Friday, December 28, 2007

"New Orleans A 'War Zone'?"

From the Southtown Star comes this column by Allison Hantschel, aka Athenae at First Draft.

A group of high school students from Rockland, Maine, wanted to go to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans to help with recovery and rebuilding, but the members of the school board turned them down. Jennifer Daniels, a member of the board, said it would be like sending them to a "war zone".

Allison says:

It would be hard to find a more bald example of insulation and privilege than Jennifer Daniels and her fellow members of the school board in Rockland, Maine.

I'm with Allison. What planet do these folks on the school board inhabit? Many groups of high school and college students have gone to help with rebuilding and recovery. Many families with younger children than high school age have worked on projects in New Orleans.

My daughter lives there, and I visit at least once a month, to see her and her family and because I love to go there, and I'm still intact. It's true; you have to be street smart and know where not to go, but I doubt that these high school students would be let loose to roam New Orleans on their own.

Pockets of the city are high crime areas, but calling the city a "war zone" is gross exaggeration. We are a fearful people. We delude ourselves into thinking that we can be safe in our gated communities and, if we do the right thing, our children will always be safe, but life remains a risky business. I was a protective mother-hen type, but I don't think I would have hesitated to let one of my kids go. The students will miss a valuable experience that could affect their lives for the good.

As Allison says, we routinely send youths of 18 and 19 into real war zones.


  1. Yes, that was an incredibly stupid thing for the woman to say and most unfortunate that such an attitude might result in a decision against the trip (from what I read, no decision had been made, only concerns expressed and a request for further information to allay those concerns). But you know Mimi, you and Doxy and others have been talking lately about what the internet is doing sometimes to inflame our emotions and speak rashly. Mea culpa, as I'm afraid you well know.

    But here is, I think, yet another example. I respect both you and all the good people at First Draft immensely, for your love of New Orleans, your efforts and desire to rebuild it, and, in the process, to fight with all your might against the forces of racism and classism. But in all honesty, I have to say that it strikes me as an easy, cheap shot to paint the people of Rockland, Maine as racist elitists. Look at the blog title or post or whatever it is over at Ashley Morris: The Blog -- "Nuke Maine Now!" Yes, very clever, and perhaps no different in tone and intent than what Jonathan does daily. But really, is that kind of outrage and the comments over there (like "I've been to Maine. Trust me, we're not missing a bunch of those idiots coming down here") going to help the situation any?

    I've been to Maine, too, briefly to Portland for the Region I soccer tournament (and would have gone to Rockland, had the team made the finals). Now that event was for the privileged (the outsiders who poured in from suburban NY, NJ, and Md), but the area hardly bespeaks a suburban gated community (in fact its relative lack of prosperity is why they sought to host the tournament, in hopes of attracting more tourists in the future). It is rural, it is remote, even more remote than where I live (which is pretty darned remote) and the places in central Wisconsin where I first attended school and later worked for a poverty program and Legal Services.

    Let me tell you about these places. Yes, they are predominantly sometimes even exclusively white. They are often poor (or at least far from the economically booming mainstream or any kind of powerful elite), psychologically isolated, fiercely self-protective, and, yes, fearful and suspicious of all outsiders. Many people do not travel to even nearby cities (not long ago I lived in a community 60 miles west of Chicago, where many people had never in their lives left the county and wouldn't dream of going anywhere within or near Chicago), and even those who have ventured into a city once in awhile think of all urban areas first in terms of violence and poverty. Yes, there is often a strong element of racism, conscious or not, but the notion that rural folks are virtuous and urban folks are not has been around a very long time, not just in the U.S.

    Now Rockland may not be Rural in the extreme backwoods sense but it is hardly surprising that school officials in a place like that would bristle at the prospect of sending their kids to New Orleans (or New York City or Pittsburgh or maybe even Portland, ME). Yes, to speak of New Orleans as a "war zone" (just as Bush officials referred to those displaced by Katrina and Rita as "refugees") is offensive and tinged with racism (esp. with the reference to Aruba). But the fear of the outside and outsiders is something that pervades much of the U.S. -- if all the "sophisticate" urban and even suburban types would bother to really go visit it and get to know more than passing scenery. The only way to break down that fear is to exchange people back and forth -- not sputter and spit outrage and contempt at the ignorance.

    Most people in Rockland Maine probably have no idea what conditions are like in New Orleans (before or after Katrina). I would suspect the same is true even here in central New York (where our local school board might well have the same reaction but they are PC savvy enough to disguise their real reasons).

    But what I think people in Louisiana need to understand is that the fear is quite real among many people who do not think in terms of race but nevertheless fear the urban poor. We saw it here just a few weeks ago when our Sunday School teachers held a teen overnight downtown in the church when, a few weeks before, someone had broken into the building (the first in many years) one night, leaving a trail of blood, and reportedly fleeing some drug or crime scene. Although the building was quite secure by the night of the sleepover (and the threat of burglars and intruders actually far greater in wealthier areas outside the city limits which tend to the the targets of crime around here), the kids could not sleep all night listening to the sounds of the steam heating pipes. Those kids were afraid of being in the "city" at night. And as much as we adults try to dispel these notions, it's hard to get rid of them when there are plenty of adults who are similarly fearful and t.v. images of urban life are hardly reassuring.

    Well, I'm afraid once again I've spoken at too great a length. It's just that I can easily imagine what happened in Rockland all sorts of places in the U.S. and, as deplorable as it is, I don't think it's helpful to ask what planet these folks are on because, in fact, I think they probably represent a great many in the U.S., some of whom may be innocently ignorant of what New Orleans is like. One could even honestly ask, what kind of planet are the people on who think it's odd or unusual for local school officials not to want to send children (even h.s. students) to an urban area, a planet where people are ignorant of those parts of the United States populated by those who have never visited any city or perhaps even seen a black or Hispanic person. These are very different worlds, across which bridges need to be built, not insults hurled.

    One can certainly ask whether any parent or adult should want to keep their children away from unknown or uncertain conditions when sent anywhere on mission trips. While I would not hesitate to send my children to New Orleans or anywhere in the U.S. for something like Habitat for Humanity or some other such helping work, I must confess that I and a few friends have had a couple second thoughts about going to Cambodia with our friends and their children (you may recall the link to their project). At what point is fear for one's children irrational and selfish? While New Orleans certainly is not a "war zone" like parts of the Middle East, for example, is it so terrible that people who do not know better want to be assured that it is not? Will scorn and ridicule assuage their fears? Will ignorance about the sources and conditions of their fears (e.g. visions of gated suburbia used to describe semi-rural Maine) help change attitudes?

    I know you desperately want to help New Orleans, Mimi, and you also rightly want people young and old to gain experience giving to others in these kinds of ways. But when will we all (me included) stop jumping to demonize those who view the world differently than us and instead try to patiently teach them something new?

  2. But in all honesty, I have to say that it strikes me as an easy, cheap shot to paint the people of Rockland, Maine as racist elitists.

    Klady, I reread both Allison's column and my post, and I don't see that we suggested anything at all about the rest of the people in Rockford, Maine, beyond the school board, especially Daniels. Nor do I see them labeled as you suggest in either Allison's column nor my post. I have not even read Ashley Morris' post, and you surely cannot hold Allison and me responsible for what he said.

    As for crime, Klady, a priest of our church in our rural, safe, idyllic town was murdered in the parish hall. That made us quite aware that places we think are safe are not necessarily so.

    Perhaps you are unaware of the many groups who have done just as these students wanted to do in New Orleans.

    If folks are afraid of Louisiana, that's their problem, and if folks in Louisiana are afraid of other places where people are different, well that's a problem, too.

    I'm not letting Daniels and the rest of the school board in Rockford off the hook. Personally, I believe they give bad example to the kids who want to reach out and help. They should get a grip. With all due respect, I don't believe that we demonized anyone. I think the board members made the wrong decision. That's all.

    Honestly, it seems to me that you're referencing something other than my post.

  3. This is to me a case of what Carl Jung might call issues of the "shadow".

    Without judgment, it is human nature to fear what we ourselves possess inside. We are both darkness and light and the constant splitting off of those things causes disintegration.

    When we can meet and own and heal our shadow (a life work in progress for me and far from finished) we become integrated.

    It is all too common - now I am in more of a judgmental voice - too hear something like this. It is at the root of all dischord and prejudice.

    Think of Jesus and St. Francis embracing the ill, the lepers... that is the truest of integration.

    Oh well, enough waxing philosophic and pyschologic and spiritually from me for the moment!

    Anyway, I agree Mimi that this is the sort of thing that feeds the darkness and the fear.

    In due respect klady, it is not up to us to build a bridge to these folks, but for them to look within for some answers, healing and progress.

  4. Fran, thank you. I am familiar with the shadow, especially my own, which still looms large and quite unexpectedly at times. Integrating the darkness within each of us is, indeed, a life's work. I'm certainly not done yet.

  5. "It would be hard to find a more bald example of insulation and privilege than Jennifer Daniels and her fellow members of the school board in Rockland, Maine."

    The phrase "insulation and privilege" is used to characterize these people -- the lead in your post and Allison's article. They may be isolated, they may be ignorant, they may be privileged in the sense that they do not live in the damaged areas of New Orleans, but what else do you or Allison know about them? That's my point. All you know is that Ms. Daniels thinks New Orleans is like a war zone and that this is contrary to your knowledge of what conditions are like there. People in Maine are somehow supposed to know better because, how? why?

    The original news article from Maine (here)
    says that the Board members first commended what the youth and their sponsor intended to do but some expressed concerns. They did not say the Board had made any final decision about the trip -- only that they wanted details about where they were going, what kind of accomodations they would have, etc., and some expressed reservations -- something just about all school officials do (and whose first instinct generally is to say no, no matter what the project).

    The images most of us up North have from Katrina are the t.v. reporters from New Orleans talking up looting, violence, and fear. While there are many groups, school, church, and others, who have sent people to help, from all over, that does not change the fact that there are places where it sounds like a scary thing because they know no one with firsthand knowledge of the situation -- so yes, just as scary as going overseas. These may well be people who will go out in a raging snowstorm, risking their own lives, to save someone, or try to rescue someone at sea. But those are terrible forces they contend with from day to day, year to year. It's not necessarily a lack of heroism or willingness to risk or sacrifice, but rather the kind of monumental fear that ignorance brings.

    So, why be outraged at their fear? I say this full well knowing that at times I am outraged by people's fear of homosexuality (among other things), but I'm questioning whether it does any good -- all this outrage. I don't see how anyone can fight fear and ignorance with outrage and presuppositions about the nature of others' fears.

    * * * *

    "In due respect klady, it is not up to us to build a bridge to these folks, but for them to look within for some answers, healing and progress."

    Really? This is precisely what I fear, the reverse notion that we are not our brothers and sisters' keepers unless they are deserving our charity and love. These people in Maine need plenty of help -- perhaps of a different kind than those in NOL, but help nonetheless.

  6. How we project danger outward. I wonder how many children in that town are in danger in their own homes, and no one knows.

  7. People in Maine are somehow supposed to know better because, how? why?

    Klady, I think it's outrageous that Daniels, in a public forum, calls the New Orleans a "war zone". Before she shoots her mouth off in such a way, she should be informed rather than ignorant, and she can be informed if she so chooses. She didn't take the trouble to be informed before she mouthed off.

    As I said before, I don't cut her slack.

    From the article:

    "I admire your spirit but I have concerns," said board member Jennifer Daniels of Rockland. She cited the high murder rate in New Orleans, the lack of emergency services, and diseases.

    "I can't say I support sending students to a war zone," Daniels said.

    Board member Julie Raye of Rockland said she also is concerned about the dangers, saying she thinks about the Natalee Holloway case in which a high school senior from Alabama disappeared in May 2005 while on a high school graduation trip to the Caribbean island of Aruba. She has not been found.

    Board member Brian Messing said he also found the group's goals commendable but said he was concerned about the precedent that the board's approval of the trip would create. He said more information on where the students would stay and security were needed before even conditional approval could be given.

    Klady, really. What's to defend here? New Orleans is a "war zone". New Orleans is Aruba. New Orleans has no emergency services. Such depths of ignorance from the folks in charge of the schools, for crying out loud!

    Just say, "We'll look into it," without spouting ignorant nonsense.

  8. Nina, that's right. As I said, life is a risky business.

  9. Mimi, my last word on this: slack or no, welcome to my world (and some of many of my past worlds). Such ignorance is rampant, it really is, among teachers as well as administrators. They REALLY believe someplace like New Orleans is no different than Aruba (or rather their nightmares about what Aruba is like). Lots of people do, I'm afraid, and it's not just something one can pick up a book or turn on a computer and find information that is going to change their minds. There are not likely legions of people in the community who are going to object or think differently (though, one would hope, some, like the teacher). Condemn their ignorance if you will, but let's have a solution as well.

  10. Klady, I assure you that I have no solution for the ignorance that abounds amongst us, nor do I have illusions about having influence to bring folks out of ignorance. My voice is so small.

    My responsibility is to refrain from speaking out of my own ignorance, of speaking out about that of which I know little or nothing.

  11. Hi! I am actually with the group, Tiger Outreach, in Rockland ME, that is planning to go to New Orleans. I belive that you would be happy to know that, although 2 members still voted against our trip, we still gained school board approval! We are now only concerned about getting the funding, but we are very optimistic that our goal will be reached. I would like to thank you for writing about this and giving us your support!!!
    P.S.-Send donations to
    Rockland District High School-Tiger Outreach c/o Jo Talbot
    400 Broadway St.
    Rockland, Maine
    (not to be tacky)


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