Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taking Stock in New Orleans

by Mike Bosia

Those of us who study politics are never far from our subject. Fold the newspaper, turn off the cable news, shut the laptop, and we are left with the truisms that "all politics is local" or "think globally, act locally." As we enter the world around us, at St. Mike's, we make community our passion. Even going far away brings us back to the local. So we decided to take advantage of the winter break to invest in, learn more about, and take some lessons from New Orleans, one of America's most fascinating and complex cities, and the efforts to recover in the wake of Katrina and last summer's oil spill

Of course, we also hoped for a break from winter in Vermont. But it seems that the global effects of climate change might have conspired to produce one of the longest stretches of near freezing temperatures in recent south Louisiana experience. Our first lesson was, in fact, that the Crescent City was built to minimize the humid heat of summer, not ward off the chill of winter. More often than not, a small space heater was the only source of warmth, even in a room with 15 foot ceilings.

That's a stark reminder that global forces - even climate change - can arrive on the ground in such varied ways. And so we approached New Orleans in its complexity - a French and Creole city; once home to one of the largest and wealthiest communities of free men and women of color, but also the state made infamous by the "separate but equal" laws upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson; with strong links to our region of Northern Vermont through the resettlement of North America's French communities, and also in the ministry and educational programs of the Edmundite Society. It is a city with no medians on the broad avenues that divide neighborhoods. Instead, these are called "neutral ground" because they sometimes provided a physical barrier between "les américains" and the French Creole, black and white, rich and poor, native and immigrant. At the same time, this rich tradition of diversity has produced the unique sounds of jazz, prized literature, regional cuisines, and a distinctive culture and architecture.

We focused our local explorations on diversity, community development, and food politics, since I teach courses in these areas, and we were particularly interested in how communities speak for themselves and recover from the man-made aftermath of Katrina and the Gulf spill in an era of limited government and financial crisis.

In Tremé, recently made famous by an HBO series, we learned about this historic neighborhood of free men and women of color, French speaking until the 20th Century, where Homer Plessy had lived and worked with the Comité des Citoyens to challenge Louisiana's segregation laws. We stepped into the Backstreet Cultural Museum (across from St. Augustine's Church in the photo above), literally the vision of one man dedicated to the music of Tremé and the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians. Often explained as a tribute to Native Americans who sheltered runaway slaves, Mardi Gras Indian tribes began more than 150 years ago and continue today, with groups making their own elaborate feathered dress to mask as Indians. Some examples are pictured in the Museum above on the right. Today, the parades are a contest between the different groups over who will be called "the prettiest."

In the Lower 9th Ward, we saw an amazing hope amidst overwhelming devastation in a community that suffered the loss of 4,000 homes after Katrina. Five years later and some of the
streets closest to the levee still are a ghost town. At the same time, a few private initiatives are proving successful despite little government financing. Make it Right New Orleans has built more than 50 homes, with a goal of 100 more, close in against the levee where the flooding began, all using the most advanced green technology and designed to resist damage from major storms. Yet, this model community, as the image indicates, sits side-by-side with the legacy of Katrina, even so long after the storm itself has passed.

Just a few blocks away is Our School at Blair Grocery, a sustainable farm and educational
program that helps young people from the Lower 9th prepare for the GED while teaching about sustainable agriculture and growing healthy food for the neighborhood at affordable prices. They also market their produce to some of the best restaurants in New Orleans. In this photo, Vincent is joined by Brennan, the farm manager, in preparing soil for seedlings. Remember, the temperature was hovering around 40 that morning.

Only two years old, the school has a compost and worm operation, greenhouses, growing a range of greens and sprouts, and a plan to preserve the mirliton, a celebrated local vegetable. OSBG is gaining acceptance in the community and national attention. One reminder on the wall of their open air classroom: "You can vote to change this system 3 times a day."

Their success is just one part of a food transformation in New Orleans, where individual initiative is working to reclaim lands for small scale and sustainable agriculture, developing farmers markets, and cultivating relationship between farms and restaurants. With its rich tradition of French-inspired Creole cuisine, Cajun foods, Soul Food, and the cooking of immigrant communities, the city is already known for eating. Now local chefs are encouraging new food communities that link responsible practices and sustainable development from farm-to-table. One of our favorites was Satsuma Cafe in Bywater, named for a famous local variety of citrus. Satsuma is one of OSBG's restaurant clients.

As the new semester begins this week and we remember the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., these lessons will find their way into my classroom. In part because they are so profoundly local, but at the same time because there are such awesome examples of government neglect and hostility alongside an inspiration manifest in the hope and initiative of communities. Certainly with a Sunday New York Times story about OSBG, and a variety of eating experiences from Louisiana's far different economy and geography, I have new insights and a little Louisiana flavor to offer students in The Politics of Food over the next few weeks. And as I revisit and revise courses in the semesters ahead, I will draw on these experiences of politics to take stock of the varied local responses to the pressing global concerns of our day.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guest Blogger: Tim Prevo, '06

From time to time we like to feature a guest posting from one of our former political science majors, a sort of "where are they now" series. Today, we hear from Tim Prevo, who graduated in 2006:

I graduated from Saint Michael's College in the Spring of 2006 with a B.A. in Political Science. While some people know exactly what they intend to do with their lives, I didn't even know I was a political science major until the first week of classes; apparently my mother, having endured more than her share of my backtalk since I was able to form words, was convinced I would someday be a lawyer, and indicated 'political science' on my application when I wasn't looking.

I always enjoyed law-oriented movies, in particular Grisham novel adaptations, but I had never actually studied the law. Then in 2005, I took American Constitutional Law. I was fascinated by the complexity of the material. The subject resonated with me and I had never felt more challenged, and though I was only dimly aware of it at the time, I felt that law was something I was going to want to study and/or practice for the rest of my life.

After some twists and turns I enrolled in Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Connecticut, in the Fall of 2009. After a few weeks, I knew I was exactly where I should be. As I enter the second half of my second year, I am as sure now as I was then of my decision. I have learned more in 18 months than I ever thought possible. I had the opportunity to study International and EU Law at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in association with Quinnipiac University in the summer of 2010. Beginning in January of 2011, I will be doing legal research for the joint House-Senate Judiciary Committee at the Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut as an intern.

Looking back, I can only say that I am here because I made a series of good decisions.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Civic Culture SMC Style

Day in and day out, Americans are bombarded with quantified data taken from various polling sources or statistical data bases. Social science mavens slice and dice the numbers with various statistical models, a merciful few of which our political science majors study in Research Methods. Media pundits speculate on what it all means if the president’s approval ratings have climbed or fallen six points relative to last month. Activists try to give the data a spin beneficial to their own agendas even as the data they cite frequently do not support the claim made, or are ambiguous or so lacking in context that we cannot say for sure what they mean. Last summer, 50% of Americans asked told pollsters they believed the Constitution should be interpreted by the Supreme Court “as it was originally written” while 46% thought the Court should base its rulings on “what the constitution means in current times,” without the poll offering the possibility that both options might mean the same thing. All of 51% approved of the way the Supreme Court had been handling its business, while only 39% disapproved (10% weren’t sure). I wonder, had the poll asked the same respondents to describe a single decision of the Court during the previous term, what percentage would have been able to do so. Without such information, it is hard to even speculate on what the reported ratio means or if it means anything at all.

Despite the many reasons for caution, we social scientist love data. Call it our catnip. So it is that every semester I ponder over data released by our Student Life Office concerning student activities, hoping to glean some understanding of social trends on campus. The problem lies in discerning what the data mean. Last semester, 672 of our undergraduates made Deans List and the average GPA was 3.11. Sounds good, but are students more capable or engaged in their academics than ever before? Has the quality of teaching increased over previous years? Or are we professors simply getting soft and lazy when it comes to grading? Parking violations were down by 25%. Are students more conscious of the parking rules? Or are there just fewer cars on campus? Or more parking spaces? Or has the security staff just grown tied of writing out all those citations? It is hard to know.

The data that are always arresting to me are those measuring student participation in campus activities. While the data do not measure depth of participation, and in some cases might be counting the same students several times, the raw numbers are impressive. Over 400 M.O.V.E. students performed some 13, 000 hours of community service last semester. The 27 SMC Fire Department members and 28 Rescue Squad members responded to 211 fire calls and 669 rescue calls, some from on campus, but most from surrounding communities. 350 students participated in our Wilderness Program. Nearly 3,000 participations were measured at 30 events sponsored by our GOT SKILLS program promoting respect for human rights and diversity. The Campus Ministry brought about 150 students on its several retreat weekends and trained 30 students as Liturgical Ministers. Our student athletes scored a 99% Academic Success Rate, the highest in the Northeast Ten Conference and second best in Division II nationally. And our campus media outlets and student governing association thrive. I could go on. Okay, I will: 1571 students participated in activities sponsored by our Alcohol and Other Drug Task Force committed to “raising awareness and promoting educational outcomes regarding the pervasive cultural issues associated with the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs.”

All of this points to an active civic culture on campus, with high commitments to participation in community affairs. Social scientists have for some time been fretting over evidence of a declining national civic culture and a rising disengagement from communal activities. We are less likely to join civic or fraternal organizations. Membership in advocacy groups consists of cutting an annual check. Parties are weakening and voter turnouts are low. Church attendance is down. Americans have withdrawn, it seems, each into his or her own “small circle of friends,” meeting only like-minded people, watching “the daily me” on television or “bowling alone.”

Since Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), we have wondered if a responsive, vibrant and representative democracy can survive in an era of self-absorption. I don’t claim to know the answer, but the question is an important one that we need to address culturally. The young, alas, come under a lot of criticism for their disengagement. True, the young are less likely to vote, or to even be registered to vote. They read fewer newspapers or magazines. They are often jaded about politics. Even so, my own experience, amplified by the Student Life Office data, is that students crave opportunities for meaningful community participation. With all the other demands on their time and energy, the level of student participation on campus never ceases to impress me. I hope Saint Michael’s is not alone in promoting this sort of civic culture among students. Nothing substitutes for rigorous course work, but these extra-curricular activities are also important to the student’s individual development. They may have a political impact as well, if students develop the “habits of the heart” (Tocqueville again) of civic engagement and take participatory habits into their communities after graduation. I lack data on how many former members of the SMC Fire & Rescue are now active in volunteer fire or ambulance squads in their towns, or how many former tutors in after-school programs continue to mentor at-risk young people in their communities. Similarly, I don’t know how many Fine Arts minors continue to paint or play music on weekends, or how many of my former students spend evenings writing poetry or reading history. I can only say that college—at least St. Michael’s College—offers students a valuable opportunity to develop many sides of their personalities, both the public and the private parts. A teacher’s hope is always to be influential. That is why we go into the field. The non-academic staff here shares that desire and has worked to develop a campus culture that can have a lasting and positive impact on the long lives students face after graduation and ultimately on the kinds of communities they help to build. We cannot save the world, but maybe we can make it a little better, one fine SMC grad at a time.