LSU urban ethnology classes help, study troubled areas

Walk down any street in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, and Hurricane Katrina survivors tell harrowing stories about the destruction of their neighborhoods and relive the pain of being forced from their homes for months or even years.

To some, the worst thought is the idea that the area’s rich culture —jazz parades, neighborhood potlucks, African-American homeownership passed down through generations— was washed away by the 2005 storm.

In response to Katrina, LSU Associate Professor Joyce Jackson, who was already studying the history of the 9th Ward, shifted the focus of her urban ethnography courses from strictly traditional academic research into a service-learning project.

The endeavor was successful enough in New Orleans that Jackson and her students started a new venture, using similar techniques, in Baton Rouge earlier this year.

Documentation through oral interviewing is at the heart of ethnography. The area of study is aimed at better understanding life in a particular region or culture through observing and interviewing people.

In Baton Rouge, LSU students taking the urban ethnography courses targeted one of the city’s most notorious zip codes — 70805. They helped a nonprofit develop marketing materials. The goal was to raise the nonprofit’s public profile.

The students working in Baton Rouge were confronted with an organization trying to court donors, while serving children predominantly living in single-parent homes. It’s a population of kids who receive government-subsidized meals at school and are all too familiar with killings in their neighborhoods and often violence in their homes. For Jackson, director of LSU’s African and African American Studies program, the mission of her urban ethnography courses is twofold: gain perspective on a community’s resilience in the face of hardship and help better the people’s lives there.

Jackson, who is also an associate professor in LSU’s Department of Geography and Anthropology, has been sending ethnography students to New Orleans for several years.

LSU students embedded themselves in the 9th Ward over the course of several weeks, arming young people with video cameras and voice recorders and teaching them how to conduct oral interviews with their families and neighbors.

“The kids need to know why their communities are so important. You can tell them to go read this or go read that,” Jackson said. “Some will and some won’t. The best way for them to learn is to interview the people they know.”

New Orleans native Chris Edwards worked with one of the first groups of LSU students Jackson sent to the 9th Ward. His job was to take LSU researchers who had never experienced inner-city New Orleans on tours, showing them some of the most impoverished and dangerous areas.

“I was basically showing them our struggles; how sad it could be with all the violence, and people living on top of each other. We saw two-year-old babies just standing outside alone,” Edwards said. “They saw how very slow the recovery process is.”

From there, LSU students branched out, helping to get a health clinic up and running. They also worked with the Upper 9th Ward’s CDC 58:12 child advocacy program.

Community Development Corp. 58:12 takes the second half of its name from a passage in the Book of Isaiah about restoring foundations and rebuilding what has been ruined.

The organization has taken in hundreds of young people, mentoring them in math and literacy during summer camps. Marcia Peterson, the program’s director, credits LSU’s ethnography students with adding a new dimension to their mission. She said their role in the program has been therapeutic for the children.

“Some of the kids in this community come from some of the worst public housing developments in the country,” Peterson said. “Our kids got cameras and recorders and they were taught how to interview their families and people in the community. We’ve adopted the model. We’re using the model they taught us, and we’re going out and doing our own oral interviews.”

LSU anthropology major Vannicea McCray tutored seventh- and eighth-graders. She was in New Orleans with a larger group of students, some of whom taught 9th Ward children how to conduct oral interviews.

McCray said the purpose was for the children to explore how their lives had changed since the storm but also to understand the traditions into which they were born.

“Some of the kids were very determined. They knew what they wanted to do. It was about trying to remind everybody where everything originated and keeping it alive, so they know their way of life wasn’t going to die,” she said.

A record of some of those traditions lives on within the 9th Ward’s House of Dance & Feathers museum. After the storm, Jackson’s ethnography students helped clean and catalog artifacts from the museum depicting a neighborhood culture dating to the 1800s.

There were newspaper clipping chronicling the lives of musicians from Fats Domino to Trombone Shorty and traditional outfits worn by Mardi Gras Indians, African Americans who named themselves after Native Americans as an homage for aiding runaway slaves.

Ronald Lewis, director and curator of the museum, talks about the people, including his family, “who came out of the sugar cane fields and the Mississippi Delta and built the 9th Ward.”

“It was where the land was cheap,” Lewis said. “Right here in the 9th Ward was where our people chased the American Dream. This is where black people could own homes. The dream is that if you work hard, you could have it … Preserving our culture is our therapy.”

Last spring, Jackson moved LSU’s urban ethnography service learning project to Baton Rouge, where students worked with iHope Inc., a mentoring program for at-risk youth. Program founder Franceria Moore says many of the children she serves come from desperate circumstances.

LSU student Dari Green worked with iHope to create grassroots marketing materials — videos, brochures and flyers —to spread awareness and raise money for a program serving roughly 100 students at a time through after-school activities, internship programs and food drives.

Green focused on getting information about the kids and understanding exactly how the program was helping them and their parents.

“Part of ethnography is understanding what’s going on around you. These students in the iHope program are presented with a world of crime and poverty. The group says that it doesn’t have to stay that way for those kids,” Green said. “There’s a way out.”

LSU students Sylviane Greensword and Demetria Jones-Smith learned from children who rarely feel safe.

“These students were exploring their need for safety, their need for affirmation and their need for hope,” Greensword said.

“They need to know they are not useless people and they have the right to aspire for a better life.”

“Our goal was advocacy,” Jones-Smith said. “We didn’t just want to be outsiders looking in.”