Thursday, August 2, 2007

Q & A- Jenny Heffernan

Yesterday, at 6 am, I jumped in a car with someone who, at the time, was a random stranger, Justin Tye. Six hours, 3 maps, and a few sighs of frustration later, we arrived in Jena, Louisiana to participate in a protest regarding the Jena 6. To catch yall up on the case, it involves racial tensions in small town Louisiana, culminating in the symbolic hanging of nooses from a tree, a response to the attempted integration by an African American high school student. After the demonstration, fellow protesters mingled and discussed the case, among other things. One woman I spoke with inquired as to my whereabouts and future plans; upon hearing that I hope to return to Nola post-grad, she responded with a striking question: “Why would you want to join a state where people hang nooses from trees?”

What a question. Without thinking, I gave the New Orleanian my heartfelt response: “Welll…. So it doesn’t happen anymore”. I admit, it’s a lofty goal, to hope to reverse discrimination, but, to be honest, my experience with Duke Engage has empowered me to aspire to such impossibilities. The mission of this program is to give us students an opportunity to, quote ““develop the valuable skills and self-knowledge that result from an immersive service experience”, and I believe that this goal has been realized. Thanks to the generosity of our employers, the encouragement of New Orleanians, the guidance of our directors, and the fellowship amongst ourselves, every student here has experienced the desired immersion- not only have we dipped into New Orleans, but also into ourselves. A lot of tough questions, similar to the one posed to me yesterday in Jena, have been presented to us through the course of our stay here, and, to be honest, it hasn’t always been easy to respond. Are we being useful? What is the best contribution we can make to New Orleans? Are we just getting in the way? Is our help and support meaningful? Is rebuilding New Orleans pointless?

Enter wise New Orleans native numero dos. Wearing a hat with the word “Answer” across the top, he approached me and said, as if reading my mind, “I’ll tell you what the answer is. It’s this. It’s us. It’s right here: look around, the answer is here.” While he was immediately referring to the rally gathered in support of the accused, his remark applies to the group assembled here. The answer to the questions we’ve all faced, students and employers alike, is staring straight at us in the community we’ve formed. While the effects of Katrina are still being felt throughout this city, not all of them are negative, I’ve found. From the disaster has sprung an opportunity for people of every possible background to unite in a common cause; as a coworker remarked, “it gives us a good feeling, hope”. Demonstrated here is the strength of the human spirit to perservere, and the potential for inter-personal connection and cooperation, regardless of race, status, or other social dividers. This lesson, among the others we’ve learned, are things that all gathered here can further apply to other aspects and situations in our lives, which is something we all appreciate as being something very special.

To close, I’ll quote one more New Orleans native I’ve encountered (the people here are just brimming with wisdom!). Larry, a Mardi Gras Indian, shared with me that which he has learned through his lifetime here in New Orleans: the greatest joy in life is knowing what life is actually about. New Orleans seems to have a solid grasp on this knowledge: its about people, relationships, and community; its about rebuilding, growing, and changing; its about helping and allowing yourself to be helped. I count ourselves lucky to have been able to glean some of this knowledge from the city, and believe we will all honor our responsibility to share it with those we encounter in our next adventures. Thanks so much to all of you who’ve made it possible- here’s to you, your continued progress, and a swift return to New Orleans !