In my last article, â€œCulture, Crisis and Recoveryâ€, I mentioned a forthcoming conferenceÂ Iâ€™d be attending in New Orleans convened by Imagining America, a collective of public scholars from a hundred universities across the USA and Canada.Â I have just returned home and I am happy to tell you it was truly heartening to hear the presentations describing partnerships between universities, usually via their public humanities programs, and a wide array cultural, community and educational groups from their surrounding neighborhoods. Â The spirit of entrepreneurship “civicly engaged” was certainly alive and well.Â It was especially satisfying to hear in session after session the emphasis placed on the slow, thoughtful democratic processes involved in setting up the partnerships themselves. Â Were the projects with community organizations truly responsive to the real-time needs of their community constituents?Â Â Â Or were they merely useful platforms for research and the professionalÂ groomingÂ of privileged graduate Â students?Â Â Much to everyone’s credit, in each case, a genuine win-win relationship was nurtured with both parties on hand to tell their stories. Â Bravo, â€œImagining America!â€
This sort of project-based learning linked to democratically conceived, civic engagement is without question one of the great roads forward for higher education.Â Everybody wins.Â Students are immersed in real world learning, doing good for others as they do well for themselves. Â The local cultural, educational and community groups acquire a lifeline to the special intellectual and human capital of their university partners while in turn providing the university’s students with priceless learning opportunities born of unadorned striving and honest human relationships.Â Â And lastly, the universities themselves are propelled into the 21st century, acting meaningfully on real-world issues, serving globally by acting locally, and re-affirming the universityâ€™s mission as a generative center of learning, innovation and culture.
And wouldnâ€™t you know? Â The arts and artistsÂ were smack dab in the middle of this movement to civic engagement!Â Â This is not merely an affirmation of the crucial role of arts and artists in the transformation of our communities and institutions.Â Â It is that writ large. Â But let us be quite clear that it also represents a strategy for artists willing and able to think entrepreneurially. Â There is opportunity here and weÂ need only to act upon it.Â Review the landscape of your community.Â Do some research and investigate how your regional colleges and universities are reaching out to their communities, not just to â€œhelp them outâ€ but to form lasting partnerships that benefit all the players through the long term.Â Become a voice for that kind of civic engagement.Â Your voice, joined with others can make a difference. Â This is good news for all of us.
Now, I want to tell you about my deepest moment of inspiration while in New Orleans this last week. Â
After a stellar evening with Dr. Michael White who raised the roof and got our feet to dancing with his magnificent keynote in jazz, I went for a walk down Royal Street toward what seemed like the quieter part of town. Â I passed shop after shop, gallery after gallery, restaurant after restaurant with music blaring a spirited come-on from every doorway. Â All too quickly, that barage ofÂ sounds merged into a sort of din which ceased to hold appeal for me and I picked up my pace and walked more quickly toward where the lights appeared to fade.Â
Suddenly, through that curtainÂ of gradually diminishing sounds, I thought I heard a plaintive sort of opera singing somewhere in the distance. Â It was a soulful sound, a womanâ€™s voice, tender and full of yearning.Â It seemed so out of place and drifted in and out of my hearing.Â Â I walked more slowly trying to pinpoint the source.Â Was it an open window from one of the balconied dwellings, a recording from one of the Italian cafes? Â There it was again echoing like a chant from the walls all around me. Â What a beautiful sound! Â But where was it coming from?Â As I lowered my gaze to listen more intently, my eye caught sight of a woman standing between two parked cars, one arm raised in a kind of prayerful gesture, a small cardboard box on the ground in front of her.Â She was singing.Â I stopped and she sang to me.Â Through the passing couples and jostling pranksters, she locked on to my gaze and sang to me.Â It was a spiritual Iâ€™d never heard before – gentle, soaring, tender. Â She sang exquisitely.Â When she finished, she thanked me for listening, saying it was her last song and it was good to have someone to sing it to. Â I told her that her singing was a tremendous gift to me, that it had gone right into my soul and fixed itself there. Â
We talked for a while.Â She said she wasnâ€™t allowed to sing here after 8:00 PM.Â She said her name was Pearl and that she loved to sing the spirituals, but that she baked meat pies to earn a living. Â Just five dollars a pie and they were delicious, she said. Â And when the pies werenâ€™t selling, she would go down to the streets to sing for a few extra dollars. Â Pearl, the Pie Lady, she called herself.Â She said she was Creole and had not left during Katrina, but had stayed out of love for the city. Â Now, however, four years later, she didnâ€™t think she would make it. Â The city was still in so many ways gravely dysfunctional, especially for poor people. Â So, she was thinking, she might have to go â€“ somewhere.Â
I toldÂ Pearl that I too was a singer, that she had inspired me and that I wanted to find her again when I returned to New Orleans. Â I put some money into her hands and thanked her for her gift. Â Her spirit shown through her eyes and was every bit as beautiful as her singing. Â Someday, I will find Pearl again.Â Or maybe, you will.Â Her gift is waiting for us both.Â Remember her.
Thanks for sharing this. I can see the meat pie woman in my mind. I love people who share their passion from their hearts.
Thank you, Cory. Pearl was every thing one might hope for in a person so named. Peace.
Thank you for that Cory. Pearl lived in our building when we stayed in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but this last visit (Oct-Nov), I did not see her, either in our building or around the city.
If she’s left, it’s a great loss for N.O. It’s a wonderful city, and she belonged there. I hope she’s doing well, wherever she isl