Interview with Rick Weil of New Orleans' Roots of Music

So, how did you get started with Roots?

I helped start Roots because I was giving recovery tours of New Orleans to visiting volunteers after Hurricane Katrina. One group asked what more they could do besides helping repair houses, and I said, how about starting an after school music program for kids? My family had been closely involved in a wonderful program in Chicago (the “Merit School of Music”), and I knew how great these can be. I had been working with a nonprofit helping musicians recover from the storm, and they told me that Derrick Tabb, snare drummer with the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band, wanted to start an after school music program, so I joined up with him and worked on what became the Roots of Music.

Did you have other projects in NO you were involved with before (and/or are still now?) What's the intersection between your academic work and the nonprofit effort?

I was doing research on and helping with recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (see http://www.lsu.edu/fweil/KatrinaResearch). I was working with a number of community groups, and several were mentoring at-risk kids. I was especially interested in the grass-roots mentors who came from the same communities as the kids. It’s more common for people like us HR’73 classmates to hear about middle class mentors, but I felt these community mentors touched the kids better. I’ve been so inspired by their work, I’ve continued researching and working on mentoring in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and on the West Side of Chicago. See my web page, http://www.rickweil.com/Mentoring/, for more information and some videos.

Would you say that having nonprofit good works in your sights has been true your whole life? since college? more recently in later years?

I’ve been interested in democracy and community for a long time (my first line of research was on transitions to democracy in Germany after WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall). I’ve been around nonprofit work since childhood – my parents were always involved – and I’ve become increasingly active myself the older I get. Events like Hurricane Katrina give you an added incentive. I like it best when I’m actually partnering, rather than trying to set the course. I learn a lot from those I work with. I’ve worked with a ton of nonprofits, faith, community, & government groups. I’ve worked with disaster evacuees (e.g. put a café in the FEMA trailer park), with musicians (e.g. “Sweet Home New Orleans”), with ethnic communities (e.g. Vietnamese), with volunteer groups, with youth & kids (e.g. “Kids with Cameras”), with neighborhood groups (e.g. the Neighborhoods Partnership Network), with young newcomers to New Orleans (the “Brain Gain” gentrifiers, e.g. 504ward), with Mayors (e.g. in Baton Rouge & New Orleans), with faith groups (e.g. LIDRN, the Louisiana Interfaith Disaster Recovery Network). It’s really fun & gratifying.

What's your favorite thing about working with Roots? do you have a favorite moment or recollection about your association with them?

Roots is great for so many reasons. Derrick is one of the smartest & most dynamic people I’ve ever met. He comes from the Treme neighborhood (the one the HBO show is about), economically poor but culturally rich, and by intelligence, talent, and a huge amount of hard work, has become world famous and loved & admired. He never wanted to be prominent or a “front man,” but he has a natural charisma, as well as enormous insight. He’s also a better sociologist than I or my colleagues are! It’s a pleasure working with Derrick. Also, the Roots staff, and definitely the kids are great.

I can tell about a fun moment. George Soros, the financier, came to New Orleans for the first time some years ago. He had been working with disaster recovery groups and wanted to meet nonprofit leaders. So a couple hundred of the top nonprofit leaders in town assembled in a law school lecture room. I was invited and also got an invitation for Derrick. I knew they would ask for questions at the end of their presentations, so I positioned Derrick & me in the front/center. Soros told his life story and about his commitment to social justice, and Calvin Johnson, the recently retired head Criminal Court Judge of New Orleans, told about how he was desperately trying to help steer kids on a better path and was so sad when he had to sentence them. When they finished & asked for questions, I started vigorously pointing at Derrick, who was shocked & alarmed. I said, Derrick stopped problems from happening before they could start. And when I said who he was, the whole place broke out in cheers and applause: he was already famous in town. I also mentioned that Derrick was then one of ten finalists for CNN’s Hero of the Year award and that voting was open. At this, Judge Johnson started jumping up and down in his chair and shouted, “Derrick, I voted for you THREE TIMES!” Soros looked confused, and then thrilled. After the session, Soros invited people to come talk with him in the foyer. Derrick & I waited in the periphery to talk with him, and when Soros saw us, he waved us to him. He couldn’t get enough of Derrick & wouldn’t let us leave. After the event, Derrick asked me, did you have that all planned? I said, kind of. That was really fun!

What, if any, is your least favorite? do you have any significant frustrations over making their program better, broader, more available?

Time after time, when I’ve made a suggestion to Derrick, he gets all quiet & diplomatic, and changes the subject: it turns out he had a much better idea for how to solve the problem! Not really my least favorite moments, but rather, a reminder that we “experts” don’t know all that much! Derrick had been thinking about this program for ten years before he launched it, and he understands it better than anyone. He has an amazing combination of modesty and confidence.

Now that you're broadening the research into other mentoring projects, do you want to get involved with them?

I’ve been working with mentors & programs in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and on the West Side of Chicago. They are really amazing. There are too many to tell about. Some are just people working out of their own houses in their own neighborhoods. Some start their own small or mid-sized programs. Others do grass-roots mentoring within larger or more formal organizations. I had lunch with Prof. Bill Wilson at Harvard after our reunion symposium where he spoke (he was my senior colleague at the U of Chicago & is a friend). He said there has been surprisingly little research about grass-roots or “natural” mentoring and encouraged me to continue my research. We both felt this could be a real game changer in helping disadvantaged communities provide opportunity to their own young people – as well as giving strength and optimism to the adults. I was also able to partner briefly with classmate Therese Steiner on her Global Girl Network to find applicants for her Chicago branch. That is another wonderful initiative.

If you had words of wisdom for classmates working with or starting up a project like this, what would they be?

My sense is, the thing we do very well is to provide certain technical skills and resources, but we should be modest about trying to provide direction. People tend to be the best experts about themselves and their communities. As elite college graduates, we should not assume we know better. One of the hardest things for us is to cede leadership. This might not be universally true (I don’t know), but I’ve had that sense repeatedly in working with community groups and grass-roots mentors. Whether it’s in disaster recovery, community improvement, kids’ mentoring, or whatever, I’ve found this to be important time after time.