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  • Upholding Community TraditionsAn Interview with Cherice Harrison-Nelson by Clyde Woods, March 1, 2009
  • Cherice Harrison-Nelson (bio) and Clyde Woods (bio)

Cherice Harrison-Nelson has been an educator in the New Orleans Public School System for twenty-four years. After earning a graduate education degree from Xavier University, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Senegal and Ghana. She has served as project director of the Haley Story Quilt Project and as chairperson of Jazz Awareness Month. She created a jazz studies curriculum for elementary level students that is used in more than forty schools in southeast Louisiana. She also served as site coordinator for the Deep South Regional Humanities Center at Tulane University’s Lessons in Folklife and Technology Program. A third-generation Mardi Gras Indian, she is the curator of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. Additionally, she has begun studies for a PhD in cultural anthropology at the University of New Orleans. Harrison-Nelson is the daughter of the late Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, Donald Harrison Sr., and the sister of jazz legend Donald Harrison. For inquiries concerning the Big Chief and Big Queen Book Project, please contact her at 1941 Alvar Street, New Orleans, LA 70117, or

Woods: You have been deeply involved in a number of projects in New Orleans prior to and after Hurricane Katrina. Before discussing your assessment of the schools, the meaning of the Mardi Gras Indians tradition, and your well-known book drive, I wanted to get your opinion of the effectiveness of the numerous nonprofits that arrived in the city after the disaster.

Harrison-Nelson: Many nonprofits are operated by people of European descent who are not from New Orleans . . . I’m not saying that only people who are from New Orleans can legitimately work in the community, but there is this whole culture of pimping the disaster. It is extremely disturbing, extremely disturbing. It’s like homesteading in the Wild West. People are staking their claims on various segments of the population—elderly, children, women, Lower Ninth Ward residents, contractor fraud victims, the mentally ill, rape victims—and ultimately, or when you get to the root of it, it’s really [End Page 639] not about the community but how they are able to maintain their status quo and image as “the great savior.”

Woods: I’ve heard that a lot of the nonprofits have been pulling out recently.

Harrison-Nelson: I don’t see many of them pulling out. . . . They may be following disasters. I don’t know what they are doing. But there are several of them still here. You go to meetings and many say the same thing. They have these self-aggrandizing looks on their faces, how they are helping people. “Children didn’t have this . . . people were doing this and people were doing that.” It takes away, in my opinion, people’s dignity. Too much of it is, “I’m the great messiah” or contemporary missionary. New Orleanians are surviving!” I do not view survival challenges as negative; I look at them as a testament of their resiliency . . . it is a disaster and people have found a way to survive. So instead of labeling that as “pitiful, pitiful . . .,” I applaud that . . . as great because [they] found a way to take lemon seeds and extracted some juice, made it sweet and made it palatable.

Woods: What is occurring with the schools?

Harrison-Nelson: Too many continue to fail at providing children an adequate and appropriate education. The Recovery School District [RSD] was set up to supposedly assume control of the so-called failing schools, but the schools weren’t failing; the system was failing the needs of the students. . . . They [the RSD schools] were set up for that reason, which meant absolutely nothing after the levee breaks because everybody was dispersed and the districts had a new population. . . . Some RSD schools are not serving children’s needs based on high stakes test scores and other benchmarks used to calculate a school’s SPS [School Performance Score] . . . and the state has made those schools available to charter school organizations and labeled them as Transformation Schools...


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