Today’s guest blogger is Hamilton Simons-Jones, a partner with Interfaith Works in New Orleans who has been involved in youth and social justice work in the city since moving there for college 11 years ago. Interfaith Works partners with a wide range of faith communities and other organizations to do hands-on service and social action projects. They are the New Orleans site for “Inspired to Serve,” the first federally-funded interfaith youth project via Learn and Serve America.
It’s that time of year in New Orleans again. Laura Bush was here last week. As the summer swelter of August builds up to the 29th, the parade of dignitaries and national news media coalesces to revisit the story of where New Orleans is on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We still have lots of parades in New Orleans. We are still putting one foot in front of the other, re-envisioning and rebuilding our city. And we still have lots of work ahead.
But one story that is missing in the coverage of New Orleans is what the young people are doing. I mean the school-age kids. Since Hurricane Katrina was just a glimmer in God’s eye, diverse faith communities have come together in the absence of government to open their arms, hearts, heads, homes, wallets, prayers and places of worship for New Orleanians. And the youth have led the way.
As my good friend, mentor and partner at Interfaith Works, Erik Schwarz, has witnessed and facilitated, interfaith youth work in New Orleans is not just about talk dialogue. Since Katrina, youth from different faiths are not just sitting and discussing how to overcome differences, but acting together to build a more just community. They are working to ensure that young people are engaged, considered, and consulted in making decisions about rebuilding the city they lead.
I have had the good fortune to witness some of that this summer. A few weeks ago, I attended a press conference hosted by Kids Rethinking New Orleans Schools. They spent the summer rethinking school lunches. The students – Vietnamese, African American, White, Buddhist, Catholic, Baptist – partnered with the Food for Life feeding ministry at the ISKCON Hindu temple in the process of understanding different food options and where their food comes from. They presented a list of recommendations directly to the Recovery School District Superintendent on how to improve the food and cafeterias at their schools, beginning with “No More Sporks”, and including serving fresh local foods and vegetarian options to meet the dietary needs of all students. The superintendent turned out to be a pretty smart guy. He took notes.
And then there’s the youth of the Gulfsouth Youth Action Fund Youth Advisory Board. These middle and high school students of different faiths have developed their own mini-foundation. In their first year, they granted more than $10,000 to youth-led and youth-driven efforts in the rebuilding, ranging from the first youth dance studio in New Orleans East organized by the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, to home rebuilding projects led by students from 20 public, private and parochial high schools across the city through Youth Rebuilding New Orleans.
The youth of the Gulfsouth Youth Action Fund recently partnered with the B’nai Maimonides young philanthropists at the Jewish Endowment Foundation to look at making grants that focus specifically on bringing together youth of different faiths in service learning projects.
And the adults are recognizing this new wave of interfaith youth activism. I recently came across a research study by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Trauma Team, in which they interviewed more than 2,000 fourth through twelfth grade students in the area. They found that the youths’ first concern, regardless of faith background, was, “How can I rebuild my community?”
It is said often that today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. In New Orleans, youth are saying loudly and clearly: “Today’s youth are the leaders of today!” And they are living it.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel, the Interfaith Youth Core, or Learn and Serve America.