Introduction from The Levees

Margaret Smith Crocco
“levee”: an embankment designed to prevent the flooding of a river

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel concluded his remarks by referring to suffering people everywhere in the world:

What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

The miseries experienced by citizens of the Gulf States as a result of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2004 were felt widely, both inside and outside the United States. The catastrophic breaching of the levees resulted in seventeen hundred people dead or missing in New Orleans. It is now understood that the extent of this loss had a great deal to do with human failure.1 The recognition that the chief victims of this disaster were our most vulnerable “neighbors” has challenged our sense of who we are as a nation.

In this curriculum project, educators from Teachers College, Columbia University hope to encourage democratic dialogues and civic engagement about the issues raised by the events associated with Hurricane Katrina, as so artfully illuminated by Spike Lee’s film, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” In February 2007, “When the Levees Broke” won the prestigious George Polk Award for television documentary, one of the most prestigious awards given in journalism. We are honored to be associated with this magnificent film and its courageous effort to write the history of this tragic event.

In the spirit of this film, the authors of this curriculum are animated by a collective conviction that, as Americans and human beings, we must address the issues of race and class unveiled in the aftermath of this storm. We must consider more effective ways to make our poor, aged, and disenfranchised citizens less vulnerable to calamity while recognizing that we are all vulnerable. First and foremost, “we the people” must understand better what we can and should expect—or not—from our government, our neighbors, and ourselves in dealing with the countless modern threats to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The historical essay and curriculum units which comprise the “Teaching The Levees Project: A Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement to Accompany the HBO Documentary Film Event, Spike Lee’s ‘When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts’” are designed to stimulate serious deliberation about the meaning of Hurricane Katrina and the breach of the levees. Discussions of race and class are often avoided in American schools, colleges, and communities. With this curriculum, we hope to stimulate dialogue about these tough issues by posing the questions: Who are we as a country? Who do we want to be?

1The White House Katrina Report is a 520-page study of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina entitled “A Failure of Initiative.” See http://www.whitehouse.gov/reports/katrina-lessons-learned/

Works Cited

Wiesel’s speech can be found at www.eliewieselfoundation.org/nobelprizespeech.aspx

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Story of the Levees



Teaching the Levees is a collaboration of Teachers College, Columbia University, The Rockefeller Foundation, HBO Documentary Films, Teachers College Press, and the EdLab