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Take Back Your Narrative: The Neighborhood Story Project

Growing up in the St. Bernard Housing Project, Kenneth Phillips had many names.  Beyond the one he was given at birth, Phillips was Doodie to his mom and K.K. to his grandmother.  But in his own journal, he was “The President.”

And when Katrina inundated the 7th Ward, scattering his neighbors and family, Time Magazine carried a cover photo of his great-aunt pushing his great-grandmother toward safety, through four feet of noxious water, with the headline “An American Tragedy” in capital letters.

Luckily for me (and other fans), the Neighborhood Story Project (NSP) gave Phillips his first chance to set the record straight.

“For my family, the separation during the evacuation was hard, but the bigger tragedies came before and after the storm,” he wrote in his book, Signed, the President.  Phillips viewed other losses – such as a beloved uncle dying from street violence at the beginning of his music career – as the real tragedy of his adolescence.

Phillips was one of the first group of post-Katrina NSP authors.  The books from that “class of 2009” heralded a triumphant return for the group, which hadn’t published in four years.  NSP is also responsible for The House of Dance & Feathers, the gorgeous book about Ronald Lewis’ tiny-but-comprehensive Mardi Gras Indian museum of the same name.

NSP employs “collaborative ethnography,” helping (hyper)locals tell their own stories through writing, interviews and photography, then publishing  the books in partnership with University of New Orleans Press.  I can tell you, from experience, that the books make excellent bridesmaid gifts.  This Sunday, NSP celebrates eight years of work with a write-a-thon fundraiser.  I signed up even before I found out that the Joint and Cake Café were providing lunch, even though the idea of writing in a group for several hours definitely intimidates me.  To me, writing fiction has always been a private act.

But NSP Co-Director Abram Himelstein assured me that the event is relaxed and flexible.  He founded the organization, along with Co-Director Rachel Breunlin, as teachers at John McDonogh High School.

“People are writing a variety of things, and that’s one of the things we really love,” said Himelstein, noting that in years past participants have written everything from serious non-fiction to erotica – and that it’s entirely up to the participants whether to share their work.

So, if you’re a fan of the NSP books – or if you don’t know them yet, but you’re a fan of holding the reins on your own life story – then support Phillips, Lewis and the other NSP authors.  Sign up to participate in the write-a-thon yourself, or just  give us eight bucks to celebrate each year that the group has worked to help New Orleanians shake off the headlines and tell the city’s story in its own words.

Molly Davis writes about New Orleans for NolaVie. Catch her tweets about Southern art and politics at www.twitter.com/journsouth.