how is it coming along?" I tried to give a presentation at the Kol Dor Conference about building coalitions across diverse populations, but they were more interested in hearing about the series of events after the levees failed.
Immediately stepping off the plane, I gave a presentation at the Words and Music Festival with Shantrelle Lewis and Nolan Marshall. The theme for our presentation was The Great Gatsby and the American Dream and what it meant to the young professional today. To prepare for my presentation, I read the required reading, The Great Gatsby.
An interesting theme came to mind when thinking about the book in the context of post-Katrina New Orleans. Many of the characters in the book are not from the New York area, they are mostly from the mid-west, and they all seem lost in their new home. They are aimlesslesly searching around to find some meaning in their life, but can't find it. The big city is a giant that they do not connect with, and their downtown finance jobs do not allow to make any type of connection with the city. They could be anywhere, and that is what is different about New Orleans right now. People who came from other places got involved immediately with the city's people. They learned about the injustices that occurred and felt the perseverance of New Orleanians. It was addictive and as many of our peers live in big cities they do not connect with, young people in New Orleans feel very much a part of the city they live in.
Contributor to the New York Times, Bruce Fuller, also a professor at Cal-Berkley suggests some homework for Obama. And it may just be the type of homework where you actually learn something, instead of doing it just to get it done. Why? Fuller takes Obama's pork barrel scrapple and applies it to our education system and then makes the case for why a cohesive plan to reinvest in public education can be the true economic stimulus package. Most encouraging, he references a New Jersey analysis that "shows how 9,000 new jobs are created for every $1 billion invested in school repair and construction.". He also finds a way to focus the conversation on how to retain and attract young talented teaching professionals.
Equally urgent, Washington should aid states in attracting smart and diverse young graduates to go into teaching. To retain them, educational institutions must become professional and supportive workplaces, not simply test-prep centers. This won’t be accomplished through attractive gimmicks, like more money for charters schools which, on balance, have yet to outperform regular public schools.
What is the lesson? Sometimes solutions do not need to be found outside of existing institutions. The new type of social entrepreneurship can be created to fix the problems of some our greatest public services that have seen steady decline in the last fifty years, but are not worthy of completely destroying. One way the public sector can retain its young talent is by raising the expectations for what they can achieve and change in the current structure. Allow teachers to create their own lesson plan, devise new strategies for reaching their students, and most important, do not pressure them to teach only to "standardized" tests. Whose standard is it anyway? We need students and teachers who can think independently and ask the right questions. In this country, we reward entrepreneurship (which means someone is thinking creatively to find a niche in the market), but then tell young professionals to wait their time and go with the flow until they are "experienced" enough to give their opinion. This was the same argument used against Obama to discourage him from running, but he has won and it is now time for the rest of country to get up to speed and continue to see how we can raise the expectations and allow everyone to get their homework done. Not just to do it, but to learn something.
The New York Times has an article this morning, titled "Tough Times Strain Colleges Rich and Poor." , which delves into how the financial crisis is going from Wall Street to the Main Quad. The most interesting contrast in the text is the difference between the schools that see the economic pitfulls, and become more stingy with their financial aid packages, as opposed to the schools who make financial aid a higher priority.
" This fall, more universities are taking steps to increase affordability. Benedictine University, a Roman Catholic institution in Illinois, is freezing tuition; Vanderbilt University will replace loans with grants; Boston University has expanded scholarships for students who graduated from Boston public schools; and the University of Toledo announced free tuition for needy, high-performing graduates of Ohio’s six largest public school systems."
Now that college is a more of a financial investment than ever before, here are some courses that I think should be mandatory for students in order to best prepare them for the working world. Or classes that I wish I took.
Financial Literacy 101- All students, whether they are going to be doctors or writers, should understand what they should do with their money, how their money can make or lose money, and where they should put their money. What kind of health care plans should they buy into? Where should they invest their money? How will the current financial crisis affect their money? Here are a few websites that can supplement this course ( Vanguard, Qvisory, Generation Debt, Mint.com
How to get your first, second, third and maybe 4th job- We don't live in a country anymore where you get a job, work thirty years, and then retire. Many young professionals who graduate from school, by the time they are thirty, have had several jobs. Colleges, and especially their career centers should adapt to this new economy. Career centers should offer classes that are credited that allow students to hear from young professionals in the community about their work experience, learn about the positive and negatives of different careers, and also teach best practices for being more entrepreneurial. We encourage our students to be critical thinkers, but then do not give them the tools to start their own businesses or non-profits.
As Barack Obama starts to put together his cabinet to mend our country back together, it makes me think about the next generation of leaders in New Orleans that can help our 44th President rebuild this city.
(Pictures taken from the WPA Photograph Collection at the New Orleans Public Library)
Housing New Orleans had a very large rental population before the storm, and still does. In order to re-populate the city and build more affordable units that can support the working people of the city, we need to push our tactics to be different from what has been in done in the past. To analyze what the city is doing and how to enforce landlords to fix the thousands of blighted properties, we could ask Andrew Holbien. We also must be realistic about how much affordable housing costs and how it to build it so it lasts. When the city built public housing in the 40s, it was designed to sustain the "100 year" storm. The team behind Green Coast Enterprises should help us build the type of housing that will be sustainable, affordable and will last. Others to add to the team, Yasmin Bowers and Andrea Floyd from Consciously Building, Tess Monaghan from Build Now, Hampton Barclay- Homebuilder's Association, Futureproof and the Greater New Orleans Fair Action Housing Center.
Community Development/ Neighborhood Collaboratives/ The Arts
Since the storm, there have been many powerful examples of how neighborhods in New Orleans have responded to adversity. In order to make government more effective, neighborhood organizations/stakeholders must have a strong influence in the city's decision making. Our president should consult with Timolynn Sams and Gill Benedek from the Neighborhood Partnership Network to see how to empower neighborhood associations, but also how to find common ground with people from different locations who may have opposing views on city ordinances.
New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals Initiative - Nathan Rothstein Eshel The mission of the New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals Initiative (NYI) is to create a support network to connect, retain and attract young professionals from diverse backgrounds for a sustainable New Orleans. Through innovative programming, NYI seeks to attract young professionals to the city and, once they are here, connect them with a thriving network of New Orleans locals and other newcomers. Nathan Rothstein, the co-founder and Executive Director will speak about the challenges and opportunities in New Orleans and how to build effective coalitions across race, class and religion.
New Orleans- Words and Music Festival
Friday November 21st
11 a. m. -- Hotel Monteleone, Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom West THE AMERICAN DREAM: What it Means to the 21st Century's Young Professionals Led by Nathan Rothstein, founder and Executive Director of of the New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals Initiative (NOLAYURP). Rothstein and his team of young New Orleans professionals will read The Great Gatsby in advance of this round table session and compare their aspirations to the underlying themes of the novel. Q & A session follows discussion. Among your leaders joining Nathan will be Shantrelle Lewis, the Executive Director and Curator of the McKenna Museum of African American Art in New Orleans and an adjunct professor in the African World Studies Department at Temple University. The Philadelphia Tribune selected Ms. Lewis for its “Top Ten Most Influential Leaders Under 40” Award in January of 2006 and she has been featured in Essence Magazine as a "Woman of Purpose." Nolan Marshall is the Associate Director of Common Good, a partnership of religious, nonprofit, neighborhood and higher-education organizations dedicated to building consensus and promoting action for the rebuilding of New Orleans across the lines of religion, ethnicity and class. He is also the President Elect of the Young Leadership Council, a civic organization founded in 1986 to develop leadership through community projects. The YLC has risen over $25 million for community projects since its inception. In addition, Nolan serves on the board of Court Watch Nola, a program whose creation he chaired, is President of the Board of Trustees at Einstein Charter School, Chairs the Leadership Council of Greater New Orleans and serves on the board of the Audubon Institute and Summerbride New Orleans. Prior to Hurricane Katrina Nolan was the president of NAM-It LLC, an advertising specialties and graduation supplies company and served on the board of the Independent Scholastic Sales Association. He received a Presidential Scholarship and graduated from the School of Business and Industry at Florida A&M University in 2001. Nolan is currently pursuing a Masters in Urban Studies at the University of New Orleans.