More than 40 HBS students, faculty and staff landed in New Orleans on January 6 ready to roll up their sleeves for the next 10 days and put their knowledge and skills to practical use.
The New Orleans IXP began five years ago as a student-led initiative to help clear the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. Whereas students focused in those early years on helping New Orleans emerge from the rubble, more recent participants have helped civic and community leaders address longer-term challenges related to how the city wants to grow towards the future – not forgetting its past, but embracing it.
It is a rainy morning and the bus pulls up to a stop sign. This part of the tour is difficult for me. Well, admittedly, a lot of the parts of the tour are difficult for me. Everyone on the bus is quiet. We have stopped in what was once a vibrant community. Poor, but vibrant. Now, there is just a lot of open space overgrown with weeds. Dotting the field are cement rectangles. Each of these rectangles is the foundation of what used to be someone’s home. In many instances, you can see cement steps leading up to nothing.
The bus continues to bump along on its journey (not surprisingly, the roads are not well maintained). As we move out of the Lower Ninth Ward and into Bywater, more houses are standing and there are less empty lots. Some houses have been repainted, and it is clear that people live in them. On others we can still see the symbols that the National Guard spray painted on the sides of the houses when they came through on boats. Some still have holes in the roof, where occupants tried to escape from their rapidly flooding homes. Many windows still show waterlines, indicating how high the floodwaters rose.
The Katrina bus tour is scheduled at the beginning of the New Orleans IXP because it encompasses the complexity of the situation that the 40+ students, faculty and staff will face as they work with a variety of organizations over the next 10 days. I don’t bring it up because I want to introduce this as a sad story. In the many stories that together form the collective history of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing recovery effort, yes, there is tragedy. There is also hope. There is devastation and hardship. There are mistakes. There is triumph and perseverance. There is, quite literally, blood, sweat and tears. There is also music, laughter, dancing and lots and lots of food.
For the fifth time since Katrina, a group of HBS students, faculty and staff made the trip down to New Orleans. In the early years, it was a student-led initiative to help the city emerge from the rubble. In more recent years, it has been a student-led effort focused on helping civic and community leaders grapple with tough strategic and operational issues critical to shaping New Orleans for the longer-term. In all years, it has been an incredible experience.
New Orleans presents a somewhat unique entrepreneurial environment, particularly regarding social enterprise. On most accounts, federal, state and local government plans have not materialized into reality and numerous Katrina-related challenges still remain. Massive blight, a lack of affordable housing for low-income workers and flood risks still pose major challenges. In many ways, though, New Orleans has a blank slate from which to rebuild many of their city and community institutions.
Options exist here that frankly don’t seem feasible for other cities because other cities are constrained by the status quo. This creates an incredible environment in which students can contribute and learn. This is why, after spending my RC year as a participant, I decided to be one of the three IXP organizers this year. I was joined by Bryant Harrison (OA) and Kevin Kingman (OG) as the student co-leaders of the IXP. Project leaders Jessica Rabl (NI), Candice Bradley (NG), Rashaan Campbell (NG), Chris Cowan (NC), Blake Kurisu (ND) and Andrew Lechleiter (NF) deserve special recognition due to the work they did leading each of the student project teams. Furthermore, faculty and staff were instrumental in enabling the student teams to deliver the highest quality product to their partner organizations. Shawn Cole, Alnoor Ebrahim, Dutch Leonard, Margot Dushin and Rebecca Westerling all traveled with the group and made significant contributions on the ground.
HBS students prepared for the trip by attending two sessions on campus. The first focused on the recent history of New Orleans. The second focused on the specific nuances of working with mission-driven organizations (as opposed to profit-driven organizations). Then, on January 6, the real work began.
On the ground, HBS students worked in small project teams with a variety of partner organizations. Groups worked with Habitat for Humanity and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right organization to tackle issues related to affordable housing. Teams worked with Teach for America and First Line Schools (a charter management organization) to advance their work in the education sector. Catholic Charities, Idea Village and the Broadmoor Improvement Association all had teams helping them work through unique strategic issues facing their organizations.
In order to fully grasp New Orleans and its people, it was important to not focus too much on work. The unique place New Orleans holds in history has given it much to offer any visitor. IXP participants couldn’t help but take full advantage of the city’s famous music venues (New Orleans is widely regarded as being the birthplace of jazz). Evenings included ample opportunities to sample numerous varieties of gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp, oysters, hurricanes and hand grenades (the liquid kind). If you had sauntered up or down Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street or Magazine Street between January 6 and 16, you might have seen us.
Ultimately, the New Orleans IXP gives students the opportunity to apply what they are learning (or refining) in the classroom to advise real people in real organizations on a real problem that is really important. Beyond practical knowledge and skills, students must draw on abilities like active listening, teamwork and communication in order to deliver a realistic, meaningful product. Students are able to observe community leadership as it is shown in the very challenging situations in which they immerse themselves. Most importantly, all students demonstrate that they are, in fact, leaders making a difference in the world.
Sasha Duchnowski was one of the student leaders in charge of organizing the New Orleans IXP. He graduated with a business degree from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.