Friday, July 27, 2012

Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute Concludes This Weekend With Festival of Performance

Urban Bush Women have returned to New Orleans for another of their legendary Summer Leadership Institutes. This summer's theme is centered around the question, "Why are people poor?" You can catch some of their work this Saturday at a series of performances they are hosting. Below are the details, from a local press release:

Internationally renowned dance company Urban Bush Women (UBW) have returned to New Orleans for the fourth summer to host its long-running, nationally acclaimed Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) from July 20-29 at Tulane University. The SLI is a 10-day intensive training workshop bringing together artists and community leaders from all over the city, state, country - and even the world - to learn about UBW’s unique approach to utilizing the arts for civic engagement and social change. Participants from New Orleans and Louisiana are given priority and scholarships are offered. The SLI is co-directed by New Orleans arts professionals.

This year’s theme, “Why Are People Poor? Demystifying the Opportunity Gap in America,” will explore and lift-up the causes and effects of the wealth and opportunity gap in America and culminate in a final site-specific festival entitled “Wealth: Reclaiming and Reframing, A Festival of Art, Place and Ideas” on Saturday, July 28, throughout the city. According to UBW Founding Artistic Director, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, “Poverty matters!”  In discussing why she selected the theme of poverty for the 2012 SLI, Zollar said “issues around our country’s growing wealth gap, especially the racial wealth gap, are an ongoing concern for me born out of my own family’s circumstance and the implications the wealth gap has for our local communities and our nation. The lack of discourse in our local and national political conversations is alarming. This subject is close to us all, rich, middle class, working class or poor.”

The SLI participant schedule will includes teach-ins on poverty, daily UBW dance technique classes and a guided artistic process to create the final performances. Participants will also experience “undoing racism training” facilitated by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an internationally acclaimed pioneer in the field, which Zollar credits with deepening the company’s awareness regarding poverty and its intersection with race and racism. For the second year, Liz Lerman, internationally acclaimed choreographer and MacArthur Fellow, will join the SLI faculty.
Lerman and Zollar, are co-creating a related artistic work around issues of economic equality.

For the first time, UBW will present a special pre-institute workshop on Thursday, July 19th entitled “LGBQTA 101”.  Through the workshop, participants will become more familiar with basic Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer & Ally history and culture and learn tools they can use in their community and cultural practices.

Wealth: Reclaiming and Reframing, A Festival of Art Place and Ideas
Saturday, July 28th from 9:30 to 6:30

Performance 1
Time: 9:30am -11:30am
Location: Christian Unity Baptist Church, 1700 Conti St. (Treme)

Performance 2 & Community Sing
Time: 12:30pm -4:00pm
Location: Ashe Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd (Central City)

Performance 3
Time: 5:00pm - 6:30pm
Location: Tekrema Center for Art & Culture, 5640 Burgundy St. (Lower Ninth Ward)

Admission to the festival is free! UBW’s 2012 SLI is supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Tulane University’s Gulf South Center.

More information:

Urban Bush Women

Urban Bush Women’s mission is to create dance and to create community.

Founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Women (UBW) seeks to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance. We do this from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community in order to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond. We do this by facilitating the use of art as a means of addressing issues of social justice and encouraging civic engagement. Based in Brooklyn, we aspire to ensure continuity by strengthening and expanding our international community via ongoing professional education, development of new audiences, nurturing young talent and presenting bold, life-affirming dance works in a variety of settings including at our annual Summer Leadership Institute.

New Orleans Leadership & Partners

Since coming to New Orleans in 2009, Urban Bush Women has extended almost 60 scholarships to New Orleans participants. The SLI is lead locally by Team NOLA, a local body of artists and SLI alumni, who co-create and co-plan the SLI in collaboration with UBW. 2nd Line Consulting and Moving Stories Inc, New Orleans-based arts-consulting firms, led by Stephanie McKee and Takema Robinson-Bradberry, also SLI alumni, facilitate Team NOLA’s local planning efforts and goals which include connecting SLI to the greater New Orleans’ arts and social justice community. UBW’s New Orleans partners include Tulane University and People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Other local area partners include the Institute for Women’s Ethnic Studies (IWES), Ashe Cultural Arts Center, Tekrema Center for Arts and Culture, Christian Unity Baptist Church, Golden Feather Mardi Gras Indian Restaurant, Junebug Productions, Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective and Mondo Bizarro.

Background on the Summer Leadership Institute

Urban Bush Women’s SLI grew out of the company’s earliest community engagement work, which took place in New Orleans from 1990-1992. The SLI began at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1997 and was moved to UBW’s home of Brooklyn, New York, in 2004. For the past three years, the SLI has been based in New Orleans to help support and strengthen the efforts New Orleans artists, organizers and stakeholders are making to sustain the cultural and artistic assets of this unique city. Zollar explains, “New Orleans is such a creative and personal inspiration that it was important to me to return to support the community, particularly the community of artists, as this city was the place of Urban Bush Women’s first community engagement project sponsored by Junebug and the Contemporary Arts Center. Here we made the leap from one-way outreach to an effective community engagement strategy. We want to be a part of the renewal process and hope our Summer Leadership Institute training can make a positive difference.”

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Community Profile: Brenda Williams of VOTE

After attending an “outstanding” presentation that VOTE sponsored at Ashé Cultural Arts Center in Central City, Miss Brenda Williams was inspired to get “involved to make a difference in the lives of those who suffer injustice at the hands of lawmakers, judges and others involved in the criminal justice system processes.” She has heard stories from many people who were treated unfairly, exposing her personally to the powerlessness individuals face when they are forced to confront the criminal justice system. Knowing that there is power in numbers and that reclaiming the power of those who have had it taken away, “will require many people of good will to exercise informed, persistent, due diligence until change comes.”

Her favorite aspect of working with VOTE is the “persistent involvement in the legislative process.” She feels the most important things that VOTE does are to provide space where formerly incarcerated people and their families, friends and communities can “voice their concerns, meet with others of like experience and mind, learn how to effectively advocate for themselves and recognize and utilize their power in numbers.”

Through educational sessions at VOTE Miss Brenda has increased her knowledge of ways the criminal justice system is stacked against the betterment of people of color. She also became aware of the many licenses that FIPs are barred from obtaining, an issue that VOTE members have tackled head on by creating House Bill 295. She calls VOTE “the answer” to the call that is, comprehensive civic engagement necessary to transform societal ills.

In order to increase impact and scope Miss Brenda believes that it would be a benefit for VOTE to collaborate with more African American organizations such as Greek-letter organizations, Urban League, NAACP, Zulu, NOMTOC, Forresters, Masons, Knights of Peter Claver etc.

Outside of her work with VOTE Miss Brenda enjoys reading, fellowshipping with members of her church, actively participating with her sorority sisters in community affairs, advocating for a Louisiana Civil Rights museum and supporting continued growth and development of Ashé Cultural Arts Center. She also loves spending time with her 16 month old grandson whom she admits doting over.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Creating Excellent Schools is not the Same as Creating Excellent School Systems, by Dr. Lance Hill

Republished from Diane Ravitch's blog:
Charter schools that perform better by recruiting and retaining better students don’t exist in a vacuum: skimming the best and most profitable students affects other schools, though it is hard to detect in systems with few charters.  The systemic effects are easier to see in a “closed system” as we have in New Orleans in which 80% of students attend charters.  Every high-performing charter creates a chronically low-performing school somewhere in the system. The students that charters reject, who are high-needs and high-cost, become concentrated in a separate set of schools.  These “dumping schools” concentrate students with enormous skill deficits and disruptive behaviors, making it impossible for educators to teach and also creating an intractable non-compliant student subculture.  Privatization creates good schools by creating even worse schools.

The evidence of this “rob peter to pay paul” phenomenon is not difficult to find.  As charter schools increased in relative performance the first few years in New Orleans, the remaining state-run public schools were locked into chronic failure.  For four years in a row, the direct-run state schools posted an average 80% failure rate on the 8th grade math LEAP progression test.  This, despite the fact that the state had doubled the expenditure per pupil for a period of time and all these schools were directly run by Supt. Paul Vallas who selected the “world class” school administrators, contracted to staff the schools with the “best and brightest” teachers (TFA), and controlled the curriculum and hours of instruction.  It was clear that the every year charters would skim the best students from the remaining schools and dump the low-performing students forced on them by the lottery.

In 2007, the highest ranking official in the state takeover of New Orleans schools said in a meeting that I attended that some charters were systematically dumping challenging and low-performing students into the remaining public system. Six years after the takeover, only 6,000 of the total 42,000 students remain in non-charter dumping schools:  100% of those students are in state-run schools that the state graded as “D” or F” in 2011.  It is a wonder that New Orleanians can’t figure out why we have the highest per-capita murder rate in the nation, and school-age teens are the principal perpetrators of the most reckless of the violence.

Creating excellent schools is not the same as creating excellent school systems.  The free-market has one goal: profit.  It did not come into existence to create innovative and equitable public services.  The New Orleans Model ensures that successful schools are created at the expense of the system as a whole; one student advances at the expense of another.  If other school systems opt for the New Orleans Model, they need to do so knowing that the result will be a separate and unequal system of “college prep” and “prison prep” schools.

Dr. Lance Hill is the Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research, a tolerance education and race relations research center based at Tulane University in New Orleans. He is the author of The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and The Civil Rights Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Friday, July 13, 2012

Homelessness, Displacement, Evictions . . . This Sounds Familiar, By Hannah Adams

There are a number of obvious parallels between housing needs in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricanes and housing needs in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

In both disasters, large regions lost the majority of their affordable housing stock, resulting in massive spikes in homelessness and displacement.  UNITY of Greater New Orleans reports that homelessness rates effectively doubled in the city from January 2005 to January 2009. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center adds that New Orleans experienced a population loss of over 140,000 according to the 2010 census, and that poor New Orleanians and families with children under eighteen were among those less likely to return. Meanwhile, the Under Tents Campaign reports that 400,000 Haitians remain homeless in displacement camps where they face gender-based violence, disease, unsanitary living conditions, and flooding.

Now, like New Orleans families were forcibly evicted from public housing, apartments, and eventually FEMA trailers in the months and years following their disaster, displaced Haitians face eviction from the camps where they have been living since 2010.  The threat of eviction exists despite the lack of affordable housing options elsewhere, and despite the fact that President Michel Martelly’s relocation plan helped only 5% of the internally displaced population access rental housing via a limited rental stipend.

Strong organizing for housing justice is another thing post-Katrina New Orleans and post-earthquake Haiti have in common.  In response to the threat of eviction and the dire need for affordable housing options, Haitian grassroots housing activists formed the umbrella coalition called Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA).  FRAKKA demands that “the Haitian Government immediately halt all forced evictions until public or affordable housing is made available. The Haitian Government must, with the support of its allies and donor governments in the U.S., Canada, and Europe move quickly to: 1) designate land for housing; 2) create one centralized government housing institution to coordinate and implement a social housing plan; and 3) solicit and allocate funding to realize this plan.”

The Under Tents campaign recently launched a petition to support the call for affordable housing in Haiti by putting pressure on the Haitian government, as well as international powers like the United States that often control the flow of resources to Haiti.  Sign the petition here and learn more about the campaign at

This article originally appeared on the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center blog. Hannah Adams is a law student and former Education Coordinator at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Junebug Productions Welcomes Stephanie McKee as New Artistic Director

From our friends at Junebug Productions:
The Board of Directors of Junebug Productions, Inc. is pleased to announce the appointment of Stephanie V. McKee to the position of Artistic Director, effective July 1, 2012.  Junebug Productions, founded by John O'Neal in 1980, is the organizational successor to the Free Southern Theatre (FST) which was formed in 1963 to be the cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement.  FST was a major influence in the Black Arts Movement and was often referred to as "a theatre for those who have no theatre."   Ms. McKee is a performer, choreographer, educator, facilitator and cultural organizer born in Picayune, MS and raised in New Orleans. She is the founder of Moving Stories Dance Project, an organization committed to dance education that provides opportunities for dancers and choreographers to showcase their talents. In 2007, she was awarded The Academy of Educational Development/New Voices Fellowship, an award for emerging leaders.  For the past 20 years Ms. McKee has been involved with Junebug Productions as an artist and educator.  Most recently she served as Associate Artistic Director of the first annual Homecoming Project 2011, a place-based performance project that addresses the Right of Return and what home means to communities in post-Katrina New Orleans.  In 2006, Ms. McKee was one of ten artists who collaborated to create the original production, "UPROOTED: The Katrina Project," co-produced by Junebug Productions.  As an artist and cultural organizer, Ms. McKee is deeply committed to creating work that supports social justice and aligns with the FST and Junebug legacy.

Don Marshall, President of Junebug Productions' Board of Directors says, "Junebug Productions is fortunate that an artist and administrator of Stephanie's caliber will be taking the leadership role of the organization. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated her ability to unite members of the community in building a greater world through the arts. We all look forward to new and exciting projects and programs that carry on the rich traditions of both the Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions."

John O'Neal, founding Artistic Director, says, "Stephanie is one of those rare people who is constant, true and deeply committed to making her community and the world a better place, for her presence in it.  She's one of the best choreographers-dancers-actors-teachers-arts administrators-community organizers-public spirited citizens that the present generation of New Orleans has produced.  With Stephanie at the helm, I am confident that Junebug Productions will continue to grow and develop under her caring, committed and capable leadership."

John O'Neal, a member of Junebug Productions Board of Directors and Artistic Director, Emeritus, will focus his efforts on playwriting and essay writing on his experience of 50 years in theatre, social justice, and cultural development.

Stephanie McKee is also a member of Alternate ROOTS, Kumbuka African Dance and Drum Collective, NO Dance Collective, Peoples Touring Project, and is Co-Director of the Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute in New Orleans.

For information, contact

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild, A Hollywood Film With Roots on Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast, Opens Tomorrow

Earlier versions of this article originally were distributed via Agence France Presse, and in Louisiana Weekly.
The Gulf Coast loses a football field of land every 45 minutes, and much of that loss happens in the bayous of Southern Louisiana, where roads disappear into canals, winding their way through swiftly eroding marshes. The population here is a mix of white Cajuns, African-Americans, and several Native American tribes, and most residents can date their roots here to before Louisiana was part of the US.

Some families in this former French colony have only been speaking English for about a generation, and recall childhoods lived mostly outside of the system of monetary exchange: their family ate only what they could catch or grow, and lived in homes they built themselves on land handed down across generations. There are few shops here, and many of the homes are built on stilts, a dozen feet or more off the ground, to defend against the flooding that becomes more common with every foot of land that vanishes.

The nearest movie theater is about an hour away, but on Sunday night 600 people filled the local recreation center for a Hollywood premiere. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a feature recently acquired by Fox Searchlight, was shot in this rural community in 2010 by a filmmaking collaborative from New Orleans. The film has already won critical acclaim and top prizes at the Sundance and Cannes festivals, and been celebrated as an early Oscar contender. Now, a few days before the film’s release, the crew has come home.

Beasts tells the story of a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was six years old at the time of filming) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry, a 47-year-old Baker from New Orleans who like most of the cast had never acted before), struggling to survive in a magical but disappearing community called the Bathtub.

Beasts captures the vibrancy and complexity of a Louisiana community that refuses to abandon lands being lost to coastal erosion and threatened by hurricanes and oil spills. The film’s themes were given a greater intensity by real-world events: on the first day of filming, the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded not far from here, killing 11 workers, blackening beaches and marshes in five US states and devastating fishing and local economies.

The threat of disaster, both natural and man-made, constantly hovers over this region. The oil spill came as people were still rebuilding homes destroyed in the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The film premiered here as tropical storm Debby churns through the Gulf, causing warnings and raising fears in coastal communities from Florida to Texas.

A far as Montegut may seem from the modern world, much of Beasts was shot even further south of here, on the other side of the levees that provide some protection from the frequent storms. Isle de Jean Charles, site of some the films’ most enduring images, is home to just a couple dozen families, mostly from the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe. Their houses can only be reached by traveling across a narrow road that even on the best of days is half-submerged by water coming from both sides.

For months, the cast and crew lived here and were embraced as family. Everyone in this close-knit community pitched in; appearing in the film, helping to build the sets, or feeding the cast and crew.

“They captured, touched, a little part of what its like to be down here,” said Michael Pitre, who runs a mechanic shop here and helped work on the boats used in the film. “As far as living of the land like we do. When I was coming up, that’s what we ate: shrimp, crabs. That’s all we had to eat. That’s all we could afford because we would catch it ourselves.”

Benh Zeitlin, the film’s director and cowriter, agrees. “It is all real,” he said. “I don’t think I invented anything for this movie. It’s all things that I’ve seen and heard and experienced in different parts of Louisiana, and it’s all kind of concentrated on this one island in the film.”

Dwight Henry, who plays his lead role with a passionate intensity, feels this community’s struggle to recover from recent disasters and displacement is the same as that faced in New Orleans, where more than 100,000 former residents still have mot returned since the 2005 storms. “We so resilient down here,” he said. “We going to refuse to leave the land that we live and love, and the things we built with our bare hands.”

Although Beasts is fantastical and mysterious, it moves with the propulsion of the best action films, and the crowd was clearly moved, laughing at the humorous moments and holding their breath at dramatic scenes. For Zeitlin, this is always the audience he pictured seeing the film, not New York arthouses or Cannes. He said he and his crew never dreamed they’d have Hollywood distribution - they imagined themselves touring around the US, showing the film in community centers.

As the credits rolled, the room erupted in a sustained applause. Zeitlin took the stage to thank everyone who helped, and invited all in attendance to an afterparty at the local Lions Club, a community space next door. “This was what was in my head for two years when we were editing, said Zeitlin, as he accepted hugs and congratulations. “I feel finished with the film for the first time.”

Pictures above from Beasts of Southern Wild premiere in Montegut, featuring director Benh Zeitlin, star Quvenzhané Wallis, and other cast, crew, and audience members.