Ch I: Coming to Power in New Orleans

Part I in a three part series on power and politics. 

Loyal RP fans may remember the brou-haha I got into last summer with local public housing activists over my work in New Orleans.  To this day, though I’ve cleared the air with most of them, and, most importantly, let them know that we have never played a role in trying to take down public housing in the city, they still want a more thorough accounting of exactly the work I was doing and with whom, and have understandably conflated my relatively independent work there with some sort of “position” by MIT on my involvement on the ground. 

If this sounds cryptic, that’s because it is.  I have drafted several un-sent e-mails to these activists, outlining the different roles and stakes of organizations I worked with, especially who had resources and decision-making power, as well as my own motivations and perspectives on the pre-development work I was a part of in which “MIT’s” role was decidedly oversold to the public.  The fundamental truth throughout most of 2006 was that I was working in partnership with two colleagues from MIT, but never on behalf of MIT. The Institute provided no funding to us, but instead – and this is no small gift – our Department granted us the flexibility and trust to work in New Orleans with virtually no oversight.  It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I’ve come to see clearly how I was running around rather myopically and loyally under the direction of a senior colleague, fueled in part by my own desires to effect positive change on the ground after the disaster, as well as by the heady freedom I had been given to do just that.  I was so invested I seriously expected to move to New Orleans, but I also felt powerful, part of the redevelopment elite (albeit someone rather in awe of those with the real $$$). 

I’m fascinated by power.  I want it, I study it, I need to know who has it and why.  I especially care about how the non-white, the non-wealthy, and women get it and what they do with it.  I also am really interested in how it effects development, particularly of cities, and who lives where and what their lives are like.  One of the aspects that still manages to amuse me about this whole fiasco last summer with the activists is that they assumed I – and my colleagues – had a lot more power than we truly had.  Other MIT students working in New Orleans on different projects assumed the same thing, that we were somehow pulling the levers on projects that were coming to fruition there.  If only they know how far that was from the truth. (This, in addition to an early experience I had trying to market a Lyme Disease vaccine in my first job out of college, are just two examples I’m collecting of failure – of program development and execution – for a book I’d love to write some day.) 

Partially in response to this confusion, a group of Master’s students organized a series of internal meetings throughout this past school year – we call them “reflective sessions” in our department – to find out what people were up to, to air our grievances about our and one another’s work, and to lend support to one another as independent brokers wearing the “MIT hat” in New Orleans.  Personally, it initially felt to me like a bit of a misguided witchhunt, and I remember one professor challenging some of the more strident students to resist questioning one another’s motivations, arguing that we should trust one another – as colleagues who had made a substantial personal and professional commitment to work in New Orleans – about what was guiding our various projects and pursuits. 

At the time, I agreed wholeheartedly with him, and still do, to an extent.  Yet, as I re-engage in New Orleans on some old and now new projects, I see more clearly how difficult it is to put your trust in people, projects or systems you can’t understand.  Questioning motivations is a tricky business that can detract from your own ability to get your work done as you sit around and grouse about why so-and-so is up-to-god-knows-what. I like to refer to my own tendency to revert to this paranoid behavior as my “Dick Nixon” side, and as that implies, it’s neither attractive nor effective. 


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