At the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. While most people focus on the conclusion, to me, the most powerful part of the message resides in the first two minutes. Dr. King explains that he and the throngs of people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial had come to the nation’s capital to cash a check for the people of color in this country. However, America defaulted on the promissory note and instead gave them a check marked “Insufficient Funds.” Forty-two years later, the American government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath made it abundantly clear that the balance was still due.
The events of the last week of August 2005 had a profound effect on my life and my mission. I felt a powerful need to help in the rebuilding effort and to assist in the revitalization of New Orleans. However, I wanted whatever I was involved in to be community-led and meaningful to residents of the city. Three months earlier I had accepted a position as the project director of Youthline America, an organization dedicated to providing young people with the tools to organize and advocate for themselves and their communities.
As Youthline America expanded and engaged communities around the country in resource mapping projects, mapping in New Orleans was always a priority for me. Mapping is the process of empowering youth to discover the resources available to them and providing them with the tools to advocate and organize around their needs. With the countless stories of the youth of New Orleans looking to reclaim their identity, mapping seemed like a perfect fit.
One Saturday in February 2009, 25 youth mapped their first neighborhood in New Orleans. I had high hopes for that day but I also knew the conditions that we all faced. For example, during mapping we discovered that a very prominent youth recreation center was not open for use by the community on a Saturday. While our staff and partners were outraged, the young people did not see it as a problem. Over the course of that day and throughout mapping, they discovered that they deserved better and began to demand it.
Due to an amazing collaboration with the Afterschool Partnership of Greater New Orleans and the hard work of 75 young people throughout the city, mapping was completed a year later and the neworleans.ilivehere.info website was launched, highlighting over 1,000 resources collected, vetted and maintained by the youth and the community. With this information, advocacy has begun, led by the youth of New Orleans, working towards collecting the balance due people of color in this country. The incredible work being done on the ground led me to relocate to New Orleans to become more actively involved in the work and to assist in taking the work to the next stage.
With support from the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the youth of New Orleans were able to take their experience and knowledge of mapping to Jackson, Mississippi, working with The Young People’s Project. The mappers in Jackson were trained by the youth from New Orleans. This knowledge transfer was led by youth actively involved in mapping from the beginning of the New Orleans project. The knowledge and experience gained through this mapping initiative will further strengthen the work in New Orleans and is a key step to our goal of mapping the entire Gulf Coast.
While I am energized by the work of the young people in all of Youthline’s projects, the work in New Orleans and Jackson especially resonates with me because it is creating a cadre of organizers and advocates in a birthplace of the civil rights movement and in a place that was abandoned by our government in its time of need. These empowered young people will be the leaders of a new throng who will also descend on Washington, D.C. but this time I believe the check will be cashed. Thank you, Dr. King.