Notes from NOLA: reflections from the Ashoka U Exchange

Written by Julie Adair

Ashoka U Exchange 2016 took place in New Orleans – or NOLA as the locals call it.  Delegates came prepared to party, as well as to learn loads and meet folk from all over the world.  And we weren’t disappointed.

In a post-Katrina world, New Orleans is still struggling with the physical and emotional scars of the hurricane, even ten years on. So AshokaU’s decision to offer a number of visits to social innovation projects away from the conference hotel made for a lot of tough choices in planning my schedule for the week.  Get out and about or stay at the Sheraton for some pretty interesting sessions?  Luckily for you, gentle reader, my colleague, Scott Preston, went on a lot of these site visits and wrote about them here.


Streetcar on Canal Street

I plumped for just the one in the end, and hopped on a bus out to the Carollton District to hear all about the Lens project. As Carollton is considered to be on ‘high ground’ – in New Orleans terms, that’s a slight slope – it was spared flood damage in 2005.  That doesn’t mean, though, that it avoided the fall-out of city politics, poor emergency management or the challenges of rebuilding a city and a neighbourhood.  The Lens is based in Carollton and is an apolitical, digital-only news service for New Orleans.  It sprung up from founder Karen Gadbois’ blog on misappropriation of federal funds post –Katrina, as well as inept rebuilding efforts of historic housing.  With running costs of $700,000 The Lens aims to cover stories which traditional media can’t – or won’t – and has become a major thorn in the side of the city and its politicians.  It now has a National reputation and is held up as a shining example of what non-partisan, non-profit news can deliver in an era where investigative journalism has often succumbed to the thirty-second soundbite or skateboarding kittens.

In principle, despite most of the Ashoka U Exchange taking place at the Sheraton downtown,Tulane University was the official host and we spent the final day of the conference on campus. The city had celebrated Mardi Gras only the week before so one of the trees in the main campus quad was newly-decorated with parade beads where they will remain hanging until next year’s festivities.


Mardi Gras beads on a campus tree at Tulane University

We had a series of short keynotes as part of this final day and the absolute stand-out was Michael J Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas. Based in Highland Hills, an area whose population is 97% minority, 50% of whom are unemployed or with a salary of less than $30,000 (£21,000), Paul Quinn was failing badly when Sorrell took over in 2008. He was the fifth Principal in as many years and the college was basically broke.  He has turned it around to be one of the most innovative small colleges in America and it is rapidly becoming a model for urban higher education by focusing on academic rigor, experiential learning, and entrepreneurship. Unafraid to make bold decisions, he decided to turn the school’s (American) football pitch into a two-acre vegetable garden, saying, ‘It’s better to eat healthy food than watch bad football.’  Ironically, the produce they grow there is now being sold to the Dallas Cowboys training facility.


Michael J Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College

Sorrell’s vision of We over Me is at the heart of his belief that urban colleges should ‘turn themselves outward and address the needs of their surrounding communities’. Which is exactly what he has done at Paul Quinn in re-imagining the ambitions, confidence and future of his students and their neighbourhood.

New Orleans is a fascinating place and, as is often said, unlike any other part of the USA.  One of the guidebooks I read urged the reader in virtually every chapter to ‘Get out of the French Quarter!’ Indeed, if you like Disneyland with booze (a lot of booze), Bourbon Street can be a little overwhelming. But everything is very walkable and, in striking out a little from the few blocks of partying, you can find the real city.  Again, you can also see the legacy of Katrina wherever you go.  Like the mysterious hieroglyphics you’ll sometimes see spray-painted on the sides of houses.  These were left by the emergency services after many parts of the city were evacuated and, while many houses were re-painted, some left these markings intact as a kind of ‘badge of honour’ to show they survived.


Signs of survival in NOLA

That same tenacity lives on in the people of New Orleans, too.  They are passionate about where they live and fight hard to keep it going, in the face of poverty, often questionable city politics and, of course, the elements.  Having the Exchange there this year meant that we saw many examples of communities and individuals, both in NOLA and elsewhere, finding innovative solutions to the challenges they face – and keeping going.


Further reading:

If you’re interested in a blow-by-blow account of the horrors of Katrina and how both a city and a country failed to cope, check out ‘The Great Deluge’ by Professor Douglas Brinkley.

If you want to understand the people and their beloved city, pre- and post-Katrina, look out for ‘Nine Lives’ by Dan Baum.

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