by Jeremy Tuman
There is a disconnect between the narratives emerging from the recent marking of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In one narrative thread there is optimism and positivity about the economic direction of the city. In the Times-Picayune of Sunday, September 20, Michael Hecht, president of Greater New Orleans Inc., contributed an opinion piece that exemplifies this optimistic thread. He notes among positive growth markers that “our software sector is No. 2 for absolute job growth” in the U.S., and that the giant new medical complex in the center of our city is “predicted to create more than 30,000 new jobs, at an average salary of $92,000.” Our homegrown industry in water management is also doing well by contracting in New York for post-Sandy work, along with presumably working on pressing local issues of water management.
Stefan Selig, U.S. under secretary of Commerce for international trade, joins Hecht in this narrative in another recent op-ed, in which he notes New Orleans’ rapid growth, new industries, thousands of new jobs, and increasing property values. But the specific focus of his article is the booming export industry of the New Orleans-Metairie area. In an area of which many of us are likely unaware on a daily basis, we exported just under $35 billion in goods in 2014, including things such as petroleum and coal, chemicals, foods, and forestry and mining products. Our “export hub” ranks eighth in the country by this measure of dollar amount exported, ahead of San Francisco, Dallas, and Philadelphia. Foreign investors have taken note of our growth, Selig says, as noted by the Australian commercial explosives and fertilizer manufacturer Incitec Pivot, and their plans to build an $800 million plant in Waggaman. All of this industry and investment and growth supports many jobs, around 170,000 according to Selig.
But not everyone in New Orleans is benefitting.
The other strain of narratives emerging from K10 paints a much different picture, equally as eye-opening, but for all the wrong reasons. The number that looms for me over all of the positive growth numbers is 52. According to a 2013 study by Loyola University’s Lindy Boggs Center for Community Literacy, 52% of African American men in New Orleans are unemployed. The study serves as a focal end-cap to a handful of other studies and reports over the last few years that indicate a singular basic truth: Black New Orleans is not better off ten years after Katrina than it was the day after or the day before, and by many measures it is much worse off. A group called the African American Leadership Conference produced a report in 2013 called the Katrina Pain Index, in which it disaggregated by race data produced by the New Orleans Index. Some of the findings of this reports were that African-American households earn on average 50% less than white households, and that 44% of African-American households earn less than $20,000, compared to 18% of white households. Meanwhile a report by the Urban League indicates that the percentage on Black children living in poverty has increased since Katrina, from 44% to a staggering 50.5% in 2013.
Something isn’t adding up. If jobs are growing and industry is growing and New Orleans is doing better than ever, then why is half our population suffering so? I don’t claim to know the answers to why or to how to fix it. In fact I claim not to know. A host of issues come into play when attempting to dissect and analyze this disconnect: education reform, criminal justice reform, deeply rooted racism at once cultural, historic, and systemic. But the bottom line is that if we are all not doing well, then we aren’t doing well. If half of New Orleans is worse off, then New Orleans is worse off, period. The problems associated with this huge racial disparity in economic well-being cannot be ignored. They seep into our quality of life as a whole, whether its by the crime that continues to plague our city, violence that takes away too many of our young men, homelessness, mental health problems, and environmental degradation. This disparity and how to address it lies at the very core of Xavier’s mission to promote a more just and humane society, and service learning is a way for our students and faculty to engage with other stakeholders, the community, to do just that. Service learning is unique as a pedagogy in its ability to produce outcomes of civic engagement and social responsibility. A spirit of volunteerism and of giving back is a valuable and necessary thing for students to have, but an experience in service learning goes well beyond that spirit, to instill the notion that social systems are created by us and can be changed by us, not just from the outside by alleviating the symptoms, but internally through our careers, our professions, our life’s work. This is the world our students will inherit, and they have the power to change things for the better. It’s our mission as service learning teachers to teach them why things must change, why its our responsibility to change things, and as best we can, how to effect change, even if we don’t know all of the answers.
Faculty-in-Residence for Service Learning