Academia takes on Katrina with varied views

by Beacon Staff • November 16, 2005

A town hall forum called "Hurricane Katrina: Questions for America about Poverty, Race and Leadership," led to a tense discussion that linked societal and governmental racism to the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. The passion voiced therein has cooled, but it may have given students and Emerson event planners something to think about when approaching future academic discussions on the subject.

The event was sponsored by the Department of Organizational and Political Communication along with the City-Wide Dialogues on Boston's Ethnic Racial Diversity, a city initiative lead by a collaborative effort of local organizations.

Panelist Tonya Cropper, a Harvard University doctoral student whose relatives evacuated New Orleans after the hurricane, asked the audience, "How many Katrina evacuees do you want in your neighborhood? How many of you would want these kids in your school?"

Stuart Sigman, dean of the School of Communication, allegedly skipped over audience members in line for the microphone to respond to Cropper's questions.

"You do not know whether I or anyone in this room will or will not allow a group of African-American students from New Orleans to live in our neighborhoods," he said.

Sigman attributed the notion that racism played a part in the failed relief efforts to the media's and the public's subjectivity. Racism was focused on by the panelists, he said, and not enough responsibility for the failure was placed on other factors, such as unqualified federal officials.

"I really think this panel needs to move further [beyond the subject of racism]," Sigman said.

Cropper said she took offense to his remarks. "If you cannot acknowledge that racism even exists, you cannot go forward [with the discussion]," she said.

Panelist Louis Elisa, former regional head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), replied to Sigman with the following: "If you can give me one instance in which American citizens were trapped in this country and the American government didn't move heaven and earth to get assistance, then I will accept your premise that maybe race might not have been a factor," he said.

But, Sigman said that although he acknowledges that racism might have played a factor, it should not be the starting premise for the failed relief efforts.

Some students who attended the event said they were surprised by Sigman's words.

"I was pretty shocked," said Brianna Papa, a freshman broadcast journalism major. "I thought the way he was getting his point across was rude."

Although Hope did not disagree with Sigman's points at the time, she said that Sigman's stepping in line ahead of other audience members made the incident chaotic, and could have been handled better by the moderators.

Senior communication studies major Jenna LoVerme was more surprised by Cropper's remarks.

"I felt offended by [Cropper's comments] because I felt she was directing it toward us, implying that we as students would be uncomfortable if the Katrina victims were integrated in our school," she said.

Afterward, Sigman said that he felt the audience was presented with speakers who conveyed personal sentiment, such as Cropper, and that there were several unproven accusations about the role of racism in the failed relief efforts.

"What I was objecting to was that this was an educational forum, but we were being asked to accept at face value assertions without the documentation that might be needed," Sigman said.

Freshman print journalism major Lainie Frost, however, said Sigman's reaction to the panelist was inappropriate because she believed he took the question personally and felt threatened by it.

She voiced her stance in a Beacon opinion article on Nov. 10 ("Diversity Sorely Lacking"), but also held students, including herself, responsible for not voicing their opinions about the debate between Sigman and the panelists.

Phillip Glenn, an associate professor of organizational and political communication and moderator for the town hall, said the panelists had five minutes to speak and the audience had one minute to comment.

Organizers did not anticipate the audience asking more questions of the panelists, which caused the panelists and the audience to speak beyond their allotted times, he said.

To address the issue of students not expressing their views at the town hall, Sigman suggested inviting student groups to participate in the planning of future forums and helping establish clearer ground rules.

Some students believe the discourse between Sigman and the panelists at the town hall meeting will encourage attendance at future forums.

"In terms of expectations for future events, the first panel helped people to understand that even when things get heated, you can respond to it afterward in a positive way," said Katie Wheeler, a junior political communication major. "It's OK for things to get in an uncomfortable place as long as it's dealt with in a healthy way afterward."

According to Linda Peek Schacht, chair of the department of organizational and political communication is also planning a symposium for the spring semester addressing long-term Hurricane Katrina issues.

The symposium is part of the department's goal to educate students about the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, which started this semester with guest speakers in classrooms and the two town hall meetings in November, she said.

"My belief is that students make their decision [to attend future forums] based on the topic, the speakers and what they hope to learn at an event," Peek Schacht said. "I certainly hope that holds true when we offer a look forward in the spring symposium with analysis and solutions to the broader issues raised by [hurricanes] Katrina and Rita."

The Emerson Campus Conversations on Race Action Committee (CCORAC) has plans to host its own Katrina event: an interactive Superdome simulation. Its purpose is to expose Emerson students to experience some of the struggle and feelings that people felt the five days at the Superdome, according to Katie Wohl, a freshman theatre studies major and Katrina Awareness representative for CCORAC.