Rebuilding Communities after Crisis – NCA’s Opening Address

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans rebuilt its community – a task that is still in process. At the opening keynote of the National Communication Association’s 97th annual convention, the convention team looked to the host city for inspiration. To amplify the voice of the city, NCA invited Jim Pate and Andrew Shahan to speak about life in New Orleans since Katrina and called on Dr. Larry Frey to address the vital relationship between scholarship and community engagement.

Jim Pate, the Executive Director of the New Orleans Habitat for Humanity, has been a leading advocate for the citizens of New Orleans who were displaced by Katrina. Andrew Shahan serves as the principal at Arise Academy in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a new early childhood charter school that serves local students and that the mayor’s office calls “a silver lining to the cloud of Katrina.” Dr. Larry Frey is the Ronald K. Calgaard Professor of Communication and Social Justice at Trinity University where is scholarship connects communication practice to lived experience.

“You’re here to bring a voice to this city,” says Pate, who re-entered New Orleans 11 days after Katrina. He recounts his experience: “Everywhere we looked, it was brown and gray up to the waterline. Bushes, Trees, Houses. No colors. Brown and gray.” 185,000 dwelling units were lost in the flood, displacing hundreds of thousands, including the many musicians and artists who gave New Orleans its unique flair (Among others, Harry Connick, Jr. partnered with Pate to establish a program to bring musicians back to New Orleans by providing temporary housing). Pate’s building and renovation programs have utilized 150,000 volunteers in the days since Katrina. He calls his one effort among many.

“When you’re so far behind academically and your academics are raised, other parts of your life suffer,” says Shahan. His school, Arise Academy, placed into Dr. Charles Drew Elementary in 2009, transformed the worst school in New Orleans. Students there had no other place to go in the ravaged Ninth Ward. To counteract the issues of falling behind, Shahan researched high performers in colleges to find out what they did to get there. As a result, his students in grades K-3 are involved in the strict academic preparation, visual arts, music, athletics – 200 scholars at his school play tennis. And test scores are improving, giving hope to those who had little.

“Scholars’ desire to make a difference has been fueled by a seismic shift in the academy,” says Frey, who calls this movement “engaged scholarship” – universities engaging their communities to better them. The communication discipline has been a leader in the movement toward this kind of engagement. Frey notes that the quest toward engagement is never about whether we should engage, but rather how that engagement happens. So what form should engagement take?

Academics have the responsibility to create literature that promotes social justice and furthers the interventions we can make in communities, says Frey. Public dialogues can create opportunities for healing in communities. Skills trainings can help those in poverty toward upward mobility. Protest and advocacy movements can raise awareness for societal issues. Public relations campaigns can raise money, awareness, and advocacy for causes that have no voice. Video documentaries can change perceptions and shape policy. These examples and others like them create opportunities for scholars to use their symbolic resources to make substantive change in their communities.

“These scholars try to make a difference through their research rather than hoping that someone else will make a difference with their research,” says Frey. “Our disciplinary practice occurs within the world … not outside, above, or beyond it.”  A dynamic blend of communication theory and practice can create, sustain, and, when necessary, rebuild our communities.

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