NOLAbeings in focus: Mack McClendon
NOLAbeings typically features portraits of random strangers I meet on the street, and snippets of our conversation that give some glimpse into their lives. This week, I did something I haven't done before – I pre-arranged a meeting with someone I wanted to photograph for the project. I found him through a his organization's Kickstarter campaign and was so moved by the campaign's story (and current predicament) that I decided I needed to meet the face of the Lower Ninth Ward Village Community Center in person. So I did. And an hour later, I came away with more great quotes and stories than I knew what to do with. I chose just one to post NOLAbeings, but thought I'd share a few more with you here on NolaVie. This man sure has a lot of wisdom.
NB: How did the Village get started and why?
Mack: I started the Village in '07. I started it because of the suffering I saw in my community – didn't know what I'd be able to do about it but felt like I desperately needed to do something and I thought the best thing I do was to create a hub for my community to create a voice for itself and I didn't realize how much I personally would get out of it – so much more than I've given because I found my purpose.
And I got something I say about purpose. Purpose is not lost, we are. People think purpose mean you stretch you out and you do all these crazy things. It's not. It's what's inside of you that makes you happy that grabs you. You have to find something in a capitalist society that means more than money. That – what means more than money to you – is your purpose.
NB: Tell me about your greatest struggle.
Mack: I've seen the whole community suffer. We have less than a third of my community back. We had seven schools before Katrina. We basically have one school now, nine years later. Seein' that and not being able to have a magic wand to fix it. It don't stop me from working, trying to change that. Right now the city is using a chicken and egg theory. We saying we can't build another school because we don't have enough kids. Well, the kids can't come unless you build a school. So who suffers? We all do, but the kids suffer the most. Take some time. And talking about Charter schools now - look at the dropout rate throughout the city... is it really successful or are we saying it's successful? Because when you lose one kid it wasn't a success. 'Cause every kid is important. I was in favor of Charter schools before Katrina. I'm not so in favor now because I think a lot of kids gonna fall through the cracks that don't have to.”
So what do I do about that? You know what I do? I try to create a homeschool that includes the whole community. So you're a parent, you may be great at math but you're terrible at history. So someone is great at history but terrible at math. To give this kid everything he needs - that's why it's called the Village. That's why it's called the village.
NB: Tell me about young people in your community who inspire you to do this work.
Mack: Oh, so many! My grandson that just graduated – Mr. Dillard – all odds were against him. He had – and this is my son – but he got a dead-beat dad, a mom that loves him but don't know what that look like. And he graduated top in his class. So right now, he's one of my heroes because it was against all odds. That was him looking in the mirror and saying 'I could play the blame game or I could do something about my situation.' I just went to his graduation. Michelle (Obama) spoke at his graduation so that was icing on the cake. But he's one that I could put at the top.
And then my daughter. My youngest daughter died. She had brain damage – a tumor – but she was pregnant. She had the baby that was born premature on her birthday, and then she died. My other daughter, my baby girl by my ex-wife, fought tooth-and-nail to take care of this child. Two different siblings by two different moms, what's the chance of that ever happening? The premature baby made it – he's a year and six months now – and you know, he's the mini me! He walk like me, he got attitude like me, he's me all over again. And it's so humbling to have a daughter so caring about someone that's not her child. So you know, we are more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. We just need to learn how to help each other and put ourselves into a position to command change.
NB: I can tell you're very proud of your children.
Mack: Oh yes. So after the graduation I cooked seafood. When it comes to cooking seafood there's God, then me. And he's too busy, so it's me. It's like my therapy. I love doing it. It was a feast. I enjoyed doing that... it was my small way of saying 'great job'. There's a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of hope.
On Friday, May 23, from 6 - 11 PM, there will be a “Save the Village benefit Concert,” to support the Lower Ninth Ward Village building, which faces foreclosure, at the Howlin’ Wolf. The event will feature dinner catered by over 10 New Orleans-based restaurants, as well as a multi-act lineup, with performances by: Guitar Lightin’ Lee, TBC Brass Band, Lower 9th Ward musicians, comedians, spoken word artists, and dancers.
Tickets for dinner and the show are $20 in advance / $25 at the door; tickets for just the show are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.
Claire Bangser is a New Orleans-based photographer and filmmaker with a passion for storytelling. She is the creator of NOLAbeings and has produced work for local, national, an international organizations and media since 2009. Highlights include a three-month bike tour storytelling project on the west coast, documentation for a four-month National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant in Turkey, and New Orleans-based digital storytelling projects like Cry You One and BOUDIN: The New Orleans Music Project. Find more of her work at www.clairebangser.com.