Filmmaker Kimberley Rivers Roberts was invited by the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School to join students for a morning discussion, “New Orleans Nine Years Later: Reflections on Inequality in Post-Katrina Disaster Recovery.” Tom Wooten, author of We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina, moderated the discussion, which was attended by students from Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
A lifelong resident of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward community, Kimberley Rivers Roberts is the protagonist of the Oscar-nominated documentary Trouble the Water. In 2008, the film won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. The documentary includes footage shot by Kimberley before, during, and after Katrina made contact with New Orleans. Trouble the Water also highlights the struggles residents like Kimberley faced after being displaced and obstacles that prevented a smooth recovery.
The conversation, which took place in the Center for Public Leadership’s Darman Seminar Room, allowed students interested in public policy to learn from a ground-level perspective through Kimberley’s powerful story.
After a brief presentation of the film’s trailer, Kimberley spoke about many of the hurdles she faced in her life before Katrina. Kimberley described growing up in survival mode on the streets of New Orleans with a young mother who died at an early age. She mentioned how this way of life prevented her from gaining the necessary tools to realize her dreams. In the months before the storm, like most of her late teenage years and early twenties, she was selling drugs to survive—earning much more than she was as a line cook in the city’s French Quarter.
While Kimberley responded to questions about the consequences of limited opportunities, she also spoke to her practice of seizing opportunities, on a personal level and for the people of New Orleans. Kimberley also described the importance of politicians responding to the needs of the people. Instead of simply focusing on construction projects, she believes work must also be done to rehabilitate people who suffer from trauma and continue to face challenges.
The conversation followed an evening screening of Trouble the Water with Kimberley in Harvard Yard in partnership with The Harvard Foundation, Phillips Brooks House Association, and the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research.
CPL and the JFK Jr. Forum hosted cellist Yo-Yo Ma on March 6 for a discussion about the importance of "cultural citizenship." In conversation with CPL co-Director David Gergen, he presented a compelling case for increased arts education and cultural entrepreneurship, and illustrated his ideas through two innovative cello pieces.
Following on the recent commemoration of Presidents' Day, one presidential legacy worth recalling is not related to policy acumen or military success but to something more intimate and fundamental: a sitting president who surpassed his disability. And not just any president. During his 12 years in the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt steered America through some of its greatest moments of weakness and fortitude from the Great Depression to World War II. All the while, he waged a private struggle against polio. His precedent and persistence in the face of polio shows us just how far we have come in curbing this disease and, despite its recent reemergence, the heights we may yet reach.
Polio struck FDR late in life at the age of 39. A year earlier in 1920, he had been barnstorming across the nation as a Vice Presidential candidate; suddenly he was paralyzed from the waist down. The stigma associated with polio was not just that one was a "cripple" but that one came from an impoverished background. Yet a high born FDR was not spared. Written off politically, he retreated from the limelight for three years only to return as Governor of New York in 1928 and President in 1933.
FDR provides a powerful reference point to measure the dramatically reduced reach of polio today. During his lifetime, the disease coursed far and wide including through the White House. Today it is endemic in just three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Between 1915 and 1945, a minimum of 1,500 cases were reported annually in the United States alone; last year, only 400 cases were reported globally. This month, the World Health Organization will certify that India, home to 1.2 billion people, is polio-free - the result of a historic public health campaign that mobilized 2.3 million volunteers. The campaign's tenacity would have resonated with FDR.
How polio shaped FDR's character and career is the subject of a new book by James Tobin: The Man He Became. Tobin seeks to dispel the common perception that FDR "deceived" the American public regarding his condition and to illustrate how polio was "critical to his political identity" -- even as FDR rarely dwelled on his condition publicly.
Tobin captures the toll polio exacted on FDR and the sheer exertion involved whenever he appeared in public. The book begins with FDR sitting in the Senate Committee on Military Affairs room awaiting his first inauguration. Summoned to make his way to the Senate, he begins the laborious ritual of fastening the buckles on his legs to brace his lower body; grips his son's arm; and reaches for his cane (his "tripod of support") before walking out -- only to be told that the Senate was not quite ready. At this, FDR turns around, walks back to the room, slowly eases into the chair, unfastens the buckles, and waits. Ten minutes later, he restarts the same ritual.
Americans have had the opportunity to assess FDR's relationship with polio during the debate surrounding his memorial in Washington, D.C. I remember the debate from a slightly different vantage point: as a sophomore at the Groton School in Massachusetts from where FDR graduated. The decision to have him in a wheelchair, while inconsistent with his public practice, was hotly discussed at our school and resonated with me to commemorate what Tobin calls FDR's "silent show of strength."
The same strength is needed today to achieve the tantalizingly close goal of eradicating polio. While polio cases today are lower than in FDR's day, the effort is fraught because of security challenges in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last month, polio reared its head in Kabul for the first time since 2001; new cases have emerged in conflict-torn Syria. To eradicate polio, the Global Eradication Initiative estimates that $5.5 billion is needed between 2013 and 2018. American investment alone is not sufficient but it is necessary.
Yet instead of focusing on dollars, perhaps it is best to start with a dime. On the face of the dime today is FDR who in 1938 founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to combat polio. The Foundation, now known as the March of Dimes Foundation, used to solicit each child to donate a dime as part of its annual fundraising event. Channeling his example globally, the United States needs to sustain FDR's silent show of strength to end this scourge once and for all. A historic way to commemorate a historic President.
(A former Zuckerman Fellow, Ziad Haider is an attorney and Asia Director of the Truman National Security Project. This op-ed originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)
Thursday, March 6
JFK Jr. Forum, Harvard Kennedy School
A conversation with
Yo-Yo Ma, Cellist
Harvard College (1976)
Public Service Professor of Public Leadership
Co-Director, Center for Public Leadership
Follow the conversation on Twitter: #YoYoMa
Wednesday, February 26
4:00 to 5:00pm
Room 210, Aldrich Building
Harvard Business School
A conversation with Steve Bock, CEO of SHINOLA Detroit will be moderated by Steven S. Rogers, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School. Come engage with students, faculty, and experts in exploring ways in which private enterprises can respond to disparity in underserved urban communities.
About SHINOLA Detroit: Launched in 2011, SHINOLA has not only created an admirable brand following, but more importantly is inspiring hope in Detroit industry and especially its residents. Incorporating the age-old Swiss watch making technique in its 60,000 downtown space, SHINOLA produced 50,000 watches last year with nearly two-thirds of its workforce hailing from the Motor City. The SHINOLA business model is one of very few sourcing only American suppliers and thriving in a social and urban context deemed bleak and hopeless.
This event is co-sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership and the AASU at HBS.
Light refreshments will be served.