Inspired by the Youth of New Orleans

Teach For America co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard stood alongside 6,000 students and teachers in New Orleans for the Katrina 10 Youth Rally. What she saw was powerful.
Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and I had the privilege of spending my Friday in New Orleans. I was able to meet with community members—students, teachers, principals, civic and political leaders, Teach For America staff, corps members, and alums.

I heard voices of pride, of hope, and of pain. Ten years doesn’t make a tragedy like Katrina stop hurting, and as Angele DeLarge noted in the recent piece by Kira Orange Jones, it can feel strange to “celebrate” progress at a moment marking so much devastation. It can also feel strange because there’s still so much left to be done.  

But we can honor the lives lost and those upended, and take stock of the powerful work that folks, across the city, have done to support the students of New Orleans. I got to be part of an event on Friday that did just that—the Katrina 10 Youth Rally. And today, I’d like to share what I saw there, alongside 6,000 students and teachers: 


It was so powerful. Educators were moved:

"Powerful moment. A youth conference: Helped planned by youth. Spoken by youth. Attended by youth. Felt by everyone. Katrina+10"


The speakers were moved:

Can't lose, tha whole city behind me!!!!! WOW, today was AMAZING. 6,000 awesome people screaming "Be Real! Be Righteous!"


Students spoke, celebrating their hard work and their schools. Donnell Bailey talked about being the first in his family to attend college—and the first African American student body president at Franklin & Marshall College as a junior. He told us about growing up in New Orleans—the struggles he faced and the gratitude he felt for his city. ­­­­I got to talk with him after the event, and it was a true privilege. You can watch this powerful video about him below.


Brandi Sylve, a high school senior, told the crowd to be the heroes they were meant to be. I was proud to share her words online:


Above all, at the youth rally, I felt hope in the potential of young people to make great change. They brought wisdom, pride, reflection, and a sense of celebration to this important moment.

The TFA staff, corps members, and alums I met on Friday also gave me great hope. They take pride in their work and the work of their colleagues. Here’s one staff member celebrating a student who got to meet President Obama on his visit to the city last week: 

When the sweetest neighborhood kid you know wins an essay contest and gets to have lunch with President Obama, life is good.


The day of reflection was not without complexity. Our community in New Orleans is actively resisting dichotomies, and their perspective is crucial as we think about education in their city after the storm: Classrooms in New Orleans are neither “fixed” nor “broken.” There has been unqualified progress and there have been missteps in the pursuit for equity and excellence. Schools have improved, and there has been an emotional cost. Test scores have risen dramatically, and so much remains to be taught. There are no easy answers in New Orleans.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers anywhere in education—but what I saw in New Orleans inspired me. Our leaders are solving problems. They are part of the solution. They are committed to the city and students they love.

Here’s to having pride and humility in the work we do. 

Elisa Villanueva Beard is the co-CEO of Teach For America.


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