Aimée Eubanks Davis is executive vice president of people, community, and diversity at Teach For America. You can find her on Twitter at @EubanksDavis.
I’m immensely proud to call New Orleans a second home, and with every anniversary of Katrina’s destruction, I find myself right back in the eye of the storm. As I write this, I’m terrified that the Gulf Coast faces another tragedy in Hurricane Isaac, and I cannot imagine what will happen if this storm unleashes Katrina-level destruction.
My love for New Orleans runs deep. Whenever we can, my husband Marcus and I take our three children to his native city to feed our souls. We eat his mother’s 7th Ward red beans and rice; adapt our early-to-bed bodies to the New Orleans nightlife; and journey through the city to check the progress (or lack thereof) since Katrina’s devastation of friends’ and family members’ homes, churches, and po’boy shops. We miss seeing the people who never returned. Every trip, I visit former students and colleagues to hear about their lives and work. What makes New Orleans more special than any city I’ve ever encountered is the human connection; it’s a place steeped in relationships, culture, and tradition.
I’m also proud to have played a role in fueling New Orleans’ new, innovative educational system with outstanding leaders. I spent many years walking through local public schools that were abysmal. Seven years ago, the academic achievement of the city’s students was the worst in the state of Louisiana and pretty much all of America. More recently, I toured several local schools with my brother-in-law and niece, and they kept repeating that “these kinds of schools didn’t exist before.” Every time I visit a school, I look at student work, and the student work I see now is, on the whole, far superior to what I saw before. The dramatic rise in the number of New Orleans public school students eligible for two- and four-year merit-based scholarships to Louisiana public colleges and universities has risen dramatically in the last seven years. More students are on a path to get to and through college and reach their career goals.
Yet I’m haunted by the fact that only a small fraction of the people who led (and still lead) the transformation of New Orleans public education are among the city’s African American majority; they are not my former students, nor do they share their racial backgrounds.
It was my friends and family members who made me realize that amid New Orleans’ educational rebirth was deep resentment about a process that seemed to alienate African Americans as a predominant force of education leaders. Adding fuel to the fire was an unintentional smugness by reformers—many new to the city or only visiting to take away best practices—who viewed greatly improved schools as the lever to a better New Orleans. This stance left little room for engagement in the broader, complex problems that are linked to poverty and that keep our students from having an equal chance in life: crime, joblessness, lack of healthcare, and a growing number of for-profit prisons in Louisiana that gloat about keeping their “honey holes” filled, which has led to skyrocketing incarceration rates for African American men. Likely the most taboo topic, the one over which our friends and family members harbored the most resentment, was who was receiving money for new-business development—including in education—and why so many of these recipients were “outsiders” and so very few were African American.
After sitting in the eye of this human-made disaster and reflecting on my own role within it, I fear we never fully internalized or publically discussed in the education-reform space the bitter residue of a storm line across many African Americans’ hearts and minds—especially those born and raised in New Orleans—that is linked to overt and covert racism. The images and events surrounding Katrina are an indelible reminder that to be African American and/or poor can lead to feeling and being treated as three-fifths of a person, even within the rebuilding of the educational system, an institution that is meant to be the great equalizer.
Questions have swirled about how true Teach For America’s commitment to diversity is as a result of the lack of diversity in our post-Katrina corps. I am painfully aware of this. We are painfully aware of this. As one of the largest pipelines of educational leadership talent in New Orleans, it is our moral calling to ensure that these leaders are ever more representative of the community.
We have already seen that we can do this; this year’s New Orleans corps is more diverse than it has ever been, and the number of African Americans is almost triple what it was last year. Among them are Alexie and Kaitlyn Gaddis, twin daughters of two veteran educators and graduates of Loyola and Xavier, respectively. Their father, Stan Gaddis, is one of the many great veteran educators who taught me the importance, when I was a first-year teacher in 1995, of community and context.
The biggest question I ask myself seven years after Katrina is: Will we and our colleagues who are working to change things for the better model the fairness and equality of opportunity we envision for our nation by making certain that our students and those who share their backgrounds are significantly represented at every level of our movement in New Orleans and elsewhere? I know we can do it, but it will take the same focus and intensity that we’ve placed on other outcomes. We’ll also need to have uncomfortable conversations about the unfortunate legacy of racism in our country that even the most well-meaning institutions and people might unintentionally perpetuate.
We cannot fix what we cannot talk about; our work is about race, class, and privilege. Across racial lines, are we bold and courageous enough to have an ongoing dialogue steeped in love, trust, and the determination to course-correct where we need to? Will you join me in the eye of another intense storm to eliminate racism within your sphere of influence? I hope we can, because otherwise we will look back and know that we failed to be the kind of courageous leaders who bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.
Aimée Eubanks Davis, a member of Teach For America’s 1995 Greater New Orleans corps, is executive vice president of people, community, and diversity. You can find her on Twitter at @EubanksDavis.