Disaster Capitalism Happened
by Ashana Bigard
May 18, 2021
This interview with Ashana Bigard, life long resident of New Orleans, mother of three, social justice organizer, and advocate for children and families in Louisiana, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Ashana | Right after Hurricane Katrina, before most people were even able to gather their thoughts or move back, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 35.
Act 35 allowed the state to take over the majority of the schools in Orleans Parish. They had the authority to do that throughout the state, but they only took over schools in the Orleans Parish, the blackest parish in our state. The Recovery School District, also known as RSD, which is supposed to revamp “failing schools”, came in and the state ran the schools.
US National Archives. President Barack Obama Visits Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School.
frank | What changed when they [RSD] came in?
They gave charter schools the opportunity to come and take over because some people were attracted to this idea of becoming a “portfolio city,” which is a city that is hundred percent charter schools.
But, this is a bad idea, because a lot of charter schools depend on philanthropy in order to run their programs successfully. Philanthropy money is not dependable and short term. Most funders don't fund projects for 20 or 30 year time periods. They fund projects for 3 to 6 years, max. People were getting $500,000 to start these new schools, and a lot of them have since closed. We remain a 99% charter school city. Even though the community has asked repeatedly that the charter schools that have closed, reopen as traditional public schools, the state continues to open up charter schools.
White House Photo. An aerial view shows the flood-ravaged areas of New Orleans, Louisiana Thursday, September 8, 2005. The damage was created by Hurricane Katrina, which hit both Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29th.
Are charter schools funded by the state as well as philanthropies?
They get state dollars, federal dollars, and philanthropy dollars. We have been advocating around this idea that because they get federal and state funds, they should live up to federal and state mandates. But it's the wild, wild West here. There are no accountability mechanisms. Schools were breaking the law constantly, and when you brought it up to them they would just kind of shrug it off.
What did the new schools look like?
They cut out music and art programs. The whole idea was to focus on core subjects like reading and math. That might sound good in theory, but music and art are therapeutic.
We are a city of art and music.
And when you cut music out, you cut access to music scholarships and access to musical income. We have a lot of people who make their living as musicians, but if it had not been for public schools, giving them instruments and access to music, a lot of these people wouldn't exist.
Alvencent Gordon and Band, photograph, October 1971; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth129675/m1/1/?q=band: accessed May 18, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting St. Philips College.
And, I mean, our students were traumatized. Before Katrina, we had a high population of children on the trauma spectrum and children with mild to severe PTSD. After the storm, that was exacerbated. I would say at least two-thirds of our population was somewhere on a PTSD trauma spectrum after Katrina. The first thing our government did was cut the mental health budget and close the adolescent hospital. There was literally no recourse for people experiencing trauma and PTSD. In the charter school network, they had one social worker shared between three schools.
And to deal with that they implemented zero-tolerance policies, which meant the kids could get suspended for anything. When I say anything I mean anything — wearing yellow socks, wearing a green bra underneath your white shirt, talking back to teachers, using the bathroom, taking Tylenol, being tardy. The schools in the Recovery School District doubled down on the school-to-prison pipeline. That is not what traumatized children need.
In one of my old advocacy cases, from 2008, there was this six-year-old kid who brought Rolaids to school because he thought it was candy. And he gave some to his friends because, again, he thought he was six and thought it was candy.
This new teacher, instead of calling poison control and just getting rid of the Rolaids, sent the kid go to the hospital. The doctor was like, it's an antacid, it's accidental, he is going to be fine. So the mom comes to the school and she might have to pay hospital bills, and she was super upset. But then they tell her that the school has a zero-tolerance policy against drugs, that her child has been expelled, and that they have to send him to court because the child was in possession of and distributed drugs.
For whatever reason, whoever had the case, just saw possession and distribution and sent him to go take urine tests at the jail. His mom didn't want to bring him to the jail to do a urine test and they told her if she didn't that she would be held in contempt of court. And like, even when she did, the men in line to also take the urine tests, got visibly upset. They were like, why is a baby in here? It was insanity on top of insanity and we had to fight this for three months.
In setting up these new schools, they took no advice from the community.
They had meetings with the community — that was a requirement to start a charter school — but not a single thing that the community suggested was implemented.
I feel like I attended over a hundred of these meetings. A lot of times you would hear the same thing. Parents want the children to have therapy because they knew that they had experienced trauma during the storm. They wanted a therapist in those schools. They want washing machines and dryers in the schools because due to the amount of damage that had occurred, washers and dryers were not operational anymore, and there was a high population of homeless kids and extremely poor kids. Parents wanted the kids to have swimming lessons because we're in a city that's literally a bowl and it floods all the time. In Hurricane Katrina, the majority of people who died, died because of drowning, because they didn't know how to swim. None of that was implemented.
The charter schools were really pushing this idea of school choice. In response, the community said, "Well, choice means I have a choice between a traditional public school and a charter school. Having just a whole bunch of charter schools doesn't feel like a choice." It didn’t change anything.
What are the demographics of these schools like?
The majority of the charter schools here in Orleans Parish are black and poor.
84% of all public school children are African-American in Orleans parish. 86% are on free and reduced lunch.
So we're talking about a poor black public school population.
If you look at the more quality charter schools, Montessori, Benjamin Franklin, and Lusher, these schools are about 65 to 70% white and middle-class. The white middle-class parents only send their kids to these particular schools. If their children can't get into these schools, then they put them in a private school.
The charter schools that look and operate like prisons are 100% African-American. They are policed. I tell people, if a school has a high suspension and expulsion rate, if the kids don't have any recess or PE or art or music, I guarantee you that's an all-black school.
[Clear Creek High School Band in a Parade], photograph, April 19, 1986; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth279278/m1/1/?q=high%20school%20music: accessed May 18, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting League City Helen Hall Library.
We already had a population that did not really have trust in the government. When you're looking at poor black people or poor people of color, the government is not listening to them anyway. The public school system in New Orleans was a space where people felt that they could make their voices heard.
You had community involvement. You had a lot of musicians and singers who volunteer at the schools and work with the young people. The young people got to work with world-class musicians. They would volunteer at the school, spend time with the kids. Music was important, the arts were important. We looked out for people. People were represented and respected. And then all of that was just wiped out overnight.
US National Archives. Members of "Teach For America" program that places new teachers into inner city and low-income area schools around the nation.
We also lose our culture when that happens. There were a whole bunch of people from Teach for America that came in. After the storm, they fired all of the teachers, then said, oh look we have a teacher shortage. They didn't want to hire back traditional teachers, because TFA was a lot cheaper. These people may be well-intentioned but…
The culture of our city is if you are hungry, we're going to feed you. If you are thirsty, we are going to get you some water. If you look like you're upset, we will ask you if you are okay. People will sit and have a whole hour conversation with you. But when you have people that don't understand that there is a give and take, that we are taking care of each other, they just are taking, taking, taking, taking, taking. And they're calling their friends to come to take. It shifts the mentality in the city.
I remember being a kid asking my grandmother, why do I have to say good morning to everybody? Her response was that everyone is valuable. Everyone is God's child. Everyone deserves to be seen.
I remember walking and feeling ashamed of myself because, especially if someone was young and white, I literally was like I'm not going to even say hello. They don't want to acknowledge my existence, and I don't want to feel that rejection. But then that's changing how I interact in my own city.
I tell people New Orleans is a port city. So we've always had people come in. But if you love the culture, embrace it. If you don’t embrace it, you're probably shifting in a way that's not good.
Has anything changed at all over the last 15 years? Charter schools went back to the Orleans Parish School Board in 2018, did that change anything?
No. They wrote legislation to still allow the charter schools to have the same autonomy.
Literally, the school board can't create regulations.
Even simple things. For example, parents have been requesting that the school's calendars line up so that if I have children in three different schools, they can be on the same schedule. They don’t care. The schools have autonomy and their autonomy literally allows them to do what they want to do. They could care less what the community wants.
What is there to do?
Some folks are working to push for an agenda on children's rights. More parents and more community members are awake to the realization that their children aren't being educated. These schools promised all kinds of things — improved education, more students in college. None of that happened. And if kids do go to college they are unprepared. People are looking around now and asking how schools are accountable to educating our children. Charter schools pitch themselves as a business. Well, then, we should be holding them accountable as customers. We should be making demands as customers.
[Photograph of Charles A. Bower], photograph, Date Unknown; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth129201/m1/1/?q=math: accessed May 18, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting St. Philips College.
There is not a lack of spending – rather a problem spending this money effectively. How does that change?
Talk to education experts. We know that we should have only 15 kids per class. We know that teachers need to have a teacher's assistant. We know that kids learn better through play and free environments. We know there should be more field trips and more interactive activities because that is the way children's brains are structured.
And most importantly, listen to the community. Listen to what they value. We had so many CEOs and people who make a lot of money saying things like, “Well, I went to a very strict military school.” But are you happy? Are you a happy person? Are you happy, satisfied, a good father, a good friend, good communicator? Do you go home? Are you like, “I can't wait to get home and engage with my kids”?
If that's not you, then maybe your education wasn't that great.
[Laughing] Maybe the reason you're trying to acquire so many billions of dollars is that something went wrong for you.
How do you get $500 million and say, I need more money? How will you justify destroying the air, water, and land to make money? How do you justify destroying the air, water, and land to make money that will be worthless when all these things are destroyed? Maybe I don't want my kid learning that logic.
I think creating empathetic, caring human beings should be part of education. Social, emotional learning should be a part of education. It's not separate from school. You can't have kids in school 10 hours a day and say, they're going to get social, emotional learning outside of this. They are there.
You wrote, “when all eyes turned to New Orleans ten years ago, I thought, finally, people will see the poverty, people will see the income inequality, and things will change.” What’s happened to students in New Orleans between then and now?
US National Archives; President George W. Bush at a charter school in New Orleans.
Disaster capitalism. First of all, there's a lot of propaganda going on around how great it once was. Realistically, disaster capitalism happened. A lot of people looked at us and said, “Oh, we can go and pick the bones.” And that's what happened. The population of New Orleans that was already poor lost land, money, and businesses.
Black New Orleans natives have less land, less money, and fewer businesses than they did before Katrina, even though $72 billion dollars came into the city. And this is a small city.
I don't know what the nonprofit industrial complex is trying to do. And let me say this: I worked for a very good nonprofit when I was young called Agenda for Children. It was run by a white Jewish lady Judith Watts. She was one of the most progressive women I've ever met running a nonprofit, right. Let me start with that.
The nonprofit industrial complex, on the other hand, is complete and utter garbage. They are not actually trying to help. They are about band-aids. Imagine a tree dying. Their job would be to paint the leaves green.
You have Propeller, which was supposed to start to help people propel new businesses. The majority of people that they helped were new young people from outside of the city. I call them the hub of gentrification. I remember talking to them, they would be like, “We don’t know where to find black local people who are interested in business.” I mean, there's literally a barbershop on the next block — how many times have you gone over?
A lot of these people are also scared of black locals. Nobody wants to admit they have these extreme biases, but they do.