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The Great 'Rethinkers': New Orleans Teens Rethink Schools and Shrimping
I’ve just read an inspiring and instructive story about how a few dozen middle schoolers in post-Katrina New Orleans began rethinking their schools and found themselves helping to reconstruct their local economy.
It started with their concern about the lack of toilet paper and doors on bathroom stalls in the flood-damaged Sherwood Forest Elementary School. This led to questions about the food served in the school cafeteria, and from there, to the local shrimping industry, which is central to the food culture of New Orleans.
Making contact with local shrimpers, the middle schoolers discovered that under the impact of globalization and mass production for Walmart-type restaurants like Red Lobster, New Orleans shrimp farms have become so industrialized that they are like feedlots, the aquatic equivalent of the factory farms herding hogs, poultry and cattle on floors covered with feces. Discussing this unhealthy situation with the local shrimpers, the teens helped the shrimpers recognize the need to restructure the shrimp industry, not only in order to heal the local economy and culture but for their own health and humanity.
Local journalist and activist Jane Wholey played an important role in this teen journey. A media consultant with experience in helping young people voice their ideas to the public, she encouraged the youngsters to name themselves the Rethinkers. The name gave the teens an enlarged view of themselves and their mission.
As word of the Rethinker spread, the teens were invited to tell their story to many different audiences, not only in New Orleans but in other venues, e.g. at the Fourth National Farm to Cafeteria conference in Portland, Oregon.
This teen saga is an example of how, in our exquisitely interconnected world, small changes can lead to much bigger ones. When school kids involved in a struggle to bring about real change in one small part of their environment are encouraged to think more grandly about themselves, they will naturally and organically begin thinking about changes needed in other parts of their environment. These other changes can bring them into contact with surrounding communities so that they become catalysts in bringing about the many changes urgently needed in our communities and workplaces.
All over the country, from neighborhoods to the White House, people are wondering how our schools can be transformed so that they energize our kids instead of being pipelines to prison. We don’t have to wait for Superman. By making a paradigm shift in how we think about young people and young people think about themselves, and by viewing all of us as actors in the challenging drama of changing education, we can empower our school children to become change agents in their schools and in their communities.
At this time, when so many of our institutions have become dysfunctional, we especially need the participation and creative energies of young people to redefine and respirit them.
You can read the Rethinkers story in Food Justice, MIT Press 2010, a fascinating book about the movement to establish justice and health at every stage in the food chain, from farm or garden to table. Food Justice tells us how this movement is emerging in cities all over the country, including Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and the mostly Puerto Rican city of Holyoke in western Massachusetts.
The book’s co-authors are Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi. Gottlieb is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies at Occidental College in Southern California and author of Environmentalism Unbound: Exploring New Pathways for Change and Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City. Joshi is co-director of National Farm to School Network and is based at the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.