Foreword: Welcome to NOLA

For a city that’s nicknamed “The Big Easy,” things in New Orleans are far from simple. This bend of the Mississippi was the first inland stable enough to support an outpost to control upriver trading in the United States. As the city grew, it developed a mysticism and myth of otherness about it. With the Acadian people settling to the west after being banished from Canada, it’s no wonder the city is known as a haven for those who don’t quite fit in elsewhere in the U.S. The diverse culture has nods to European, North Caribbean and just about anyone else who wishes to contribute.

There’s a joke somewhere in there about how lofty it is to compare a port city on the dirty coast to the bicoastal elite, but ask anyone who’s lived here, and you’ll come to find out it’s not a rare opinion. Given the choice, 95% of the people who grow up in New Orleans won’t leave. It’s a special place in a unique position, seemingly on the verge of breakdown, but always breaking through with pioneering inventive music, deep roots and new twists on traditional Southern and Creole food, and writing that’s changed the course of American literature.

 Megan Dunbar (left) and Jana King (right) get the keys to their new NOLA home, 2017

Megan Dunbar (left) and Jana King (right) get the keys to their new NOLA home, 2017

 

Given the choice, 95% of the people who grow up in New Orleans won’t leave.

Both Megan and I grew up on the Northshore of Lake Ponchartrain, about 45 minutes north of the city. Because of our proximity to the city, we both spent our childhoods taking school trips and family trips into the city. We learned about beignets, walked around the Audubon Zoo, and were quizzed on the economic importance of the Mississippi River. But these shared experiences stopped when it came to our family’s view of the city. While Megan’s parents let her skip school to attend Jazzfest on the weekends, my mother couldn’t sleep until I returned from marching in Mardi Gras parades with my high school’s marching band. When it came time to go to LSU for college, my mother would worry each time I told her I was going to visit friends who went to UNO. As much fun as I would have on my weekend trips to the city, I never imagined I would be the kind of person who would live in the Crescent City.

When I told my family I was planning to move to New Orleans to expand my business, they told me, point-blank, that there was a greater chance I would die. This well-intentioned remark came from a genuine concern over my safety as a young woman, but it struck me with doubt as I moved to a new place. In the south, families stick with what we know because of the trust in community. Families like mine tend to to stay in one place for generations, with an emphasis being placed on staying near your relatives. Your family will look out for you, and protect you, should anything happen. It’s difficult not to think that many families in the South are afraid of venturing out, because they fear the unknown.

Megan’s family, on the other hand, jumped at the opportunity to welcome her back to the south. They’re from New Orleans originally, but spent her childhood traveling the country, never living anywhere for more than four years at a time until landing in South Carolina. She’d been living in San Francisco, working remotely as a web developer, when I wrangled her into helping me with the ever-increasing workload I had taken on. She’d been looking for an excuse to move home, claiming the only reason she’d ever leave the West Coast was if living in New Orleans became a realistic option. Between the two of us, our families represent the opposite sides of the Southern identity spectrum. Each of our families root their identity in the South, but for mine that results in a fear of leaving, while for hers, it presents as a cozy place to return.

 

Each of our families root their identity in the South, but for mine that results in a fear of leaving, while for hers, it presents as a cozy place to return.

Camille Stelly feels similarly to the Dunbars. She’s a 25 year old designer who grew up in Florida, but spent time visiting her family in New Orleans. “In some ways I still feel like I lived here when I grew up,” she told me as she and her mother, local advocate and architect Amy Stelly, had coffee with me. When it came time for Camille to go to university, she initially chose a school in Chicago, but ultimately found herself at LSU, where she received her diploma.

 Jana King (middle) talks with Camille Stelly, right, and Amy Stelly, left

Jana King (middle) talks with Camille Stelly, right, and Amy Stelly, left

“I identify more here. I'm a little quirky. I'm more artsy. I'd be pursuing my career differently in Florida. Had I stayed there i'd be doing more formal theater costuming training. Here I can do my own thing,” Camille said.

I can personally attest to the appeal of New Orleans’s famous “Do What You Wanna” motto. When I decided to go down the path of creative entrepreneurship, it was clear that if I moved to any big city in the world I’d be going up against traditional business types with MBAs in everything I was learning about from Wikipedia and Pinterest articles. But in New Orleans, the community respects those who decide to bootstrap their futures.

But in New Orleans, the community respects those who decide to bootstrap their futures.

That’s not to say that this city doesn’t have problems, it’s got big ones. There’s failing infrastructure, lack of health resources, and a severe struggle for equality in education. Not to mention each year storms brew in the Gulf of Mexico to try to wash us off the map. Since our brains are hardwired to favor negative information about the world around us because it’s more useful to us in survival, it’s no wonder that when anyone from New Orleans travels, conversation circles back to these issues, and the overarching storyline that is Hurricane Katrina. But beneath the dirt and the headlines going national about crime, weather, and tragedy, there’s a beautiful community of people who do things to move the city’s narrative forward.

This was evident when we spoke to Leslie Leavoy, an education advocate working with Democrats for Education Reform in New Orleans. I met with Leslie and learned that she grew up in a small town in Louisiana. After working on a campaign for a Louisiana Senator in Washington D.C., Leslie returned to Louisiana and has found herself focused on transforming how people in this city view education.

“After Hurricane Katrina, there was no one here, but decisions had to be made. We still had kids who needed education, but there wasn’t a lot of discussion of how to best suit their needs. Now we have a system that wasn’t created with the family’s perspective in mind,” she told me. “What we’re working on is how to best suit the family’s needs, so that we work the children’s education into their schedule, not the other way around.”

 Jana King talks with Leslie Leavoy, left

Jana King talks with Leslie Leavoy, left

Leslie and I talked for a while about the impact the tourism industry has on this city, which is a large part of why the state of Louisiana is even on the map. The tourism industry provides 80,000 jobs to residents, and contributes over 6 billion dollars to the local economy each year. Regardless of what dangers the media focuses on, it seems that the 9 million visitors to the city we have each year are not letting fear stop them from enjoying The Big Easy.

And really, New Orleans does not need your fear. We need the world to do more than see us a trashcan filled with panhandlers they can tour for a weekend in the early spring. We need the country to see us in its future, so we can prepare for it. We’re one of the most friendly groups of people in the world, eager to stop and share a story or make a connection with those we see on the street.

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New Orleans does not need your fear.
We need the world to do more than see us a trashcan filled with panhandlers they can tour for a weekend in the early spring.
We need the country to see us in its future, so we can prepare for it.


It was completely by chance that a friend I made while at LSU connected me with his high school best friend, Megan Skipper, one of the cofounders of Foreword South. That’s the magic of being southern. We make connections in a way that parallels professional networking, but we don’t do it for personal gain. Instead, I reminded a friend of someone he loved and he thought we would get along. Now, five years later, I’ve been invited to work alongside her on a passion project.

In its first six months, Foreword South told the stories of southern progressives who chose to stay and improve their city, rather than seek social or political acceptance in the north. When I heard how Dillon, Ashley and Megan were working to tell the stories of southern progressives, I jumped at the chance to contribute. That’s what I was taught to do, lend a hand when you have a skill that is useful to your neighbor.

Foreword South: NOLA will share a look into the city’s future through the lens of community members working today.

Since Megan Dunbar and I have started reaching out to individuals working in this city, we’ve heard incredible tales of identity exploration, career ventures and overcoming adversity. But more than that, we’ve seen firsthand how people have blossomed in this city that we are only just discovering. Foreword South NOLA will share a look into the city’s future through the lens of community members working today. Our hope is that this will connect those communities, open people’s eyes to hidden movements happening in the South, and bring people with dreams to the forefront of the Southern narrative. Join us on our journey by connecting on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


-- J. K.