A dialogue process is not designed to eliminate conflict and differences of opinion, but to learn to live with conflict and differences and to listen to each other."
Those were Southern Institute director Lance Hill's words, reported in Gambit Weekly's Commentary last week ('A Dialogue on Race,' April 26). When I edited that Commentary and first read Hill's definition of dialogue, I thought back to the New Orleans Public Schools board meeting I attended on Monday, April 11, in the auditorium of McDonogh 35 high school.
My wife and I watched together as the board voted to bring in outside financial consultants and halt all planned school expansions. We also watched as accusations of racism and elitism flew across the auditorium at alarming speed. People that night spoke of hatred like it was something you could touch. It was one of the most painful experiences my wife and I have ever shared. There was no chance of debating public education issues that night -- and dialogue was the farthest thing from the room.
In truth, I was playing two roles that night at McDonogh 35. I attended that meeting as I've attended other civic events, as the editor of Gambit Weekly. I took notes and kept alert for possible reporting opportunities. I also attended as the father of a child at Lusher School, which had advanced a proposal to expand its program and create a Tulane University-affiliated high school.
We enrolled our child at Lusher this year for two reasons. First, we believed it would provide a good education. Second, we believe the part-district, part City Wide Access School is part of the solution to what ails local public education. At the school board meeting, some speakers echoed that notion. Others made it clear that they considered Lusher to be part of the problem.
Clearly, I had a conflict of interest if I wanted to report on Lusher in the pages of Gambit Weekly. But did the conflict go away if I decided to keep the Lusher story out of Gambit?
I subscribe to the view that journalists shouldn't campaign for candidates or even put certain stickers on their car bumpers. If we can't be truly objective, we can at least be fair -- and that means keeping ourselves available to all sides of an issue. But how can journalists stop from being involved members of our neighborhoods? How can we refrain from being active parents in our children's schools?
The Lusher controversy placed me on this ethical high-wire. In larger news organizations, editors can simply recuse themselves from the assembly line that produces any stories in which they have a personal stake. But I have a hand in just about every news story and cover story in these pages. The question lingered: how to treat Lusher?
My answer is that Gambit should do what it does best: provide context and offer a more complete view of our city than what's currently available. In this spirit, I personally invited four people to write essays about the Lusher controversy. I offered each writer the same amount of space and promised each the opportunity to review the final version of his or her work.
Two of these writers -- the Rev. Anthony Mitchell and Walter Umrani -- had identified themselves as being against the Lusher proposal and/or its process. Mitchell became a primary organizer of opposition against the Lusher plan, and Umrani is a father who has children in both a district school and a CWAS school. I had heard both men speak in public meetings and found both to be strong advocates for their positions.
I also asked two people in favor of the proposal -- one a current Lusher parent, the other a parent of a child who went through Lusher and is now graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School -- to contribute essays. I had heard Lona Hankins speak at parents' gatherings and I had read a letter she wrote to The Times-Picayune about Lusher. Rodger Kamenetz is the only one of the four essayists who is a professional writer. Gambit Weekly had previously published an essay he'd written on last December's tsunami, and he now wanted to use this opportunity to write a critique of the daily newspaper's coverage of the Lusher issue.
The future of a proposed Lusher High School -- like much in our district -- is uncertain. As it stands, nobody can predict if such a school will ever exist in New Orleans, or what it might look like. But the fight -- and it was a fight -- over the plan reignited passions in our school district and in our city. Timed, one-minute bursts of raw emotion at last month's school board meeting certainly didn't add to our understanding of these crucial issues.
What follows is a different kind of conversation.
The four essayists here are divided by both their opinions and how they interpret key events and information in the Lusher debate. They are united by their willingness to devote their time to this Gambit project. I am grateful to each writer for his or her contribution. I'm especially grateful to the two writers who oppose the Lusher project/process yet trusted a Lusher parent to keep his word and present their cases fairly in Gambit.
In future issues, Gambit Weekly will continue its tradition of in-depth reporting on both public and private education issues. We also invite our readers to join the dialogue on Lusher and other education issues by sending a letter to the editor to Gambit Weekly, 3923 Bienville St., New Orleans, LA 70119, or by emailing email@example.com.
In last week's Commentary, the Twomey Center's Ted Quant added that "dialogue can be a clash of values." At Gambit Weekly, we hope that this clash is not so all-encompassing that we lose sight of the value of raising and educating our children in an atmosphere of respect.