by Orissa Arend
The red carpet at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) was teeming with elegant, poised, radiant young HBO stars, ready to introduce the film about them and discuss it. Inside it was standing room only, and barely that. “The Great Cafeteria Takeover” was premiering this night as part of the HBO series, “The Weight of the Nation.”
These thoroughly engaging teens holding forth eloquently and apparently without self-consciousness in their dress suits and evening gowns had grown up, flowered, actually, before my very eyes. I had been watching them and writing about them since shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
Remember how much we’ve all changed since the storm? Well, try going from age 11 to 17! Remember how involved and committed we were around year two or year three to saving our city and changing it for the better? These young people have lost none of that passion and drive – an inspiring steadfastness, given the challenges and diversions of adolescence.
The introduction to their excellent book, “Feet to the Fire” states: “The Rethinkers [short for Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools] are a group of kids from all over New Orleans and from many different schools. We first got together after Hurricane Katrina, which scattered us all over the country. The time away (six months for some of us, a year for others) was scary but eye-opening.
“We went to new schools, and for the first time most of us saw school bathrooms with toilet paper and soap, libraries with books and hallways with lockers. It made us realize what good schools actually look like. When we got back we wanted to make good schools a reality in New Orleans, and with the help of grown-up community organizers, artists, architects, media experts and educators, we are starting to make real changes.”
“How could they not serve us the best food for our brains and our bodies?” the Rethinkers first asked themselves and then asked the powers that be. They surveyed students at schools in their community and issued annual school food report cards to attract media coverage and capture the attention of decision-makers.
“We wanted to make good schools a reality in New Orleans, and with the help of grown-up community organizers, artists, architects, media experts and educators, we are starting to make real changes.”
They met with school officials and corporate executives from ARAMARK, one of the nation’s largest food service providers, to get them thinking about the quality of school meals and how they could be improved. They then negotiated with ARAMARK to provide healthier food choices. But when that didn’t lead to real change, they held school officials’ and the company’s feet to the fire until a specific agreement was publicly signed promising fresh, locally produced food at least two times a week.
“Feet to the Fire” is a practical and inspiring book written by Rethinkers letting other kids know how they can change their schools. The eye-popping illustrations are the contribution of YA/YA, an after-school arts and professional enrichment program with a two-decade track record of setting New Orleans youth on positive and productive paths. The book provides the back story for the dazzling accomplishments that the HBO film documents.
Lucy Tucker, who is 17, joined Rethink as a fifth grader. She says, “We worked with experts, came up with real solutions and not just more problems.” These kids dream; they document; they take action. They begin by identifying core values such as participatory engagement, critical thinking, deep listening, collaboration and the arts, creative conflict resolution, respect, voice, love, and dignity.
These are not just words on a flip chart. Rethinkers actually lie on the floor and imagine what these values mean to them personally. They play games “that get us active and out of our shyness … Once we feel safe, relaxed and comfortable around each other, we can do great work.”
They also do “circle work,” a sacred space in which to practice “power among” rather than “power over.” They learn how to do research, conduct an interview, hold a press conference. They are adept at expressing themselves. “Some of our favorite forms of creative expression are music, writing, drama, and photography,” their book states.
These kids dream; they document; they take action.
Most importantly, they come with solutions – always plural – and not just problems. Says Jada Carter, 16, a ninth grader at Sci Academy, “We, as Rethinkers know that adults will listen to us if we have great ideas and solutions, instead of just complaining.” Jada confided to her audience at LEH, “I was a little quiet person. People want to change but they don’t know how to change. I want them to know that they can.” Her advice for us grown-ups: “Ask the child. Ask them what they want.”
Their tips for writing recommendations are so practical and effective that I will list them all here: 1) Keep it positive; 2) Keep it realistic; 3) Be short and sweet; 4) Base it on your own experience; 5) Use facts; 6) Have experts to back you up; 7) Do research. Victoria Carter, a pint-sized powerhouse, featured in the HBO film, says of the officials they meet with, “We want someone who’s committed. Who will actually listen and do what they say.”
Says Jada Carter, 16, a ninth grader at Sci Academy, “We, as Rethinkers know that adults will listen to us if we have great ideas and solutions, instead of just complaining.”
No telling where they’ll go from here. Rethinkers number almost a hundred with clubs in six public schools, a summer program, and several citywide interest groups. They have been addressing assemblies of students and teachers around the city and pitching the idea of using restorative practices to deal with problems or disciplinary issues. If all sides of a story can be heard, Jada reasons, “there wouldn’t be so many suspensions for small stuff, and we could learn from our mistakes.”
The mindset of across-the-board zero tolerance is as unpalatable as the half-frozen mystery meat which Rethinkers described at press conferences, and as useless as the spork, a plastic fork/spoon combination banished by Rethinkers from all Recovery School District cafeterias. But the mindset of strict punishment may be even more challenging to change than food and utensils. Rethinkers, keep us all posted, though, on your efforts, because after seeing you in action, at press conferences and on TV, I’m convinced that you can do anything.
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist, and author of “Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rethinkers’ youth news conference July 27
At 10 a.m. Friday, July 27, at Samuel J. Green Charter School, 2319 Valence St. in New Orleans, the Rethinkers will hold a news conference to present their vision for public education: schools that focus on students’ overall wellness instead of standardized test scores. These youngsters, age 8-18, believe that high stakes tests – along with a disengaging curriculum and harsh discipline policies – distance students from learning and create a “test-to-prison” pipeline.
What would it take for schools to produce critical thinkers, creative problem solvers and healthy students? Find out at the Rethinkers’ summer press conference, an annual event that draws city and school leaders as well as local and national media. The Rethinkers will deliver their 2012 school policy recommendations to education officials, principals, charter operators and fellow students. They will also unveil grades from their Third Annual School Food Report Card, ranking food and wellness programs at eight New Orleans public schools.