Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Guest Post: Entrepreneur as Change Agent, New Orleans

I'm still recovering from jet lag after returning from India on Sunday evening.  Will be back with a post on my trip once I recover my full mental capabilities next week.  In the meantime, my classmate Casey Bi has provided a guest post.  Casey traveled to New Orleans over spring break and observed first-hand how entrepreneurship is working to rebuild the city.  A reflective essay showcasing how the Darden experience, in following with the school's mission, works to develop principled leaders that will improve society.

Casey Bi
My first visit to New Orleans was this past week for the Entrepreneurs as a Change Agent course at Darden, and I came away with a sense that New Orleans is a city of juxtapositions. Side by side are rich and poor, white and black, luxury and poverty, hope and despondence, filth and sparkle. I’ve found conversations with cab drivers to be just as illuminating as the presentations from the notable education innovators that we met. The people of New Orleans are a special breed: resilient, proud, determined, and independent. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina has left much more on the city than water marks on the levees and houses with graffiti markings from the rescue effort. It has tapped into the fierce spirits of the residents of a city that refuses to be torn down and trampled on, and instead, among the darkness and poverty and despondency, a phoenix is rising from the ashes. There is something happening in New Orleans.

A new mixed housing development in NOLA
New Orleanians are working side by side with the outside aide workers and non-profits and entrepreneurs that have come to the city post-Katrina to help with the rebuilding effort, and the next generation of the city will remain 100% true to the ethos of the city that existed before the flood, reflecting the independence and spirit of the residents that live in it. The differences will embody positive change: viable mixed income housing developments, ready capital access and financial literacy for all residents – not just the middle and upper income – and improved student test scores from the work of the master teachers who continue to push the standards of education up.

For me, the imperative is to start with the youth. This movement is the most compelling out of all the social programs we’ve learned about this past week and I believe is the most effective in combating the apathy that yes, does exist, in some pockets of the city’s poor. However, the youth of New Orleans represents the most promise for positive change. New Orleans is committing to the children of the city in a big way – with the overhaul of the OPSB and the institution of the Recovery School District to run the networks of charter schools that are reinventing education in a state that is 49th out of 50 in terms of education standards, there is a relentless focus on improvement. Everyone knows that the student performance in New Orleans is abysmal – but the failures of these students have stemmed from the failures of the infrastructure around them, the corruption of school administrators and the school board, and more broadly, the society in which they were born into that refused to give them something so basic - a fair chance at life.

The stories I heard and witnessed about the youth are heartbreaking. Youth who come to school the day after the death of a parent so as not to get behind, youth who cannot graduate despite being a valedictorian because of their inability to pass the state-wide academic standards test five times, youth who get on a bus at 5am to travel to a café that teaches them basic communication and social skills with the hope that one day they may be qualified enough to work as a restaurant server. Society has clearly failed New Orleans and its youth in a big way, and this is why the city must rebuild. Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan faced widespread criticism for saying that “Katrina was the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” but he was 100% right. A corrupt, ineffective, widespread system is difficult to overhaul, but now, here is the chance to start from scratch.

Darden students enjoying a free moment
The reinvention of education in New Orleans will serve as a national purpose as well, and for this I am grateful. With the successful rebuilding of the city’s failing schools, and with the continual rises in student test scores as a result of the charter school system that has taken over the city, the rest of the nation will see and learn. New Orleans can serve as a test case to prove that low-income failing students can actually learn, education in American can be improved with decentralization and structural changes to scheduling and curriculum, and attracting and investing in high-quality teachers who come from the upper echelons of prestigious universities will pay off for the schoolchildren. The students in New Orleans can be empowered to learn, to go to college and vocational school, to come back to their city and invest in the local economy, and continue to build on the work that social workers and educators and entrepreneurs are doing right now in reestablishing New Orleans. This is a city of proud heritage, of culture and history, and ultimately, of opportunity.

The KIPP school that we visited this past week has the word “Courage” painted on top of the doorways. The children who walk under these doorways every day carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, but they also carry this courage. I think we can learn from these children and also have courage – the courage to question and disrupt a failing status quo, the courage to look ahead to the future with vision and hope, and the courage to remember that a phoenix will rise out of the ashes.

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