Working Day: New Orleans
April 28, 2011 | Old School | New York City
With Sarah Broom, Richard Campanella, Fatima Shaik, and Billy Sothern; curated by Nathaniel Rich
New Orleans has long been a city from which writers have sought inspiration. Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Kate Chopin, Truman Capote, Walker Percy, and Richard Ford are among those who have lived and worked there. What is the role of the writer—if any—in New Orleans today? Does the writer have any kind of civic duty to uphold following a tragedy like Katrina, and if so, what is it?
The following statement was issued by participants at the conclusion of this workshop.
A few things we don’t want to do: we don’t want to be redundant, meaning we don’t want to start a service or project that already exists locally. Even worse, we don’t want to compete or confuse. There was a consensus in our group that education is of paramount importance and should be a component of PEN’s work in New Orleans. One way of doing this is to expand upon initiatives already in place within PEN, such as the children’s education program, prison writing and folklore projects. Where such programs exist we think there is a pressing need to implement them in New Orleans in an aggressive way. Ideally we would hope for PEN to extend these projects into New Orleans, while at the same start a new, unique project. It’s crucial that this process leads to real results.
The project should be mindful of the fact there are major human rights failings in New Orleans that have not been addressed adequately by the local and federal government and the criminal justice system.
Some ideas for projects to be implemented with PEN’s help in New Orleans:
1. Books are not allowed in New Orleans prisons. PEN should aggressively advocate to change that policy, especially given the incredibly high incarceration rate.
2. PEN should continue to support the MLK Visiting Authors program financially.
3. PEN can launch a mapping project. We would like for students to be involved with the technical and creative process of creating maps of their local neighborhoods. We could partner with the (potential) forthcoming publication, “Mapping New Orleans.”
4. Science and engineering can be a venue for storytelling. We can begin an initiative to create a workshop to bring together scientists, engineers, and writers and teach research methodology to writers—perhaps in the form of a lecture series.
5. Introduce the Prison Writing Program into New Orleans prisons.
6. We would like to launch a movie series in various parks and neighborhoods by pairing local documentaries with films that are about New Orleans in the hope of drawing a large public.
7. A regular reading series that could be held in outdoor places around the city—perhaps we can partner with local reading series, arts markets, and farmers’ markets.
8. A PEN/New Orleans literary prize should be established, for a writer, a student, or a group of students.
9. Establish a relationship with local radio stations as well as the Times Picayune, following the example of the StoryCorps project two years ago. The Times-Pic featured selected stories from that project.
10. We can try to launch a series of guest editorials in the Times Picayune by influential PEN Writers, which could be connected to another of the projects mentioned herein, where applicable.
11. Once we have identified projects on which to focus our energy and funding, have a PEN author write an editorial in a national publication to draw attention to our efforts.
12. PEN should provide a page on its web site for people who are coming to New Orleans and may be interested in doing nonprofit or volunteer work in the city, including partner organizations: a page of links to local projects.
13. Some local organizations that PEN can partner with include Tulane’s Center for Public Service, Times-Pic, MLK School, Neighborhood Story Project, Xavier, Loyola, Dillard, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities, the American Folklore Project (Maggi Michel, a representative of the American Folklore Project has expressed great interest in helping), the New Orleans Film Society, and Patois.
We would like to stress the importance of bringing into underserved schools professionals in the arts, sciences, technologies, and engineering.
All programming should be forward-looking and should not dwell excessively on Katrina.
We hope this will be the beginning of a practical discussion about what steps to take and how to implement one or several of these projects effectively. We hope such a conversation can take place within the next two months, whether at a meeting or through a web conversation. In many of the proposals given above, we have much more to add, including contacts and local organizations with whom we are in touch and who can bring about immediate results.