Guest Column: A call to all River Parishes residents

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 13, 2002

Fiddles and accordion wailing, my campers a whirl of colors and light around a dance floor jammed with bodies, I sat alone at my table. On the Project YES overnight trip to Cajun country, we’d stopped for some spicy food and zydeco. All of a sudden, I felt a tug on my sleeve, and noticed Shanikwa sitting quietly. “Carey, I know the answer.” I leaned in to hear her clearly. “America stands for equal chances, but people here don’t always get an equal chance.”

Just a few days into our exploration of south Louisiana, Shanikwa had hit upon one of the most lamentable truths in our country today. I gave her a nod, then a hug – excited by her critical thinking, but nervous, knowing how painful a full understanding of her words would be.

Project YES is an experiential summer camp; six kids and two teachers spend four weeks rolling around south Louisiana in a minivan, using all five senses to gather information about the state of equality in America. YES stands for “Youth Exploring Society” – third-grade bodies in green T-shirts fronted with the bright blue image of the Statue of Liberty, the monument that beckons the world to come for opportunities and equality.

Ask 9-year-old LaBaron what equality means, and he thinks of those parallel lines where two equals two and four equals four. “Equal” is a very clear-cut concept. So, at the start of camp, when we ask the kids to define equality in America, they give clear-cut answers. Everybody can earn good money from a good job. Everybody can live in a clean neighborhood with unpolluted air, water, and land. Everybody can go to a good school. Equality means that everybody gets treated with respect.

Each day of camp the van arrives in a different south Louisiana neighborhood, and the kids then search for community residents to interview. Scribbling down answers they ask, “Can you get a good job? Is your neighborhood clean and safe? Can your kids go to good schools? Can you find healthy food?” Most interviewees come up with happy answers for the kids, so most answers are “yes.” The kids come away with the idea that our fellow Americans are mostly kind, hardworking, and hopeful that the equality we are searching for can be true.

But the interviewees don’t try to sugarcoat it, either. In the Diamond neighborhood in Norco, African-American residents told us about nauseating smells from the industrial plants. In the housing projects of New Orleans, an African-American man told us about shootings at a local middle school. While mailing postcards home from Breaux Bridge, the Cajun postmaster told us that her husband lost his job after the factory closed. After serving us tea in a New Orleans mosque, Muslim Americans described the threatening phone calls they had received since Sept. 11.

Kids are smart, and even before we start asking questions in camp about equality, they sense that inequity exists. Deep down, kids know the hardships their families and friends face. They know that the playing field is not level for everyone, but somehow, they draw only a hazy connection between the vocabulary words of prejudice and discrimination and the immediate examples of prejudice and discrimination in their own lives.

When you’re in third grade, you want the security of knowing that the world is good and just. This makes the day we tally our interview results quite painful. That day, on a black-and-white chart of neighborhood pluses and minuses hung up in the van, Shanikwa’s whispered theory becomes explicit, clear truth for all the kids: “America stands for equal chances, but people here don’t always get an equal chance.”

After a few minutes of silence to let this idea sink in, the weight of this statement hit the kids. Damien got very quiet, Hershey cried, Darichelle nervously played with Hershey’s hair in a delicate attempt to comfort her. We all spent time writing in our journals. Was that Statue of Liberty on their T-shirts a lie?

Fear, anger, and hopelessness take over only if we drop the knowledge of inequality on kids without helping them figure out how to solve it. If we initiate kids into a full understanding of American society, we have to give them the tools to become active involved citizens. “OK,” my co-teacher asked, “You’re in third grade. How can you solve this problem?”

The couch was quiet at first; then ideas spilled out faster than I could write down. “Let’s talk to the adults in charge – you know, the principal and president and stuff. Let’s teach kids to read! Let’s organize the books in the school library so that we can check them out next year. Let’s study hard so that we can go to college, and then we’ll be the people in charge to change things.”

Their little bodies bounced with determination and excitement. And recently we put our ideas into action. We took air samples around the Shell plant in Norco. We painted our playground at Glade School. We boxed up 2,100 meals for the hungry. We read stories to preschoolers at Betty’s House for Children. We performed a play about our society for the residents of Twin Oaks Nursing Home. We lobbied St. John the Baptist Parish Schools Superintendent, Mike Coburn, for a working library at Glade.

Camp ended recently, but the kids are still fired up and ready for action.

River Parishes residents, this is where you come in. As members of this American society, it is your responsibility to continue the work of these six children. It is your responsibility to help all of our children grow up to be informed proactive citizens. It is your responsibility to ensure that the American Dream isn’t relegated to books and bumper stickers but becomes a tangible attainable reality.

There are many ways you can get involved. Write letters. Volunteer. Read. Discuss. Challenge. Believe in possibility. And work to make it happen. We plan on continuing our quest for the equal America we know exists. Will you help us?

Project YES is a non-profit organization that was started three years by Sammy Politziner, a teacher in the South Bronx, New York City. It was brought to St. John the Baptist Parish this year with Carey King, a teacher at Glade School. We would like to expand this camp to reach more residents in the River Parishes. If you would like more information, or would like to make a tax-deductible donation, please send an e-mail to