Think you know New Orleans? Think again. No matter how long you've lived here, no matter how many generations back your family might go, if you haven't sat and listened to the young trainees at Cafe Reconcile tell their stories, you don't really know this city.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, several of his top aides, Criminal Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson, NOPD 6th District Capt. Bob Bardy and a handful of NOPD cops got an earful Thursday night (July 22) at a round table discussion with about a dozen Reconcile students — "a listening opportunity," Landrieu called it.
The students were asked to tell their guests what it's really like growing up in the city's rougher neighborhoods, and they didn't hold back. They spoke of attending pre-Hurricane Katrina schools where it was easier to get drugs and guns than take-home textbooks, of feeling so unsafe in their neighborhoods that they dared not even sit on their porches, and of not having New Orleans Recreation Department programs and playgrounds to keep their younger siblings and cousins out of trouble.
Two young men said they had been shot — one of them three times — just trying to walk home. Several spoke of going to schools in other towns after Katrina and realizing for the first time what a good school was, and each voiced a preference for such schools.
They weren't complaining; they were just being honest. In fact, these same young people were filled with hope, thanks to Reconcile.
"Each one of you makes me feel small," Landrieu told them after more than an hour of listening under the direction of Reconcile's program director Donna Bowie and executive director Sister Mary Lou Specha. "Some of you may have come from a bad place, but you have all made a decision to change where you're going."
Cafe Reconcile (1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.) in Central City, operates as a nonprofit restaurant that serves as a training academy for students ages 16-22 who are seeking to acquire life skills as well as experience in the food service industry. Its graduates work in some of the best eateries in town.
Co-founded in 2000 by the late Rev. Harry Thompson and several community leaders, Reconcile serves local dishes at some of the city's lowest prices. It has become a favorite lunch spot for socially conscious entrepreneurs and professionals. Landrieu, who ranks among Cafe Reconcile's most avid fans, has taken many visiting dignitaries there to show that hope is not dead even in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods.
At last Thursday's meeting, the mayor urged the students to continue to "find a way to give light to goodness" — a favorite admonition of the late Fr. Thompson, who as president of Jesuit High School was a mentor to Landrieu during the mayor's teenage years.
Several students spoke of not having good experiences with cops after having been victims of crime — mostly that police officers seemed preoccupied with asking them questions after someone had been shot and was in need of medical attention. Landrum-Johnson, who served briefly as district attorney before winning a Criminal Court judgeship, reminded them that police officers "ask questions because they want to help solve the crime." She urged them not to be afraid to work with cops.
Bardy, who described himself as a regular diner at Reconcile, urged the trainees to visit the nearby 6th District station to get better acquainted with area cops. "We have always believed that we're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," Bardy said. "We want to be more user friendly and have more meetings like this."
Amen to that.