Over a year ago, the City of New Orleans began working on a public project for racial reconciliation. Tomorrow, just a week after the racially motivated attack of an all black church in Charleston left nine people dead, participants of that citywide effort will present the culmination of a year's worth of work to better understand one of the most difficult subjects in American society today: race.
Members of Welcome Table New Orleans, a branch of the William Winters Institute for Racial Reconciliation, will present projects and reflect on the program tomorrow, June 24, at 10 a.m. at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre. The event is free and open to the public, and in addition to presentations by participants, attendees can expect to hear from Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Deputy Mayor of Citywide Initiatives Judy Reese Morse and representatives from the Urban League, the Winters Institute and the Kellogg Foundation, which has helped fund the initiative.
In 2004, Landrieu, who was then Lieutenant Governor, heard about the Winters Institute, which is based at the University of Mississippi. Landrieu and Morse liked what they saw, but their visit was followed shortly by Hurricane Katrina and had to be placed on the back burner.
Last year, the city held two public meetings inviting community members to talk openly about race. "If we had stopped there, we would not be having this celebration," Morse told Gambit.
"Those meetings were very fiery. There was a lot of anger and frustration and passion, understandlably so, from many of the people that were in that space."
Morse and her team soon had 300 people signed up to meet for a monthly workshop on racial reconciliation. The only requirement was that you live in New Orleans. It was free to participate. The program used writing and poetry to talk about the sensitive issue of race, and some of the poems that came out of the institute will be published in tomorrow's event program.
"It really is about changing the culture," says Morse. The culture of looking away from those issues that are hard, and looking directly at those issues and seeing them as opportunities...None of us alive today created the institution of slavery. None of us did. But we all have to deal with everything that has happened since that time. And if we can see this as an opportunity to address that issue together and then figure out how to address some of the negative aspects of those negative issues together, then we get to a brand new space."
After a year of workshops, retreats and thought exercises, participants were invited to come up with projects they felt would move the city forward in talking about race. Those groups met weekly, and tomorrow they will present the concepts of their projects, then launch into making them a reality.
The city is also about to invite its next batch of program participants, and encourages anyone interested to visit the event tomorrow to ask current participants questions and get feedback.
"The issue of race in America is on the forefront," Morse says. "In Charleston, and you have the young woman who was the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, you have all of the situations where police forces and communities are struggling to find out how to work with one another and serve one another. It is an issue that is before us, it's on our agendas, it's difficult, but we have got to address it.
And it's important to come out and see how a group of New Orleanians have been getting to know one another, talking about this issue and have now worked to create a project that they think reflects their thoughts, their ideas, emotions about this issue of race and its future."