This was my first trip outside New Orleans since we returned from our evacuation some 17 months ago. I joked that I would have been happy sitting in a cardboard box, just knowing that I was out of the disaster zone. The stress of being in New Orleans was really starting to get to me, and it was refreshing to be in a place where disaster and recovery did not dominate every aspect of existence.
But I was not sitting in a cardboard box. I was at Harvard University, the ultimate American Ivory Tower. Wealth and prosperity were evident everywhere. I was staying in the Soldiers Field Apartments, which were pretty nice. I think they were worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle so much intact infrastructure, though. They started tearing up the walkway to the entrance of my building mid-week. They replaced it with a plywood plank, and I felt right at home.
Nor was I alone. I arrived with Patricia Jones and LaToya Cantrell, two New Orleanians knee-deep in recovery work. Prior to this trip, I knew them only by reputation. I was honored and inspired to be in their company.
There were 61 participants in the seminar, from all over the world. The list was incredible to me: a general in the Malaysian Air Force, a cultural attaché from Kuwait, a UN representative from New Zealand, cops from Ireland and Honolulu and Oklahoma City, a school superintendent from Canada, a customs official from Finland, a mayor from Ohio, a county comptroller from Florida, professors from South Korea and South Africa, a congressman from Mexico, the president of Earth Conservation Corps, a handful of business executives. There were several Americans from the “Federal Government.” They couldn’t say what agency exactly. Or rather, they could tell you, but then they’d have to kill you.
My roommate was a CEO of a real estate company from Nigeria, looking to get into government — not to make money, he hastened to tell me emphatically, but to help the poor. We compared notes over a glass of bourbon one night, and I concluded that Nigeria and New Orleans have a lot in common, including about $90,000 of cold cash in William Jefferson’s freezer.
Just to be immersed in such a large, diverse and interesting group was a pleasure. It was also humbling but at the same time confidence-building.
There was a lot of interaction in small groups, formally and informally. I found myself talking about New Orleans constantly. People were interested, curious, and compassionate. It was good to be reminded that we are not universally hated or forgotten. Sometimes I get a little paranoid.
Most of all, I find that I’ve returned to New Orleans with a renewed sense of hope. We face immense challenges on all sides, but I feel like we’ve got a shot, and that’s something I haven’t felt for a while.
I see I haven’t even touched on the program curriculum. Tomorrow, perhaps.