At her performance in Snug Harbor last Monday, Charmaine Neville asked us to do at least one random act of kindness per day. These words embody the spirit of New Orleans, where acts of kindness have restored the faith in humanity for millions of people affected by Hurricane Katrina. From many survivor stories, I have heard about acts of self-sacrifice, and people going beyond their duties and responsibilities to help those who cannot help themselves, of people coming together, and forming communities to help each other survive. From my co-workers at the New Orleans Family Justice Center, and the co-workers of my fellow DukeEngage students, I have seen passionate and driven people, working beyond their job titles to alleviate some of the public health and social issues that plague the city today. After attending the 2014 Beatles Festival in the New Orleans House of Blues, I was reminded of a line in a song composed by Paul McCartney: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” This quote has resonated with me throughout my service experience in New Orleans, in the work I’ve done, the passion of the people I work with, and the people who have shared their experiences of Hurricane Katrina with me.
The kindness that Charmaine talked about is not only evident within my workplace, but also on the street, among strangers I pass by everyday to work, or when I am out exploring the city. I have heard the song “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong multiple times, but when Charmaine sang it, one particular line stuck out to me like it never had before: “I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘how do you do?’/they’re really saying, I love you.” Back home, in Los Angeles, it’s rare that someone passing by you will even smile at you, let alone have a conversation or even say, “hi, how are you?” In New Orleans, people have lengthy conversations on the bus, as if they had known each other for years, and people walking by you on the street will take the effort to look you in the eyes, smile at you, and ask how you are doing, without being labeled as “weird” or “creepy.”
The past couple of weeks have been a musical adventure, starting with some live local bands on Frenchman Street, to The Beatles Festival at the New Orleans House of Blues, Charmaine Neville’s performance at Snug Harbor, and the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. In addition, I’m super excited to go see a jazz show at Preservation Hall this coming Thursday. But, we also had a couple interesting adventures in our suite back at Loyola. First, I burnt bread in the oven, and I set off the fire alarm. I learned that the broil function makes the oven heat up faster than I had expected, and that bread cooks very quickly. Second, our kitchen sink overflowed due to a collective food clog in the drainpipe that our apartment shares with three others. We had water spilling out from the sink for about 30 minutes, as we paled water into our bathroom shower with our pots, and lined up many towels in our kitchen to soak up the water. Cheers to bonding over real-life household problems.
Last Tuesday, Stephanie, some of our co-workers, and I spent most of the day preparing for our celebration of the 4th of July, which was to be held the following day. It was very clear that celebrations are taken very seriously at the Family Justice Center. Each decoration was placed with utmost meticulousness.
On the day of the party, all of the food was brought in: burger bites, chicken eggrolls, chicken wings, jambalaya, nachos, queso, chili, hot dogs, salad, chocolate cupcakes, vanilla cupcakes, red velvet cupcakes, a strawberry shortcake, a birthday cake (yes, we snuck in a birthday celebration), doughnuts, brownies, sugar cookies, and fruit.
As I helped prepare for the celebration, I reflected on my position at the NOFJC. In these past four weeks, I feel as if I have built a relationship with them beyond a colleague-to-colleague relationship: I feel like my co-workers are family. At the beginning of each day of work, I report to my supervisor to update her about my progress, chat a little bit about topics unrelated to my project, and then I go straight to my cubicle, where I begin my day’s work. But multiple times a day, I get traffic in and out of my cubicle. I get the chance to bond with the people working around me, and learn about what they do and how it fits into the overall goals of the Family Justice Center. I too, visit the offices around me just as they visit mine. Even though the four weeks that have gone by is a relatively short period of time, my co-workers have accepted me as one of their own.
Outside of my community partner placement, I have had a diverse set of experiences in New Orleans. From our city tour on the very first weekend, our museum visits, and our guest speakers, I’ve learned a lot about the history of New Orleans, and the impact that Hurricane Katrina has had on the city and its people. I really enjoyed our cooking lesson near Jackson Square, where we received a history lesson intertwined with step-by-step instructions on how to make gumbo, jambalaya, pralines, and bread pudding. This weekend, I visited Frenchman Street, where I was able to watch part of a live performance of the Big Easy Brawlers, a local genre-less band. Hearing lively funk rhythms and elements of jazz mixed into pop-culture music took me back to my high school years, where I played keyboard in a jazz ensemble, and a rock/blues band. There truly is nothing like hearing live jazz in the city where jazz music was born. I intend to continue exploring other music venues, such as The House of Blues, to experience the diverse musical genres home to New Orleans.
Here in New Orleans, the food is mouthwatering, the streets are lively, and the culture is rich, but what has stood out to me the most about the city is the people. From the bus/cab drivers to the tour guides to my co-workers, and to the domestic violence survivors who have shared their stories at work, I have seen two powerful, recurring characteristics: positivity and resilience. No matter the hardship, whether it be poverty, injustice, or Katrina, the people of New Orleans have always kept their heads up, not loosing sight of what is important to them: their home, their passions and dreams, and their families. Hearing stories of how people have rebuilt their lives and empowered themselves has been very uplifting for me, inspiration I will take beyond my work here in New Orleans to my own passions and goals.
Before working at the New Orleans Family Justice Center, I felt so distanced from the two words, “domestic violence.” I always knew that domestic violence was a serious public health issue across the world, but it was something that never seemed relevant to my own personal life. As I went through a total of 24 hours of domestic violence training, I quickly learned that the issue of intimate partner violence is not just characterized by physical abuse and sexual assault. There is a wide range of other factors, such as verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse, as well as other manipulative tactics abusers use to gain power over their partners, which can escalate over time to endanger the life of the victim. I thought back to my own interactions with my friends and other people I care deeply about, and realized that interpersonal violence was much more prevalent around me than I had expected. I was just blind to it.
My own lack of awareness prior to the training is reflected in the awareness of a striking number of people, even among victims and abusers themselves. One of the reasons why domestic violence persists is that many people, like myself, have not received instruction on healthy relationships and early signs of abuse from a young age. For example, we learned in our training that future relationship abuse can be predicted as early as the very first date. During one interview with a client, when asked how she was asked out on her first date, she said, “I didn’t even want to go out with him. I just said ‘yes’ so that he would stop asking me.” As she described her first date, she said that her partner had planned everything (the movie, the restaurant, etc.) without asking for her opinion. She thought it was “cute” that he had planned everything, without considering that the manner in which he had asked her out, and the way he planned the date may have been early signs of control. As the client explained the first few weeks of her relationship with her partner, she said that he made her feel guilty about spending time with her friends by saying how much he missed her when she wasn’t with him. The client saw this as a sign of affection, and spent less and less time with her friends and family, not realizing that she was isolating herself from her other loved ones. As her partner became more and more abusive, she had no one to go to for help.
If people are taught how to detect signs of abuse early on in a relationship, domestic violence can be prevented. When people come to the Family Justice Center for help, they have generally reached the point where it is very difficult to leave a relationship, i.e. children enter the picture, they develop financial dependence on their partner, etc. Therefore, it is extremely important to teach people about relationship violence from the age they begin to form relationships. My training has helped me realize that addressing teen dating violence is essential for long-term prevention of domestic violence, and this is where my role comes in: I have been working with the school system in New Orleans to develop and implement a comprehensive school policy on adolescent relationship violence, to provide victims of abuse with resources and accommodations, teach potential victims about early signs of abuse, and teach potential abusers about what it means to respect their partners.
Everyday, I learn more about the issue of teen dating violence, and everyday, I become more and more passionate about the work I am doing here in New Orleans. The project I am working is pretty grand in scope, and I have already faced various challenges as I have been continuing to move forward. However, so far, working at the Family Justice Center has been a great learning experience, as I have never done work to address policy before. I really hope that by the end of the next six weeks, I will have a lasting impact on how relationship violence is addressed in the schools of Orleans Parish, and hopefully, this work can be continued in the Family Justice Center after I leave to eventually impact the state department of education, and reach the entire population of Louisiana.
Come on down to New Orleans and follow 15 Duke Students as they explore the history and culture of the greater New Orleans area, volunteer with different community partners, and discover the nuances and flavors of what this wonderful city stands for!