Young Professionals Discuss the Soul of the City

Panelists Encourage Students to Begin Careers in New Orleans and to Help Preserve Culture

NEW ORLEANS–A panel of young New Orleans professionals petitioned student volunteers Tuesday to help restore the Big Easy-not just the houses, but the soul of the city. More than 500 Howard University volunteers piled into Republic New Orleans to listen to the professionals discuss the positive aspects of the re-emerging city.

“New Orleans has always suffered from brain drain: the gifted [and] the talented leave,” said Howard graduate and panelist Aviona Brown. “It’s important to do stuff like this so people know New Orleans is good for professional people, especially right now. If you’ve got the preparation and the dedication, you’re in.” The four-person panel was orchestrated by Nathan Rothstein, the executive director of New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals. Rothstein started the initiative to create a network of recent college graduates and young professionals who can help to rebuild New Orleans by beginning their professional lives in the city. Howard graduates Shantrelle Lewis and Brown sat alongside fellow panelists and New Orleans natives Gregory A. Gavins and Telly McLeana as they spoke about the benefits of relocating to a city rich in history and tradition.

Lewis, the curator of the George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art, offered that the African traditions of the New Orleans’ culture have always been part of the city’s allure. Lewis also pinpointed aspects of the culture that have direct African roots. Things like cayenne pepper, gumbo and the percussion-based, big band music are not only staples in New Orleanian culture, but can also be found throughout the Diaspora, in such places as Brazil and Africa.

“People are talking about building houses, but [it’s about] the soul of the city,” Lewis said. “If we don’t maintain our culture as a people, we don’t have a soul ultimately.”

McLean, who is a Louisiana State University graduate, also charged students to consider the African-American essence of the city in its restoration.

“Even though there are numerous possibilities for me to go to Capitol Hill to work in Washington, or make a lot of money in Los Angeles, for some reason, I’d rather struggle and be here,” McClean stated. “Five years from now, we’ll be able to tell the story of how we brought back this great African-American city.”

Though the restoration of the physical city is underway, the rebirth of the culture is an aspect of revitalization that many may have not considered.

During the panel discussion, Lewis talked about the need to restore the city’s musical tradition to its pre-Katrina days. According to Lewis, musical education was fostered through the school system pre-Katrina.

Howard University freshman Britney Oliver welcomed the information about music education. “They really brought that to my attention,” Oliver said. “I love to help develop a city or bring it back to where it is. That’s one of my goals when I start my career. I want to give back to my community in Clarksville, Tenn.”

“At Howard, I learned about the Teach for America program, and I think that would be a good way to start,” she added. “The culture has to start in the schools for it to prosper. Just like [Lewis said about] the music programs, we just have to start in the schools and the culture will slowly begin.”

Students also had a chance to question the panelists about gentrification, subsidized housing and strategies for restoring the culture.

As the city continues to restructure and regenerate its identity, it is important for non-natives to be aware of the city’s potential, panelists explained.

“One of the big things for me, as a Howard student, was awareness,” Brown said. “When I started at Howard, I had no awareness of the importance of community service. I had no awareness of the different types black people. It was really like a wake-up call.”

“Events like this are really important for students before they go into the world, because you need to be aware of what’s going on in the Diaspora, and you also need to be aware of what’s going on in the world, and that’ll give you a more accurate perspective.” Natalie Thompson is a print journalism major from Bridgeport, Conn.