Category Archives: Community Project

Brad Pitt’s Green Building Boom

LOWER NINTH WARD, NEW ORLEANS

Considered one of the most famous neighborhoods in America, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is presently undergoing a transformation from the poster child of post-Katrina devastation into the epitome of green, sustainable living. I met with key players on the ground to discuss how this is taking shape and how the environment is playing an active roll in the psyche of the Lower Ninth Ward’s returning populace.

Interviewed in this piece:  Tom Darden, Executive Director, Make It Right NOLA; Robert Green Sr., Resident, Lower Ninth Ward; Darryl Malek-Wiley, Regional Representative and Environmental Justice Organizer, Sierra Club; James Perry, President, Louisiana Housing Alliance and Mayoral Candidate for the City of New Orleans; Dr. Douglas J. Meffert, Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University; Professor Mark S. Davis, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Institute on Water Resources, Law and Policy, Tulane University

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A Prison Without Walls

ANGOLA, LOUISIANA

I had no idea there was no perimeter wall at Angola as I canoed along the natural barrier that surrounds three sides of Louisiana State Penitentiary – the Mississippi River. The sun had broken thru the morning mist as I made my way upstream from my camp the previous night on Shreves Bar Island, about one and a half miles downstream. The short upstream trip was work but at long last I reached the prison’s ferry landing. I had read online that this was a ferry for prison guards only, and as such, I had hoped to catch a ride into the prison. The ferry was not operating and I was later told that due to high water, they were using a “crew boat” for foot passengers only, but that this only took place during a shift change.

I was preparing to make the trek up to Angola on foot when I met my first convict “trusty”, Charles Martin. Mr. Martin had driven up in a truck while I was pulling my canoe out of the water and had busied himself working on the ferry structure moored into the banks of the river. When asked how far it was to the gate of the prison, Mr. Martin turned towards the road from where he had just come and replied, “What gate?”

Angola has transformed itself from what Collier’s Magazine once called “the most dangerous prison in America” into what observers are now calling the safest. According to Warden Burl Cain, this about face has taken place with two words: “morality” and “communication”.

The communication in the prison, afforded by Warden Burl Cain, gives the men a sense of freedom, a sense of hope. It is a psychological barrier that has been taken down – and the men are truly appreciative. From my interview with the warden, I was led to a meeting with the radio station, newspaper, and television station, before being brought to the prison’s hospice, into a room where Richard Vinet was on vigil, awaiting his death. Mr. Vinet, age 54, whose liver is failing, has been at Angola since 1984 and is officially now “on vigil” which means he was not expected to last the next 24 hours. As I spoke with Mr. Vinet about his love for the radio station and the chance he had had to request his favorite songs, a USA Today photographer snapped photos. When asked what it was that he wanted most to say, Mr. Vinet pointed towards his nurse, as well as one of Angola’s vice-wardens, Cathy Fontenot, stating, “I want to thank these two women here.” According to Ms. Fontenot, “No inmate here dies alone, a stroke of compassion which tends to lead the prisoners here in hospice to the realization of the gravity of their past actions.” When asked for specifics, Ms. Fontenot quoted a late prisoner who had spent time here in hospice as saying, “I realized the last person I was with when they died was my victim,” going on to say, “I’m truly sorry.”

Warden Burl Cain takes a similar approach when it comes to the men on death row, a people he refers to as “his children”, taking the trouble to hold their hand as they are executed by lethal injection. In so doing, Mr. Cain, who will have worked with these inmates on getting as right as possible with their maker, is able to “communicate” in a wholly different fashion. There is nothing fake or pretentious about Warden Cain. The man commands respect thru his presence alone – when he enters a building. Among multiple people I spoke with, both outside and inside Angola, the idea of Burl Cain as a good and honest guy was unanimous.

Approximately 86% of the 5,000 inmates at Angola are never going home – a sentence of “life” that in the State of Louisiana actually means it. The strategy of Mr. Cain is simply to let these men he has custody over have the chance to better their lives, to communicate, to be men.

As the sun began to set, I asked to be taken out to the prison’s old cemetery, a place where 1/3 of all those who die here will be buried, having no family or friends to take their remains away. I found a bronze marker set up for the “Unknown Buried Here” with the dedication: “Remember not my name nor my sins nor guilt nor shame; only that I was a man.”

In the end it was two inmates who pushed me and my canoe back out into the Mighty Mississippi. The sun had gone down, and the Mississippi was shiny black, reflecting the lights of the crew boat. I was not afraid. I knew exactly where my island lay, having approached the night before under similar circumstances. There comes a time on this river when you become one with your craft, where the danger of a seriously dangerous river is outweighed by a sense of calm, of a cocoon that envelopes you and lets you know you’re going to be alright. It could very well be due to the fact that I was only a visitor, but I felt this same safety – this same calm feeling the entire day at Angola – my very first day in a maximum security prison. My canoe with my gear in it had been loaded on a truck, and together we heaved it out and into the water. It was a strange feeling to step in and glide away. The convicts whose names I had forgotten to ask waved and wished me Godspeed. The sliver of a moon had broken thru the clouds for a moment and as the current took me, I waved back, feeling a certain camaraderie with the prisoners and their warden, but thankful to be free.

Thanks for making this story possible:

Vice-warden Cathy Fontenot.

My guide for the day was Major Joli Darbonne.

Interviewed for this story on video at the “Ranch House” – Warden Burl Cain.

KLSP (Louisiana State Penitentiary) — a 100-watt radio station that operates at 91.7 on the FM dial from inside the prison to approximately 6,000 potential listeners including inmates and penitentiary staff. The station is operated by inmates and carries some satellite programming. Inside the walls of Angola, KLSP is called the “Incarceration Station” and “The Station that Kicks Behind the Bricks.” Interviewed for this story is KLSP disk jockey Keith Alexander. Mr. Alexander is 44 years old and has been incarcerated at Angola for 21 1/2 years.

LSP TV Station 21 is a one-room television station that serves Angola State Penitentiary. Interviewed for this story: Matthew Morgan, sports editor; and Shawn Vaughn, editor.

The Angolites interviewed for this story are: Lane Nelson, managing editor, age 55, incarcerated at Angola for 28 1/2 years of a life sentence for murder; Kerry Myers, editor, age 53, incarcerated at Angola for 19 years of a life sentence for murder; and Klye Hebert, age 44, incarcerated at Angola for 9 years of a life sentence for attempted murder.

In the hallway of Maximum Security Cell Block D are: Marlo Green and Devon Morris.

Interviewed at Angola’s Hospice: Richard Vinet, age 54, incarcerated at Angola for 25 years.

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Racial Reconciliation in the Deep South

VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI

I joined a number of white and black ministers on my stop in Vicksburg, Mississippi for their special monthly breakfast sponsored by Mission Mississippi. Their goal: To cross racial and denominational lines by building relationships one by one.

Interviewed in this piece are: Rev. Reginald Walker, Word of Faith Church, Vicksburg, MS; Dan Hall, Special Advisor, Mission Mississippi, Jackson, MS; Rev. Chan Osborn de Anaya, Christ Episcopal Church, Vicksburg, MS; Rev. Randall Burge, New Christian Fellowship, Port Gibson, MS; Vickar Margaret Ayers, St. James Church, Port Gibson, MS; Rev. Lister Bowdoin, Bovina United Methodist Church, Bovina, MS; Rev. Linda Sweezer, House of Peace, Vicksburg, MS.

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Life lessons of the dugout canoe

HELENA, ARKANSAS 

Canoe guru John Ruskey’s exploits along the Mississippi River have been featured in Southern Living, Outside Magazine, and National Geographic.  But it’s his work with the at-risk children of this region of America that intrigued me: the idea of using a canoe as education; of transforming a log into useable art; of the dugout canoe as a life-changing experience.

QaGaron, Fredrick, Brooklyn, and Veronica, four KIPP Charter School Middle School kids from downtown Helena, Arkansas smile as they walk the levee from their school to Mr. Ruskey’s Helena-based workshop.  This is their second class at Quapaw Canoes, and even though their friends are catching the bus for home, these kids walk with a stride in their step.

Helena has a rich and illustrious past.  As one of the few original bluff cities on the Mississippi River, the boomtown that once was is now an economically-depressed region, save – one of the only things going for it – the hope, promise and vision of the children. 

Mr. Ruskey has been volunteering his time with the local KIPP Charter School for over a year, so when the principal phoned and asked if it would be possible to transform a log into an original dugout canoe, comprised of KIPP-only students, the answer was, “We’d love to do that.”

QdMr. Ruskey does not speak in sound bytes. He speaks from his soul and he speaks with conviction.  When asked how art, education, and the Mississippi River come together, Mr. Ruskey explained, “They come together with each paddle stroke you take.  If you watch the way a paddle cuts thru the water – it creates a double spiral on either side of it – and if you look at the shape of a classic canoe, it’s almost the same shape you see created in the water as you’re stroking the paddle.  And that’s the wonderful thing about the Mississippi River and any moving water – but on the Mississippi you see it more than any other body of water I’ve ever experienced.  You see expressions of patterns, of life patterns – the very basic patterns that govern our life – you see them expressed, constantly being expressed and then re-created over and over again.  And so it’s actually there on the face of the water that you see all those things come together.  One of our mottos here is Qcthat the River brings us together, and in that sense it literally does bring together education and canoes and art – they all come together as you’re paddling the canoe.”

The KIPP Dugout Canoe Project, as it is officially known, is a twice-weekly after-school class that begins with a pad of paper and a pencil.  The students are asked to sit quietly and look at the log and visualize what it will one day become.  Some draw the log as they see it while others draw a dugout canoe with an animal head.  At some point, the kids, in coordination with their school, will vote democratically on what the final shape is to become.  For now, part of the fun is just that idea alone.  The idea that this cottonwood log can one day become anything and everything they hope and desire it to be.

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Bardo of Rose

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

I recently had the privilege to meet and interview Memphis-based artist Roy Tamboli at Oxford’s first annual Memory Walk.  In this piece, William Andrews, Director of the University of Mississippi Museum introduces both the sculpture as well as the sculptor.  Symbolizing the experience of individuals with Alzheimer’s, their families, and caregivers, this is a work that is designed to both comfort and inspire.

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Illiteracy to Literature in the Enlightened South

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

Known as the home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, the University of Mississippi, and one of the finest independent book stores in the nation, Square Books, it came as a shock to learn Lafayette County’s illiteracy level amongst adults equals that of the national average – dead even at 23%.

And so began a search for answers.

One of the first things that catches your eye in Oxford is that folks from all walks of life are serious about the arts. From a rich and illustrious tradition of Hill Country Blues to a celebration of outsider art to the local Arts Council which hosts and funds a revolving door of local events to the three Square Book establishments on Oxford Square, there seem to be multiple celebrations of the arts every day and night of the week.

One of these Oxford institutions is billed as Thacker Mountain Radio – a weekly variety show of music and literature – held via Square Books every Thursday night stringing back to 1979. The show is live and the public are welcome and for those who can’t make it in person, there’s the radio.  Thacker Mountain is broadcast on both “Rebel Radio” and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

To take a seat at Thacker Mountain is to get into the groove of the local arts scene. The oversized windows at Off Square Books are opened up and those who don’t get seats pour out into the town’s Square. The night that I caught Thacker Mountain through the lens of my camera was the night I met authors Jessica B. Harris and Roy Blount Jr. Their advice for the public at large – “You’ve got to read” – a mantra which led me to the local Literacy Council.

Nicole Bass is an “Americaore Vista” which is a title and branch of the Volunteers and Service to America. While the council spends most of their time dealing with “preventative” measures – working with children – I thought it would be interesting to tag along for the first lesson of an adult, by the name of Sherry Crocker.

Sherry is in her late thirties and has two young children.  She wants to break the cycle of illiteracy in her family and has asked the Literacy Council for help. According to Sherry, she’s taking lessons to “help [her] four year old with homework” as well as to “read [the notes] he brings home from school.”

The idea of taking that first step into a first lesson in reading is a daunting prospect for many adults who in so doing are forced to acknowledge they don’t know how to read. There’s a stigma attached to both being unable to read as well as the fact a healthy percentage of our nation cannot read, like unto a secret.  A secret that isn’t talked about in polite society – a secret that as painful as it might be, needs to be brought out into the open and turned around and discussed.

The lesson for Sherry was intense and at times difficult. She was not able to pronounce many consonants, but she tried and although visibly embarrassed, was determined not to give up. When asked why it might be scary for folks around the nation to take the bold step that she took this day, Sherry, full of confidence on having completed her very first lesson, beamed, “They’re just scared – but me – I’m not scared at all – I’m enjoying … learning how to read.”

From the basic grasp of consonants to the next step up the ladder of literacy – actually craving the concept of literature – I found the idea of introducing a literary mantra in the epicenter of what some folks refer to as the “Enlightened South” an interesting prospect.  

David Swider and Michael Bible are affable and giddy and very much sincere about literature.  I joined the duo for a beer at the Square’s greasy spoon, Ajax, to talk shop about the region before sitting down for an interview back on their work-turf of Square Books.  Their energy plays off each other when they talk, turning every conversation into a brainstorming session of what would be cool or what could work out literary-wise for the literary journal, Kitty Snacks.  At ages 25 and 28, respectively, David and Michael are relatively young to undertake the launch of a literary magazine – but this is their point. They want to make the rather lofty idea of literature a possibility for folks of all ages by offering it to the public as bite sized snacks.

According to Michael Bible, Mississippi “is the fattest, poorest, dumbest state in the country – that is full of geniuses.  You have people that can’t read right next to people that win Nobel Prizes – and it’s this weird kind of dichotomy that works to both illuminate that kind of difference but also recently, bring it together.”

“The book is kind of a hard commodity right now,” explains Wayne Andrews, Executive Director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, who immediately saw the potential for the journal and helped to get it published.  While “publishers [are] not taking risks on new authors [nor] publishing diverse works, we’re finding new ways to do it.” According to Mr. Andrews, quarterly publications like Kitty Snacks are “leading [people] down the path to discover a magazine and then hopefully discover a book.”

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Beth’s Bucket List: To Ride a Horse

OXFORD and HERNANDO, MISSISSIPPI

DreamAWhen Jay and Beth VanWinkle saw that their favorite actor, fellow Mississippian Morgan Freeman, was coming out with a new movie titled “The Bucket List”, Beth turned to Jay and said, “I’ve got to see that.” One year previous, Beth VanWinkle had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and has been, as she puts it, “grasping for everything I could get [out of life – before it’s too late].”

DreamCThe film inspired Beth and Jay to write down a short list of ideas they wanted to accomplish before Beth permanently goes into, what she describes as her “cave” – a place where she will be in her very own world.

Beth’s list included three things she had never before had the opportunity to do: 1) Meet actor Morgan Freeman – which she has done; 2) Skydive out of an airplane – which she has now accomplished twice; and 3) Have the opportunity to ride a horse.

DreamKIn this report, we witness Beth leading the first annual Oxford Memory Walk as well as the story of Beth’s realization of her third and final wish – to ride a horse – a story which she will now be able to replay again and again, as her memory continues to fade.

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