Thursday, April 23, 2009

An IMteresting Conversation With: Jonah Evans, New Orleans Advocate

This week's IMteresting Conversation is with Jonah Evans, advocate and lover of New Orleans -- and Recovering New Englander. Read on for: what happens when a white guy works for the NAACP, how facebook kills political careers, and if New Orleans is still Anderson Cooper standing in "muck."

Also! This interview is cross-posted over at Take Part!


EA Hanks: Firstly, what's your name and what do you do?

Jonah Evans: My name's Jonah Evans and I'm the producer and co-director of

EA: What is Charity Hospital and why does it need saving?

JE: Charity Hospital is a public hospital in New Orleans, one of the oldest in the country. It was founded in 1736 and has served the city since. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, the hospital was closed by Louisiana State University, despite that fact that over 200 doctors, nurses, volunteers and soldiers from the 82nd Airborne fixed it up

LSU's now trying to push an ill-conceived plan to build a new hospital that would destroy 67 acres of our city, take over a decade to build, and cost us over $2.2 billion. Charity Hospital can be rebuilt for a lot less, in half the time, and help us rebuild downtown New Orleans in the process

[Editor's Note: Please enjoy Jonah's dulcet tones in this video which explains his arugment on behalf of Charity Hospital further.]

EA: How is a university responsible for this? Shouldn't this be a gubernatorial issue?

JE: Well LSU is really powerful in the state of the Louisiana. After the storm, FEMA offered the state $150 million for "storm-related" damage for Charity Hospital. But LSU has appealed saying that they're owed $492 million because of storm damage. The pictures show a different story.

EA: How long have you been living in New Orleans?

JE: I've been living down here for about a year and a half but started working down here with the NAACP National Headquarters right after Katrina.
It's an easy city to fall in love with!

EA: So you're Post-Katrina.

JE: A recovering New Englander =)

EA: Has the city fallen in love with the influx of Post Katrina transplants in turn, or is there tension there?

JE: I just read that about 10% of New Orleanians today didn't live here [before the] storm. [Editor's Note: Check out this info on page two of the "NOLA Master Plan."] There's some tension with those folks I'm sure but everyone in the city is here for a reason. For those that came back home since the storm, and for those of us that moved here to make this our home I feel like there's a common sense of purpose

If anything, there is a new commitment for rebuilding our city in a more transparent way. Which is why this Charity Hospital fight is really striking a chord in the city.

EA: You came to the city with the NAACP, and now you're working to rebuild a part of the city that is historically Black. You're also a 6'4 guy from Massachusetts who could not be any whiter.

JE: I definitely had to wear my "NAACP Staff" jacket everywhere in the beginning.

EA: You're touching a lot of live wires here -- race, class, new people moving into an old town.

JE: This city is remarkably more diverse and welcoming than most places I've lived
I remember being shocked when people called me "Baby" when I first started working here. You ever been down here? [...] It's absolutely gorgeous and so alive! I think a lot of folks still have the image of Anderson Cooper standing waist deep in N'awlins muck. We've come a long way.

EA: You're describing New Orleans as though energy of the city, and the love people have for it -- whether you're new there or old -- makes the conversation about race null, or at least, not important. Do you think that's how most people feel, or do you feel like that's your take on it, that is, a perspective that could be defined as White?

JE: I'm not suggesting that the energy of the city post-Katrina somehow overlooks the deep racial tensions. If anything, the storm showed how horrible those disparities could be.

But I feel like BECAUSE people are dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans, there's an enhanced sense of engagement in what's happening to our city and who's making the the decisions that affect our future.

And I believe that level of community engagement means that we have the opportunity to address a lot of racial, social and economic justice issues in a new way. And that reaches across racial boundaries

EA: What do you love about New Orleans?

JE: Wow. There's so much -- the people, the music, the food, but that just sounds like tourist speak. You know another tall white guy from Massachusetts once wrote, "it is required of a person that they share the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived."

In New Orleans, every day is one where you share in the passion and action of our time.

EA: The city takes up a huge space in the American cultural zeitgeist. It feels like a city that is both the epitome of America, and completely outside of it -- with its French influences and its African influences and the sense that things just function differently there.

JE: More Havana than Atlanta

EA: Right. Do you think that one of the many many reasons that the reaction to Katrina was... such that it was, is that the rest of America doesn't really understand the city beyond Bourbon St. ?

JE: Some people think it's just Mardi Gras beads and booze, but I think that the response after Katrina was remarkable. There are still volunteers that come down here week after week.

EA: The city, and the state for that matter, have a long history of a violent and fetid underbelly -- crime is still a huge issue there. How are all these volunteers and new energy mixing with that side of New Orleans?
Your house has been broken into, two, three times?

JE: Every city has it's problems and the crime in New Orleans is a very serious one. I'm definitely not an expert in this area and not sure what the answer is.

EA: But that part of life in the city is folded into the parts that are more traditionally celebrated -- the culture of community that's built around food and music and the identity of being from New Orleans. I'm just interested in how those two blend together. Crime is a part of every city, but it's rare that it's part of a city's consciousness the way it is in New Orleans.

How did you start working for the NAACP?

JE: I moved to DC after graduating college. I think I borrow too much West Wing from you in college. When Katrina hit, one of my best friends from New Orleans moved in with me NAACP had one of those numbers that scrawled across CNN during the storm... "If your need help, call here" kind of things. I started volunteering there and fielding those phone calls. I stayed for weeks and just never left.

EA: You call yourself a Recovering New Englander. What's to recover from?

JE: I love New England. Die hard Red Sox fan. But the states are so small up there!
I've felt incredibly lucky to get to work and live in other parts of the country that aren't in the Bermuda Triangle of Boston-NYC-DC.

EA: do you see yourself staying in new orleans?

JE: Definitely.

EA: What do you think will happen to Charity Hospital?

JE: I think we're going to win. If there's one thing I saw [working on the on the Obama campaign in Georgia and Michigan] it's how committed people are to having a say in what happens in their community.

Good health care and smart planning is too important to the people in New Orleans for them to let these decisions happen behind closed doors.

EA: Do you see yourself running for office? Does that interest you at all?

JE: Absolutely never ever ever! What about you E.A.? High priestess of New York City?

EA: There's one too many photos of me being a raging liberal out there.

JE: Facebook has destroyed many a fledgling political career.