Peter Davis presents his lecture on education and housing in New Orleans. Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).
By Tori Hinshaw
Last week’s talk with Peter Davis of New Orleans’ Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative brought to light many pressing issues in the New Orleans community. He posed the important question, “Disaster brings opportunity, but the question is: Who gets the opportunity?” A question of this merit is essential when thinking of progress and reform in the wake of Katrina, a category 5 hurricane that hit the Crescent City almost 14 years ago.
Although it has been over a decade since the disaster, the city of New Orleans still has not fully recovered. Jericho Road is one of the organizations working to rebuild the city stronger than it was before the hurricane. Davis, Senior Management of Development, Communications, and Programs, summed up this mission with a quote his mother always told him: “When you leave a room, always leave it better than you found it.”
Davis’s talk centered around education and housing and how the two are deeply interconnected. He always harbored a passion for education, especially working outside of the schools on advocacy and holding the school system responsible for the injustices he witnessed.
The statistics Davis presented on the New Orleans school system were jarring, and succinctly drove home the reason for the work he’s doing. Currently, there are 87 public schools as opposed to the 120 prior to Katrina’s destructive path.
The school system is set up on a grading scale, attributing each individual institution with a letter grade (A through F) which presents the quality of education provided. Following Katrina, policy makers in New Orleans decided that any school given below a D rating would be controlled by the state government as opposed to the local. This birthed the charter school movement allowing anyone, regardless of prior experience within the school system, to apply to be head of the school.
Davis comments on the illogicality of this, expressing how “corporate makeup of education in New Orleans is all under the name of reform and all under the name of ‘we are making it better.’” Even though that’s the idea, in reality, only 9 of the total 27 schools have top-tier A or B ratings. Davis attributes this to the low education standards which he believes are “by design to miseducate and under-educate black students.”
The New Orleans education system frequently receives young, oftentimes inexperienced Teach For America qualifiers. These teachers are, more often than not, outsiders to New Orleans life and culture who only stay in the school system for a year or two. “One of the issues we have in this country,” Davis expresses, “is white elite people think they can come into urban areas and think they can change it.”
Jericho Road’s main concern is to build up affordable and energy-efficient homes in the Central City area. “If a child doesn’t have a house, it becomes a big education issue. If a child doesn’t have a house, they don’t have anything,” Davis explained. The issues of education and housing deeply affect one another, giving support to his concerns about the New Orleans education system.
The topic of gentrification often arises when a city such as New Orleans is in the efforts of being rebuilt. Davis unfolded that it can be a good thing to see improvements in your city, but issues remain if New Orleans’ wages do not also improve.
If these wages are benefiting white elite people then housing costs skyrocket, causing detrimental issues for lower-income families. This major disinvestment and lack of maintenance for lower-income communities is what harbors the crime and poverty in the city.
New Orleans still has a long way to go before it fully recovers from the Katrina damage that has been lingering for almost 14 years. A lot of the pre-Katrina residents are “systematically damaged and marginalized. That is why it is important for us to talk about race issues,” Davis urged.
Ultimately, Davis cemented the point that “equality doesn’t mean ‘I’m going forward.’” He encouraged everyone to engage in productive discourse and be comfortable with pushing back and creating the things that you know are right.
“No system,” Davis emphasized, “is what you think it is so always dig deep with the intent to impact.”