Here’s an easy question: name something in Louisiana that’s sure to bring everyone together and make them happy.
“Crawfish!” says a group of children.
We’re at Robert Russa Moton Charter School in New Orleans East. The third graders are out and about, climbing all over the playground and finding respite in the shade of an enormous oak tree. It’s an elementary school with plenty of young, unbridled energy running around celebrating the end of another school year. Off to the side of this rambunctious scene is the group responsible for putting together the boil.
“It’s the Big Bosse thing,” says Tony Bernard. “It’s a Dad’s club at Moton Charter school. We out here giving love back to the children. We have children so we’re just trying to make an impression on the rest of the kids. You know real men do real things, so that’s what we’re doing.”
That’s Tony Bernard. He’s one of about two dozen dads who came out for this, the inaugural event of Moton’s Big Bosse Dad’s Club.
“I wish I had it when I was growing up,” he continues. “It probably would have made a big difference; I could have been more things different than I’m doing now. If I would have had someone who was there for me when I didn’t have the resources or didn’t have the need – somebody would have stepped up to do it for us – a lot of us would be better off.”
The dads have sold more than 300 pounds of crawfish and raised about $2200. Jarard Ross and Orin Barthelomy are already thinking about how to reinvest that money into their community.
Jarard & Orin: “What we plan to do is take care of the kids who don’t have the fathers,” says Jarard. “So the money we raise will help them with uniforms and school supplies, anything they need.”
“We just want to make sure they’re good,” continues Orin.
To the kids running around here, this is a great time. And from the school’s perspective, this is a very successful fundraiser. But there’s something else going on here. To New Orleans East at large the work of these dads fills a gap that needs attention: the active role of male leadership in the community.
A few blocks from the school is Arthur Busby’s house. He’s the president of Community Legion,a men’s organization, trying to “get the fathers to do better by their children.”
Arthur’s organization pushed for the Dad’s Club at Moton to get off the ground. It’s his vision that has larger shaped today’s boil.
He believes that, “We need to get the men involved in what’s going on in the East. We have a lot of children out here who live in single family homes. The fathers are not in their lives; they’ve got their moms, but their fathers are not involved. And the idea was to start this thing so we could help in certain ways.”
Over the years that help has taken all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s cleaning up blighted property; other times it’s getting people to vote. There was even a case when “a young lady out there that had five kids and her husband was incarcerated. Her kids only had one uniform, so she had to wash and iron them five days a week. So we went out and bought her five uniforms so they could go to school.”
Arthur says he’d like his organization to have an even bigger impact in New Orleans East but connecting with organizations like schools and churches has been difficult. Membership is low. Harder still is recruiting new members.
From what he’s seen, “A lot of fathers and mothers are out there working, making a living. They’re making minimum wage. And I guess they can’t afford to take off and do things with their kids. If you’re earning $7.35 an hour, unless you got two jobs, you’re not earning any money.”
Across town in the Village de l’est neighborhood is another member of Community Legion, Ed Blouin. Today he’s acting as tour guide through the East.
He drives me through his neighborhood and we pass one overgrown lot after another. Ed points out the foundations of some homes that are beginning to split because of the unstable ground they were built on. Abandoned cars and old furniture are scattered alongside Michoud Blvd, one of the main roads of Village de l’est.
In the 40 plus years that Ed’s lived here, he’s seen interest in the East wax and wane. It was strong after Katrina, but has slumped back down. He thinks, “This is like suburbia: you come home in the East and you come home from work, park your car and go in your house. Or if you’re retired, you never come out. That’s not going to heal it.”
In Ed’s eyes, the future of the East depends on younger generations embracing it; and the likelihood that they will depends on how their relationship to it. For him and the members of Community Legion, having strong male leadership will eventually lead toward the community’s sustainability. Because “when men are in children’s lives, their lives are better. And I’m a perfect example of that,” says Ed.
The first time Ed had a male teacher - right around the 6th grade - it had a profound impact on him. He became more focused, a better student. From that point on, he sought out male role models whenever he could.
“And I found out through experience when I was dealing with kids that young people listen more to me than a girlfriend or relative,” says Ed. “And everyone would look at me and say ‘That’s what it takes.’ Cause the kids will look up to males.”
Back at Moton Charter School, one of the leaders of the Big Bosse Dad’s Club, Brian Richberg, explains why he’s here today.
“Statistics show that if you have parental involvement it raises the moral, grades get better. And there’s a special presence when fathers are involved. We had a lot of fathers who were business owners that work in various areas who have taken time off. We actually had about three or four meetings prior to this session, so that was putting in extra time to say, ‘Hey, we're going to be there.’”
And he offers his own bit of inspiration for the future.
“And so we’re grateful for our fathers because if we make an impact in the community then it means it gets stronger,” says Brian. “And as the community gets stronger it makes a stronger city, a stronger state and a stronger nation. It really brings a strong sense of pride to our kids to have their fathers here. And when you make that investment, you’re always going to get the returns.”