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How To Leave New Orleans

Janet Wilson

Most of my academic life I’ve questioned how schools impact settlers’ integration into communities: How do people become members of society?  How do recalcitrant gatekeepers become welcoming neighbors? These questions have moved me literally and figuratively around the world. Nine years ago, those questions carried me to New Orleans and helped transform me into a New Orleanian. Until recently, I haven’t spent much time considering what full-fledged community members go through when they voluntarily leave their homes. That is until I decided to take a job in another state.

Next week I become the Founding Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, MI.  As Dean, I'm charged with establishing a groundbreaking, innovative College of Urban Education that will develop teachers and administrators who will instruct and lead effectively in urban school districts. It’s an opportunity similar to what historic educators such as Dewey, Dubois and Mann had to take. Educators are often compelled to blaze a new trail from the institutions that credentialed them. 

Postsecondary institutions must be more responsive to the acute and future needs of urban communities. High-skilled workers, including teachers are in demand. Institutions must find ways to recruit and develop teaching talent especially from the communities that need quality most. Sadly, in our current reform environment, few people make a strong case for colleges of education to address the demand for educators. I will make that case.

When change is needed you have to move. Sometimes that means geographically. New Orleans continues to teach me lessons about mobility. Chiefly she taught me that home is not necessarily where you live; home is what your stand for. Urban communities need to be included in education reform. Communities also need inclusive universities to accept the call for change. I stand for communities and colleges. I will live in Grand Rapids and make a home for my family and me.

But my love of New Orleans makes the transition bittersweet. Who says New Orleans is a cliquish city? I didn’t know a single person before I arrived. A few months later, I became a Community Coffee celebrity; married a fan, and we made a beautiful family together. I helped educate hundreds children and adults, and taught dozens of kids how to knot a bow tie. I even have Norman Robinson’s cell phone number.

I dined with Bill Clinton at Galatoire's, and talked racial politics with Leah Chase. Anderson Cooper interviewed me in front of the Musicians’ Village, and I marched with Terence Blanchard in an impromptu Super Bowl victory second line. Caught in the middle of post-Katrina dispute with the Archdiocese, congregants of St. Augustine Church formed a circle around me and prayed the devil out of me; I joined my first church a year later. New Orleans inspired hundreds of columns; dozens of academic pieces and a book. I even got to wax poetic on the radio from time to time.

New Orleans became home because she allowed me to pursue so many of my dreams. I am so grateful. But place is often the resenting sacrifice of our dream chasing. My chase leads me to Grand Rapids. But I won’t be a stranger.  I stand for our community. 

See you on the fairgrounds.

Andre Perry, Ph.D. (Twitter: @andreperrynola) is the Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University.  He’s also the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.