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Big Easy Living: Letting the people have their say

The People Say Project number four at the Louisiana Humanities Center with Brandan Odums, Brian Boyles and Glen Pitre.

“When you leave New Orleans, you always think about coming back,” says Brian Boyles, 34, a Pittsburgh native and Tulane grad who headed for New York City after earning his degree here a decade or so ago. Life in The Big Apple was good.

Then, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina took aim at New Orleans, prompting a late-night phone call to Boyles’ former girlfriend at Tulane. “Nah, not going to hit,” she told him.

It did, of course, changing many lives, including theirs. The two are now married, back in New Orleans, and both working hard to rejuvenate the city, he as Director of Public Relations and Programs at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, and she, Kimberly VanWagner, as head of the Freret Neighborhood Center.

The turning point? Jazzfest 2006, says Boyles, where the two reconnected with each other and he with the city he had learned to love as a student. “I knew immediately I had to return.”

These days, a lot of Boyles’ energy is going into The People Say Project, an ongoing series of live interviews done in collaboration with students of Jarret Lofstead’s Writing Technique/Technology course at Loyola University. It’s a great way to teach students about online journalism — the project website is student-run, and interviews and research are part of class assignments.

But it’s also a great way to connect the dots in a city where diversity is rich and variety praised, but where sometimes residents and neighborhoods exist in virtual exclusion.

“It’s about making connections,” Boyles explains. “There’s a surge of new people coming in and others who have been here all along. By meeting and comparing notes, they can learn from one another.”

The next People Say Project, taking place Tuesday at 5 p.m. at The Louisiana Humanities Center, 938 Lafayette St., features Anne Gisleson of Press Street/Antenna Gallery, a literary and visual arts collective in Bywater, and Vera Warren-Williams of the Community Book Center, the oldest African-American bookstore on Bayou Road.

“Both are cultural focal points in neighborhoods that are going through a lot of changes,” Boyles says. “They serve both as gathering places and catalysts for their communities.”

The People Say interviews are run like live talk shows, with a studio audience, Boyles as host, and plenty of give and take. A happy hour to kick things off, free food and a relaxed atmosphere help move things along. The first six shows can be viewed online at

They may be fun, but these forums have a serious core: All of the dialogue revolves around how artists can make a decent living here.

It’s a serious subject in a city that prizes its musicians, entrepreneurs and mom-and-pop businesses, but doesn’t always reward them economically.  Yes, we have great food and music, but can our chefs and horn players get health insurance? How do – or should — painters price their works?

“That kind of dialogue goes a long way when we’re having it together,” Boyles says. “These are specific conversations about the cultural economy, taking sort of a Studs Terkel approach. Having it in public among citizens is really important.”

The People Say Project forums held so far have pulled lots of people into the discussion. They average 70 or so participants, thanks not only to the happy hour, but also, Boyles believes, to a post-K mentality that prompts us to speak our minds.

“Post-Katrina New Orleanians are more willing to go to public meetings – most of us have been to them, and we know how to put them on.”

The interviews are designed to be constructive rather than conceptual, focusing on real problems, issues and solutions. A recent session on burlesque included conversations with Wild Cherry, a 1960s New Orleans burlesque queen, who brought up the fact that in her day burlesque dancers had a union.

“These are not artists who are romanticizing their lives,” Boyles says, “In the end, it’s not all about money, either, but how to make a living to keep the arts going. Once they are gone, they can’t come back. We don’t want to lose people.”

The digital component of the project helps keep the conversations going, long after the bar is packed up and the chairs folded. But don’t let a compelling website and online reruns keep you from showing up at the Louisiana Humanities Center tomorrow. And not just for the refreshments.

“It needs human interaction,” says Boyles of the project. “But then that’s New Orleans.”

Click on the link below to view highlights of past The People Say Project programs:

The People Say Project: Spring 2011 Highlights from NOLAFugees Press on Vimeo.

Renee Peck, a former feature writer and editor at The Times-Picayune, is editor of Nolavie.


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