After Katrina, there has been a lot of talk of citizen participation and its increase in New Orleans. At Douglass we have been experiencing this in a range of ways: absence of many pre-Katrina school and community leaders because of difficulty of returning, neighborhood residents building renewed commitment to and work in public education, and hindrances to full community involvement by policy restrictions, conflicting visions for the school, and lack of full, careful communication and consensus among all stakeholders.
In the midst of our work in one neighborhood school, it is refreshing and encouraging to have students challenge us to think about ways our students continue to develop as incisive and broad-based thinkers. Today’s essay, by Nguyen Hoang, a 2008 graduate of Eleanor McMain Secondary School, demonstrates the mix of critical thinking, personal experience, cross-disciplinary reading, and community concerns that Students at the Center encourages. Nguyen and his peers give us great hope in the future of New Orleans and beyond. Our students and graduates are determined to work for a just and democratic future for their city and the other places they call home.
When I was young, I frequently went to the beach every evening to have fun with my friends or my family. In Vietnam, the beach was just a block away from my house; therefore, it was common place for me to spend the evening walking or swimming. I remember observing men netting fish on the beach. They pulled out large amounts of fish in just a short time. I also followed my dad around to catch crabs crawling in bunches around the beach. That was back then. When I was twelve, things changed dramatically. Sea creatures such as crabs and fish were diminishing in great number. I could hardly find a crab crawling across the beach or a fish that suddenly popped up from under water. Five years after coming to the United States, I began to realize the reason why those sea creatures are greatly reduced in population. I had been watching a lot of shows about nature, and thus, I identified the main cause of the shift in sea resource. It was due to over fishing that those resources were severely reduced. I thought that it would be hopeless to find a solution for the problem; however, after reading the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize speech by Wangari Muta Maathai, I believe that there is a solution to re-enrich the sea natural resource that my birth place once possessed.
Sea resources were what hundreds of men and women in my town of birth depended on to live. It was their main income for a whole year. Because of that, every one of them wanted to net as many fish as possible. This act drained the fish out, because fish could not reproduce so fast to restore its population while the netting and fishing went on regularly. The fish population reduced rapidly each year as the town population increased. The seamen struggled to keep up with their lives while the fuel price rose so high that its cost surpassed the money the seamen made over each fishing trip. Yet, fishing is the job that has been deep-rooted inside every seaman, and thus, they take any risks to look for the fish over the vast ocean. They traveled farther from the land to the deep water of the South China Sea, hoping to find a huge school of fish. The trip often took a whole month, yet its result sometimes is not as good as the seamen have anticipated.
Overhearing a telephone call between my mom and my relative in Vietnam, I discovered that the fish season is worse this year in town. Again, the seamen are struggling to earn a decent income for this year. Sympathizing with what I heard, I began to think about the fate of a neighboring friend in Vietnam. He quit school after fifth grade, because his family could not afford to pay for his education. At the age of nine, he was already out there with his dad and his brothers, pulling up the captives that were stuck inside the net. I remember my time seeing he and his mother removing the fish and the crabs from the net while his father, who was soaking wet and smelled like fish all over, prepared a big, shallow bottom basket to put the little creatures in. Those fish and crabs would then be sold at a nearby flea market, earning his family enough money to have a decent dinner. His family life was subsistent and dependent on the sea creatures that were caught. At my age, he already was a professional fisherman. He talked like a fisherman, acted like a fisherman, and lived like a fisherman. He never felt unhappy about his life situation, but I thought of him as being provincial. My mom told me that he is currently somewhere in Phu Quoc, an island in South Vietnam, fishing along with some other sailors. His family has long been fishermen, and inevitably, he is one now.
Thinking about my friend makes me wonder what should be done to improve the lives of many young people like him, and I have realized the solution: education. This idea came to me when I read the speech of Maathai, in which she emphasizes the primary need for education. Her “citizen education program” is what struck me the most. The program itself is a mutual organization of native people to “identify the problems, the causes and possible solutions.” Through her program, people begin to make connections between “their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society.”
They are exposed to many human activities that are devastating to the environment and societies. The participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They realize their hidden potential and are empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.
The result of this program is so fantastic that I am speechless about it. “Thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. Trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace.”
I hope that the same program will be carried out for the people of my home town in Vietnam, especially for that friend of mine. Fishermen are not interested in the subject of engineering or science, yet they are interested in how to harvest fish in large quantities. Therefore, it would be beneficial to teach them to reserve the sea resources. They need to see the negative effects of over fishing on their lives. They must be led to come up with their own solutions to protect that resource. In addition to that, new methods of fish farming should be taught to the fishermen so that they can harvest plenty of fish while conserving many fish species. Finally, they need to be empowered to take action. This can be done with financial support, because fishermen will need a huge capital to carry out the fish farming plan or any new methods for both conserving and harvesting the sea resources.
Talk is always easier than practice. My idea sounds good, yet it is difficult to do. Still, I hope that it will come true one day. The fishermen need the environmental education. They need to learn how to solve their fishing issue in an efficient way. They need new methods that can help them conserve their sources while they continue their traditional job. If it comes true, the fishing industry in my town will be saved. My friend will longer need to go that far away for fish; he could just walk on the beach leisurely knowing that he has good income for the year and that he is able to conserve the resources that god has given to Vietnam.
The opinions expressed in Student Stories: A New Orleans Classroom Chronicle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.