A roundtable discussion was held Friday at the Brown College dining room to apply lessons learned in New Orleans’s road to recovery following Hurricane Katrina to the Charlottesville community following the violent white nationalist events of Aug. 11 and 12.
The 20-person roundtable was led by Happy Johnson, a children’s author and humanitarian whose work has spanned the fields of community and environmental sustainability. Those present included members and leaders of the University’s Office of African American Affairs, University Dining, the Minority Rights Coalition and the City of Charlottesville. The event was part of the .
The Committee on Sustainability said the purpose of the event was to allow community leaders of both the University and Charlottesville communities to learn from the experiences of New Orleans and to apply such knowledge to the City of Charlottesville in its recovery following the white nationalist demonstrations of August 2017.
In 2005, after serving as a White House intern, Johnson traveled back to his hometown of New Orleans to work with the Red Cross in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Following his work with the Red Cross, in which he became the youngest black male to operate an emergency response vehicle, he started the Team Happy Foundation. The foundation is aimed at developing civic leadership in youth and has published four fiction books.
“Our very first book featured a black teen protagonist who assisted a community in New Orleans after a flood,” Johnson said. “We wanted him to be green so we had him take plastic bags and turn them into raincoats.”
The children’s book, titled “Happy and Big Wanda,” inspired grade schoolers in New Orleans to do the same and make their own recycled raincoats.
“That became a project that schools could do,” Johnson said. “We had kids in second grade trying to do this.”
The book also incorporated technological tools that could be used in disaster response situations, such as a solar-powered flashlight.
Johnson then discussed his contributions to the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development in New Orleans, including improvements to community engagement and incentivisation for environmentally-friendly actions of homeowners. He also emphasized the importance of failure and explained his perspective on sustainability.
“When I think about whether something is sustainable, I wonder if it is some sort of program, project or expression that allows the human spirit to thrive,” Johnson said. “In New Orleans, that is what sustainability is. It’s preserving the human spirit.”
Michael Mason, an assistant dean in the Office of African-American Affairs, then talked briefly about leadership and the University’s role in encouraging it.
“Leadership is empty if you are not constantly aware of the people around you,” Mason said. “That is what I think we are trying to do at this university and this community. We are trying to get students to engage with that perspective in mind.”
Johnson then took questions from members of the roundtable. When asked to speak on Charlottesville’s response to , Johnson emphasized the importance of mutual respect to the sense of community in New Orleans and related it to community engagement in the city of Charlottesville.
“Community engagement and building relationships isn’t easy, but it isn’t something you can stop doing — you have to keep showing up,” Johnson said. “I think sometimes we forget how long it takes to trust.”
He concluded by expressing the potential of the University community’s response to last summer’s events and its unique history to serve as a model for the entire nation.
“The values that divide us don’t even compare to the values that we all share,” Johnson said. “There is something about here and something about preserving this rich history and unity. This university, with its history and its complexities, could be a place that sets the course for how the country moves forward in discussing diversity and sustainability.”