Photo by Cheryl Gerber
Jim Bernazzani has a way of making people listen. I met him about a month ago at the bar at the Columns Hotel. Wearing blue jeans and a white pique polo shirt with an FBI patch embroidered on it, he was sitting alone having a cocktail. I knew very little about the man at the time, but from the first words he said he had me rapt. At first I was listening to see if I could figure out what it was about him that made me want to listen to him maybe it was his exotic Boston accent or the way his words sometimes dipped into a near whisper, making you lean in to hear or ask him to repeat what he just said but then I just gave in and let myself become engrossed in what turned out to be a memorably stimulating conversation in a small group at the end of the bar for over an hour.
Bernazzani may have a reputation for being tough talking, but he can also be vividly expressive. He told some amazing stories about his experiences working for the FBI in the days immediately following Katrina. He talked about the city as it was and as it is and about all of the places in the system where its all gone wrong. But since he made it clear, to me specifically, that he was speaking off the record, I cannot divulge the details of that exchange, and until now, I had no reason to write about this encounter at all.
But over the weekend, I saw him in an interview on WWLs Sunday Morning with Dennis Woltering. And once again, Bernazzani got and kept my attention this time not because of the tales he told, but because of the plans he is making.
It seems his decision to retire from the FBI and stay in New Orleans after the bureau removed him from his post as special agent in charge of the New Orleans office two months ago and offered to transfer him to Washington, D.C. has led him, not to seek political office, but to seek a new path as a community activist.
Hes got a plan and a new organization in the works. His idea is to help the NOPD clean up New Orleans neighborhoods and help at-risk youth by working with non-law enforcement entities politicians, educators, the media, the clergy and businesses to develop programs designed to build structure, discipline and opportunity, not only for the children but for the families.
By starting with children as young as four, Bernazzani aims to help kids from poverty- and crime-ridden neighborhoods to see that there is a way out.
What Im going to try to do, with some like-minded individuals is . . . Identify the holes in the systems and plug them and . . . provide opportunities for the youth so they understand that there is a different quality of life, says Bernazzani, adding that the key is to give young people the skill sets they need to pursue a better life, as opposed to graduating into street drug trade.
And then Dennis Woltering asked a question that you are probably asking yourself right now: How is this program going to be different from other youth-targeting non-profits already out there?
Bernazzanis answer is characteristically matter-of-fact and convincing: We will not be consumed by bureaucracy. We will be small . . . . We can adapt and we can move quickly. I dont want to have meetings to have meetings. I dont want to wring my hands and wonder what Washington is going to say. Im going to make the call.
Something about the way he says it makes you believe he can do it. And maybe thats the first step to his success, to make the city believe it can happen. God knows we need help! We need a man of action, not corruption, with good instincts instead of just good intentions, a man who is too concerned with being effective to even have time to think about getting elected.
What makes this plan even more enticing is what Bernazzani wont, or cant, reveal about it just yet. Since the organization is still trying to get its 501C3 non-profit status finalized, he will not be able to release any details about the program until September.
And hes got me again hanging on to the every word, even the ones he hasnt said yet.
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