Since mid-November, students in the Black Studies 193WW seminar have organized a project to send hundreds of books to children in New Orleans, whose schools were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Professor Clyde Woods, who leads the seminar on pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, told his class about the national Big Chief and Big Queen Book Project during discussions of the city’s public education system, and the class immediately began organizing a local book drive. Through donations from academic departments and the Associated Students Legislative Council’s decision to fully fund remaining project costs, the class met its goal of sending $6,000 worth of books to three New Orleans elementary schools in time for Christmas.
“When I found out about the book campaign, I thought it would be a simple and immediately beneficial project for the Katrina class to take on,” said Woods. “The needs in New Orleans are still tremendous, although the nation seems to be suffering from what’s called ‘Katrina fatigue’.”
Last summer, UCSB students visiting New Orleans for a research project met Cherice Harrison-Nelson, the daughter of Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., and a highly merited New Orleans school teacher who created The Big Chief and Big Queen Book Project with other teachers and the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of fame. According to Harrison-Nelson, Mardi Gras Indians are considered cultural heroes in New Orleans, and put exceptional effort into encouraging children to read. Throughout the school year, The Big Chief and Big Queen Book Project brings festive presentations to New Orleans elementary schools where every student is given a gift-wrapped book related to the unique culture and heritage of the city. After the ceremony, children give oral presentations about the books, have class discussions, and correspond with the Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs and Queens through letter writing.
Asharg Molla, a fourth-year Sociology major and book drive organizer said she and her classmates saw the book drive as an excellent way to empower neglected children in New Orleans to read, where, according to the National Literacy Institute, 70 percent of adults read beneath an eighth grade reading level.
“The education system in New Orleans today and even prior to the hurricane is very neglected and basically a joke,” said Molla. “The hurricane shut down 110 out of 126 schools, including their libraries, where books were scarce to begin with. We want the children to know that an eighth grade reading level is not the end of their path.”
Two years ago, Molla visited New Orleans with other UCSB students where she encountered local children who could not read. “It was heartbreaking. Some of them could not read street signs,”said Molla. “When we hear about Katrina, it’s often about the government or the housing situation, and what’s not talked about are the children and the schools.”
When seeking groups to pledge book donations, Molla contacted AS Government advisor Aaron Jones, who told her about AS Leg Council’s Special Project funds. Molla presented the project to Leg Council at their November 28 meeting, and the council voted to fund remainding costs for donations that could not be raised in time, drawing in part from their own honoraria.
Molla said she and her classmates were extremely impressed with the council’s willingness to support the book drive from their own pockets.
“The Associated Students shocked us all with their immediate response,” said Professor Woods. “Ms. Harrison-Nelson is excited and she tells me it is lifting the spirits of the children and the city.”
Woods believes the UCSB community has been especially generous in helping with the recovery effort in New Orleans.
“UCSB students were some of the first in the nation to offer help, and the UCSB community has been one of the most consistent campuses in the nation with regard to providing ongoing assistance,” he said.
Pledges for book donations are being accepted until December 7th, and another book drive is being planned for January. Any organizations interested are encouraged to contact Professor Woods in the Black Studies Department.