Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chicago Booth - Lessons from New Orleans

A city of contrasts - Sunday 3/22/09

We’ve gotten a taste of the two sides of New Orleans. High and low. Joy and despair.

We took part in the prerequisite eating, drinking, and tourist activities. In 24 hours, we consumed a crawfish boil, jambalaya, gumbo, hurricanes, muffaletas, po’ boys, king cake, and grits. I knew it would be good eats, but I didn’t expect it would come all at once. If we accomplish nothing else this week, we’ve eaten 80 pounds of crawfish.

The highlight of our trip so far was doing a Katrina bus tour. I was really interested in seeing the lower Ninth Ward, the area that John Edwards started his failed presidential bid and poverty tour. But the flooding really affected everyone and not just those in St. Bernard parish and the lower Ninth Ward.

In preparation for the trip we watched Spike Lee’s four hour documentary, “When the Levees Broke.” I was expecting the same level of destruction as in the movie, which came out a year after the hurricane. Some businesses have come back to the area, especially outposts of Southern-based companies Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Winn Dixie. But many strip malls remain empty and downright depressing. The deserted Six Flags feels spooky to me having grown up right next to the one in LA.

And while Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Project and Wynton Marsalis’s Musician’s Village are beautiful, gallant efforts in the Ninth Ward, they are surrounded by destroyed and decayed houses. They seemed to both be pretty small-scale projects – a few streets only. The task to rebuild housing here is daunting. I can’t change the world in this short week but I can help one small step at a time.

On the complete other side of the socioeconomic scale, we meet Doug and Denise, a well-to-do couple at a dinner in an upper-class home in New Orleans. Doug was busy after the hurricane leading the rebuilding effort of the Superdome. Despite being well-to-do, they stayed in the Superdome for five days during and after Katrina. She vowed if she survived those five days surrounded by squalor and death, she would change her life around and started a non-profit providing critical service in the months after the storm for her neighborhood to rebuild.

It was one of many moments throughout the week that I simultaneously felt sorrow and optimism. I felt like crying as I felt empathy for the misery they had experienced, but at the same time uplifted by the amazing capabilities of the human spirit. I could no longer just look at her as a privileged woman, but someone who had used her means to help others. This trip is changing my perceptions of race and class.

Alphabet City - Tuesday 3/24/09

If there were ever a complicated subject, I think it would be affordable housing. After two days of reading through requirements to qualify for various governmental programs, my head starts swimming. AMI, LRA, LHFA, CDBG – all of these abbreviations meant nothing to me a few days ago. Now I feel I know just enough to be dangerous. Kind of like the rest of my professional career.

From doing all this research I realize, these entrepreneurs, Ian, Sarah, and Tessa, must have big hearts. On some level, they care so much about this community that they are willing to navigate through the bureaucratic mess to obtain grants and subsidies, figure out a way to get financing through this credit crisis, and start a non-profit while working full-time jobs. I respect the spirit I see in most entrepreneurs, but to do what they are doing with almost insurmountable barriers and not be driven by the profit motive is even more impressive.

It also reminds me of my own dream to become an entrepreneur someday. I really enjoyed having my own financial planning practice prior to business school and the rewarding experiences of helping my clients accomplish their goals. The successes helped me get through all of the hassles of endless paperwork, rejection, and prospecting for clients. Perhaps their own vision is what drives them forward despite all the challenges.

Cancer survivor - Friday 3/27/09

There’s an incredible spirit in this city. Like it had contracted cancer, faced death, and decided not to take for granted what had happened. I was reminded of my former client, Tom, who had contracted cancer and told me he was happier for it because it helped him appreciate what he had.

New Orleans is the only place in the country that can lay claim to its own food, music, and culture. All that in a town with a population of only 300,000. It’s always had the most spirit per capita and Hurricane Katrina hasn’t killed it. Now New Orleans is redirecting that spirit to rebuilding the city better than it was before the hurricane.

Before Katrina, our mentor Keith Crawford tells me, you had no business knowing even where the Lower 9th Ward and Saint Bernard’s Parish were. Now you had to know. He told me that civic engagement has pervaded the city. In addition to the great work he's doing with Idea Village, he's also signed his name to an agreement with a local charter school to be personally responsible for the education of the kids going there. Everyone's doing their own part.

I had to think of my own experience in San Francisco. Because of volunteer work I had done, I had spent time in the impoverished Bayview and the Tenderloin districts. How many San Franciscans had not known or cared about these areas? But more importantly, what cancer would San Francisco need to experience to force people to care about these areas? I decided on this trip that wherever I may end up, putting roots down in a community will always be important to me. I have been given so many gifts – life in the amazing cities of Chicago and San Francisco, a world-class education, and incredibly supportive friends and family. How can I not use my gifts to help those who are in need? I don’t need to wait for the cancer to spread.

Celeste K. Liou
Chicago Booth
MBA Candidate, Class of 2010

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