Nonprofit Brings New Orleans Culture to Jersey City Kids

Now it hopes to take next step and send Jersey City kids to New Orleans

A fiercely protected arts scene. Varied historic architecture. Foodies. A checkered political past. An uneasy coexistence between old and new, blight and affluence, locals and transplants.

Anyone who has ever taken a moment to compare Jersey City and New Orleans may have noticed some uncanny points of convergence.

But the similarities end when it comes to weather. For all its myriad difficulties, Jersey City has been far luckier than New Orleans in regards to hurricanes.

That’s where Daniel Gurry and his three-year-old nonprofit organization, the NOLA Preservation Society, enter the scene.

Jersey City residents may have spotted the society’s distinctive posters featuring a neon green fleur-de-lis sprouting delicate roots. (Philadelphia artist Monica Rose Kelly is responsible for this vaguely psychedelic take on the trademark New Orleans icon, symbolic of “hope, prosperity and equality,” Gurry says.)

The NOLA Preservation Society hopes to “preserve the cultural legacy of New Orleans through youth outreach across America,” and it intends to start right here in Jersey City.

‘Good Hands’ Lead to Good Deeds

In the fall of 2005, Gurry, who graduated from New Jersey City University last spring with a bachelor’s degree in history, had taken a year off from school to examine his goals. He moved to Boulder, Colo., that September, days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

After doing odd jobs for a while, he ended up with a gig for an independent telecom firm that had been contracted by the home insurance giant Allstate. His job was to repair troubled relations with customers who had been displaced by Katrina in a marketing effort to restore confidence in the company.

Specifically, he was charged with the task of repeating the reassuring — if not entirely truthful — slogan “You’re in good hands” to over a million Katrina refugees.

Gurry was immediately shocked by the response.

“I quickly found out that many of our customers were paying for notes on homes that no longer existed,” he says.

Reactions to his calls ranged from outrage to grief. Some people cursed at him. Others told him stories about sitting on rooftops as the city flooded, waiting to be rescued. They talked about being displaced and living in shelters. The common theme was a desire to return home to New Orleans.

“Just read the script,” Gurry says he was told when he tried to bring the customers’ concerns to his superiors. But he was unable to.

“My heart was broken,” he says. He quit after one week.

Inspired to help, Gurry moved to New Orleans shortly thereafter, sticking around for four months to help gut homes with a disaster relief organization. As a project manager, he coordinated groups of teenagers to volunteer, an idea that stuck with him.

When Gurry returned to NJCU in the fall of 2006, he formed a coalition of students at the college to assist in rebuilding New Orleans. Jazz performance majors in the group began visiting local schools to perform, while other volunteers put together a visual arts program to share with students. The emphasis was on teaching the cultural legacy of New Orleans to Jersey City children.

As word spread and private donations increased, the organization expanded. By the spring of 2008, the NOLA Preservation Society had grown roots. That June, the group became incorporated with the state of New Jersey as a nonprofit organization. (They are currently in the process of applying for federal 501(c)(3) status to become fully tax-exempt.)

In addition to art education, music has always been at the core of the group’s activities.

“[We] realized that by playing for students we were only giving them an afternoon of entertainment,” Gurry says. “[But] if we set up a structure to teach music than we would be entertaining and educating them for a lifetime.”

The group has built a low-budget music room in the Boys and Girls Club downtown, where the instructors now make regular visits, teaching drums, trombone, piano, bass and voice lessons to the students.

The society now offers a long list of services, including direction of the jazz choir at McNair Academic High School, with a focus on “providing culturally diverse arrangements steeped in NOLA traditions,” Gurry says. The group also hosts a monthly music/art/dance/storytelling therapy hour for students and after-school tutoring at the Boys and Girls Club.

“If students are going to compete on a global level, we must make a concerted effort as a community to provide positive extracurricular programming to enable young people to feel inspired,” Gurry says.

The Cultural Exchange

Along with offering art, music and dance outlets to Jersey City’s youth, the organization’s five-year goal is to build sister after-school centers in both Jersey City and New Orleans. Gurry envisions students traveling back and forth on cultural exchange trips.

While the group may have to wait to achieve this large-scale goal, they hope to see one of their more modest wishes granted this summer.

The society plans to take a number of Jersey City high school students on what it’s billing as a “trip of a lifetime,’ with students from the Boys and Girls Club and McNair Academic joining local volunteers on a “week-long experiential journey” to the Crescent City to get a dose of New Orleans’ sights, sounds and flavors firsthand.

With community service being a primary component of the trip, the group will link up with Habitat for Humanity and Replant NOLA to assist with rebuilding efforts and work on community garden projects.

But equally important is “performance and cultural exposure,” Gurry says. To that end, students will visit musical meccas like Preservation Hall and Congo Square and will do some performing of their own at local youth community centers.

With two upcoming fundraisers, the society is hoping to raise money to fund the summer trip.

First up is “Rebirth: An Evening of Art and Jazz,” on Tuesday, June 2 at LITM (140 Newark Ave.). “Rebirth,” which begins at 7 pm, will showcase art from New Orleans artists George Rodrigue, Darrin Butler, Sean Self, Cherie Langford and Thomas Burger alongside art from local artists Olivia Kaufman, Marianne Gillen, John Fathom, Nyugen Smith and others. The Mike Preen Quartet will provide the live jazz. Admission is free; proceeds from all art sales will be used to defray trip costs.

On Saturday, June 7, LITM will open its doors to the society a second time for a screening of the Sundance-honored documentary *Trouble the Water*. Director Tia Lessin will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening, which begins at 1 pm. The minimum donation is $5; all proceeds go to trip costs.

But Gurry points out that supporting the NOLA Preservation Society isn’t limited to attending events. Donations in many forms — including musical instruments, unused art supplies, email networks for outreach and residents’ generous time — are always welcome.

Learning from the example of New Orleans is the perfect educational opportunity for Jersey City students, Gurry says, since the city is a microcosm of America’s best and worst qualities.

Thinking expansively, he muses: “The NOLA Preservation Society hopes that all Americans will embrace the cultural cradle that is Louisiana, because after all is said and done only the way of life is remembered, and that’s what counts.”

For more info on the upcoming events, visit LITM’s website.

a freelance writer and web copywriter living in Jersey City. She also teaches English to adult refugees and immigrants through the nonprofit The International Institute of New Jersey, and is working towards her MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School.