Post-Colonialist Cacophony: Native Thoughts on the New Orleans Education Experiment

Tony Zanders in New Orleans

For the past sixteen months, I’ve studied, investigated, challenged, promoted, questioned, and embraced the education reform dialogue surrounding my city. Ultimately, I’ve oscillated from a critic (as a native, tax-paying, product of the public school system deemed worthless), to an advocate (as a former director-level staffer at a non-profit funded by national corporate foundations), to a critic again (as a parent navigating the system in question.) This journey has subjected me to insult from fellow reformers who were unaware of my New Orleans heritage, and ostracization from fellow natives who speak uninformed of data supporting progress in our schools.

After sixteen months of reflection, and sufficient distancing from the rhetoric to form my thoughts, I have finally had time to process my emotions alongside data and anecdote from both well-meaning and ill-intentioned individuals, arriving at the following conclusion. Note that this conclusion is not a tacit endorsement or disapproval of the education reform efforts in New Orleans, but rather a set of unshakable observations that I have yet been able to reconcile.

I remain skeptical of the motive of urban education reformers who fail to acknowledge the colonialist tenor in which their work is carried out.

I’m simultaneously grateful for those who forgo lucrative careers, committing their lives towards improving those of disenfranchised youth. Some of them have become good friends whose intentions I have no doubt. But without true empathy, work of the American public servant in the 21st century will always bear the eerie semblance of post-modern colonialism, further imposed through gentrification, classroom socio-behavioral censorship, revisionism/negationism in history curricula, and the like.

Insult compounds injury when the bigger picture of community-wide disenfranchisement is obfuscated behind self-serving “academic gains”. These issues weigh heavy on my conscience as I sit in an online audience of New Orleanians I was born with, raised among, learned alongside, as we are lectured to by experts on us, our past, our future, our potential, in commemoration of America’s largest man-made disaster, as mothers, fathers, and children are placed under a microscope, dehumanized as unwitting participants in “the Big Easy’s Grand Experiment.”

When people ask me to share my opinion on what’s happening in my city, I am oft inclined to say that when all of the paid contracts expire, the TFA and Americorps-esque loan forgiveness awards are maxed out, when neighborhood lines have been sufficiently revised to reflect “urban planning worthiness”, and the noise of the auction floor quiets from the highest bidders being awarded their goods, those who were fortunate enough to escape geographical eviction will be left to clean up the lab equipment, needles, and other refuse from the great experiment. But of course, the wage for their janitorial services won’t allow them to enjoy fruits of their gentrified labor. Sorry for the uncomfortably familiar American narrative. Actually, I’m not sorry.

I am happy however to offer a curated reading list to point your web browsers to in case you’re interested in the “real story” on Education in a Post-Katrina New Orleans:

(In case your appetite for opinions of the New York Times variety wasn’t satiated: Racially Disparate Views of New Orleans’s Recovery After Hurricane Katrina)

And for the more scholarly among us:

I cross-posted this on Medium.