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In post-Katrina New Orleans, Black men lift each other up

On a Tuesday morning inside a dank, carpeted room at the New Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, Patrick Carter is waiting patiently. At a quarter past 10 a.m., a handful of men and women trickle in, sliding back plastic chairs and taking seats at oblong tables that wouldn’t look out of place in a school cafeteria. These aren’t traditional students but, then again, this isn’t a traditional class. Carter, 35, is the group facilitator for NOLA Dads, a program offered by the Family Services of Greater New Orleans to reduce recidivism for ex-offenders on probation and parole. This is one of seven to eight classes Carter teaches weekly, each focused on topics like anger management, parenting, and education. For the lifelong New Orleanian, today’s topic hits especially close to home: finding a job.

“How many are you are actively looking for employment?” Carter asks. The students, all African American, raise their hands. Carter nods. “I feel you. I’ve been there,” he says. He describes the four months it took him to find a job when he came back to New Orleans a year after Katrina hit. He had three years of college education on his resume at the time, but even Home Depot wouldn’t return his calls. “I was stressed out,” he says. “I was [leaving interviews] with tears in my eyes afterwards. I know I’m qualified to put stock on a shelf and you’re not gonna hire me?”

Even with a college degree, Patrick Carter (right), struggled to find work in New Orleans. (Photo: Patrick Carter)

At a time when New Orleans leaders are championing the city’s progress in the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of the city, killing nearly 1,000 residents and displacing 1 million more, Carter’s class is one piece in an overwhelming pile of evidence that there is still work to be done. While whites, Hispanics and women have in many ways seen their livelihoods improve since the storm, black men have largely been left out of the resurgence. For these men, the storm, while no doubt traumatic, exacerbated a host of socioeconomic inequities that had already plagued them for decades, leaving them without the foundation they needed to bounce back. As a result, black men in New Orleans are in some cases worse off than even before the storm.

For more than two decades before Katrina, New Orleans was hemorrhaging jobs thanks in part to the oil bust of the early 1980s. The city lost more than 54,800 jobs between 1980 and 2004, the majority of which belonged in industries dominated by black men, including construction, manufacturing and mining, according to a 2013 study by Loyola University. The employment rate among black men plummeted over that period, dropping from 64% to 54%, and has hardly improved since. Today, just 57% of working-age black men in New Orleans are employed, compared to 77% of white men, according to the Data Center, an independent research firm that has been tracking the city’s recovery since the storm. Nationally, 67% of working-age black men are employed, compared with 72% of white men.  

Low employment rates have driven household earnings among black men down even as white men’s earnings have rebounded post-Katrina. Between 1999 and 2011, median household earnings for black men in New Orleans fell 11%, from $35,036 to $31,018. By contrast, white men saw their earnings rise 9% over the same period. And although the city’s incarceration rate has improved, falling by almost half, it’s still three times the national average and black men are still disproportionately likely to be arrested (of 3,318 men age 18 and up held in New Orleans correctional facilities in 2010, 84% were black). Black men were also far less likely to obtain college degrees in the two decades before Katrina, a trend that has persisted since, according to the Loyola study. Only 15% of black men had obtained at least an Associate’s degree in 1980. As of 2011, that rate has not budged. Meanwhile, the rate of white men who earned at least an Associate’s degree has risen from 46% to 66%. And when black men do find jobs, they are much more likely to work in low-paying industries like tourism, which pays an average of $30,431 a year, and hospitality, with average wages of $18,019 a year.

For the most part, Carter has overcome statistics like these. He got a Bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2008, mostly completed at Southern University at New Orleans, a historically African American university, with an assist from the University of Houston, where he studied for a semester after Katrina. Along with his nonprofit work, he runs his own private basketball coaching business, Unlimited Skills, and works part-time as a case manager for mental health patients. He recently purchased an investment property and lives in one of the city’s up and coming neighborhoods.

For city leaders and community activists desperate to improve the livelihoods of African American households, men like Carter are in high demand. “I feel you. I’ve been there.” It’s a sentiment Carter will repeat, in some form, at least half a dozen more times throughout the class as group members swap stories about their struggles to find jobs. When it comes to encouraging black men in New Orleans who feel they have been unfairly treated by the system, the ability to empathize makes a big difference.

“Shifting someone’s mindset takes time and it certainly takes an experienced voice who has been through those challenges to help,” says Erika McConduit-Diggs, president of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated men and women seeking to re-enter the workforce. “I see that as not just important, but vital.”

‘We have to show that black men can be very powerful contributors’

Darren Alridge, 24, is a mentor and tutor at the Youth Empowerment Center in New Orleans. (Photo: M. Woodruff)

At the Youth Empowerment Project of New Orleans, Darren Alridge, 24, mentors black teenagers and serves as a tutor in the organization’s GED classes. Alridge, who evacuated with his family two days before Katrina hit, remembers watching his childhood home, located in the city’s impoverished Ninth Ward, flood on a TV screen at a Houston hotel. His mother later moved the family into an apartment complex in Baton Rouge, La., 90 minutes north of New Orleans. Kids at his new school, he says, responded hostilely to the influx of New Orleans students after the storm. Alridge says he was bullied and started getting into fights. He bounced around to four or five different schools before his family returned to New Orleans after two years. The relief he felt at being home again was short-lived.

“We were taking classes in trailers with 30 kids, one teacher and only like five books,” Alridge recalls. “Nobody can focus in an environment like that.” In the 11th grade, he dropped out and within a year, he was caught joyriding with friends in a stolen car and was arrested. The judge who heard his case gave him two options: Either go out and get his GED or serve time. He chose the first option, and signed up for classes at YEP. Even after he earned his GED, which is the equivalent of a high school degree, he said employers wouldn’t look past his criminal record. “Nobody wanted to hire me because of my background,” he says.

Alridge started volunteering at YEP, but with three young children to care for at home, he couldn’t afford to be out of work for long. In the end, his mentors at YEP offered him an opportunity to join their staff full-time as a tutor and mentor. It was a role he was well suited for.  “I fit in because some of these guys who feel the K-12 system failed them, I feel where they’re coming from,” Alridge says. “I’ve been through all that, but I overcame those obstacles.”

Across the city, there’s a new push to make sure voices like Alridge's and Carter’s are heard, which has led to a string of new initiatives aimed at promoting the image of black men as fathers and household contributors. Carter leads those efforts at NOLA Dads. In 2013, Frederick “Hollywood” Delahoussaye, a local artist, created the Baby Daddy Collective, a weekly dinner group where black fathers and their children gather to talk and participate in group activities. The New Orleans Fatherhood Consortium, an offshoot of Loyola University’s literacy center, held its sixth annual “Favorite Fathers Celebration” in June. More than 40 black fathers, ranging in age from 19 to 87, were nominated by friends and family for the honor. “We have to show that, absolutely, black men can be very powerful contributors not only to their families and their households. but in [the overall economy],” McConduit-Diggs says.

For Ron McClain, a New Orleans native and longtime social activist, watching the city rebound in the years since Katrina has made it all the more painful to see black men lagging behind. He knows firsthand what a man can accomplish when given an opportunity. His own father, a carpenter, worked three jobs in the late 1960s to purchase his family's home a few minutes outisde of the city's iconic French Quarter. When McClain was serving as the president of the Family Services of Greater New Orleans, it was he who interviewed Patrick Carter and recommended him for his job with NOLA Dads.

"We do have stories of men like Patrick who have seemed to overcome overwhelming circumstances, so that gives me hope," he says. "As long as I have breath in my lungs I’ll be working to help people help themselves."

While black men do their part to lift one another up and in the right direction, local leaders in New Orleans are scrambling to make sure they are prepared for the city’s rapidly changing job market — and that they have a fair shot at joining it. In 2013, the city joined a growing list of cities that have banned the boxes on job applications that ask candidates whether they have ever been convicted of a crime. It won’t stop employers from running background checks, but it may help give some applicants a better chance of making it to an interview, where they can personally explain their past, if asked. And last year, Mayor Mitchell Landrieu launched a new initiative to work with the city’s largest employers — hospitals, universities, and the airport among them — to purposefully seek out minority workers for new positions and, even more importantly, train workers for the jobs beforehand.

“We don't have nearly enough job training for African-American men,” McClain says. “We need to train people not just to work in kitchens but to learn how to become chefs or get management positions in the tourism economy so they can make enough money to sustain a certain quality of life.”

Lance Celestine, 37, is one of the first African American men to benefit from the mayor's plan. In mid-August, he completed a three-week training course at the Urban League that is tied to a multi-year expansion of the city's major airport. After three weeks of soft skills training with UL, Celestine can now  advance to a six-week course offered by a community college that will certify him in skills for jobs needed both during the airport's expansion and after.

Celestine travels by bike 40 minutes each way to work nights earning $10 an hour as a forklift operator. As a teenager growing up in New Orleans' 7th ward, he turned to the streets to earn money and spent time in jail for drug-related offenses. But with a baby on the way and home-rental prices ticking up, his only interest now lies in finding a job that will lead to a sustainable career. “If I can advance my knowledge, I can at least be able to move up to where I won’t just be stuck at position one or two,” he says. “[When I was younger] I had to hustle and get out in the streets and I don’t want to do that ever again.”

His next goal will be convincing a close friend to take the same leap. “If I have to drag him by his neck, he will be here soon,” he says, laughing. “Me being that motivation and pushing myself...I’m saying man, look, it’s never too late.”

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