NEW ORLEANS – The Big Easy is one of the most alluring cities in the world. While I have traveled the Big Blue Marble, I have not seen as many cities and continents as my heart desires. Be forewarned, I was raised in New Orleans so my bias is strong. Or, cynical. You decide. During my life-changing experience as a NOLAbounder, I was having a passionate conversation with one of the stakeholders in this whole out-of-the-box-and-planet experiment. Apparently, I had uttered something she thought was profound. She cut-in, “Wait! What did you just say?” To which I replied, “What? What did I say?” While fumbling around, I finally recalled:
“I don’t know if I’m a cynic because I was raised in New Orleans, or because I work in Hollywood, but I’m a convert for my own city.”
Maybe it’s this cynicism which keeps me protected in the Land of No – Hollywood. Maybe, it’s what made me write on my application for the beNOLAbound experiment, in answer to the question: “Single most important issue facing New Orleans?”
To which I penned,
“When New Orleans lowers its carnival mask, as divisive and unpleasant a sight it may be, her single most important issue is today’s rate of murders and crime. While those more scholarly than I can provide a better examination as to the history and causes, it’s certainly the black veil hanging over New Orleans which she has not emerged from. Whether a real or perceived issue, New Orleans will be frozen in this state until she can provide safe harbor for those tourists and businesses desiring to come to the city, as well as for her residents.”
Cynical? Maybe. Did I mean it? Yes. Oh, I meant it. Maybe I was trying to protect myself – if and only if I was selected – to be a NOLAbounder. That way I could easily wiggle out of any nasty political issues, if need be. I hedged my bet.
CONGRATULATIONS – You’re a NOLAbounder!
Well, guess what? I was selected along with 26 outstanding applicants to take part in this experiment, which had as much chance to go horribly wrong, as it did to go horribly right.
We were told there would be a documentary crew following us and upon arriving in New Orleans, we would be immediately interviewed. After being searched by the TSA before I even got on the plane – I was fearless. Walking funny, but I was fearless. Now, what do you think the first question I was asked? You got it. What were my thoughts on what I wrote with regards to the crime problem in New Orleans? To add to the tension, I had such a crushing migraine from sleeping on the flight over from Los Angeles, I could barely utter my name. So, I stuck to my guns and tried desperately to remember what I wrote. I spent enough time thinking about my answer to that question, I should have had it memorized.
Blank. Dumb. Stare.
Eventually, I think, maybe, probably, I said something similar to what I wrote. Yet, I was serious about my task given to me by the beNOLAbound challenge. I meant every word. Even if I couldn’t remember what I wrote.
I FOUGHT THE LAW BUT WE BOTH WON
Part of our beNOLAbound experiences included a Key Issue Panel Discussion at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). The NOLAbound team had done their homework. And, boy did they. They were setting the NOLAbounders up with key influencers in the city. And who do you think would be one of the most key influencers? The man himself, New Orleans Police Department Chief Ronal W. Serpas. From Los Angeles, I’ve only seen Chief Serpas through the main stream media lens. Short sound bites and frequent cuts of full sentences. A few problems immediately come to my mind. One is, the Chief could rival any offensive lineman the New Orleans Saints has. *He has to be a 6’10” corn-fed boy, or pretty close to it. Another is the instant command presence he had in front of our group. The Chief certainly has seen a shadier bunch than us before and as a leader, I could see he had to have a command presence. As a Navy Veteran, I was struck by his awesome command presence.
Okay, good so far. I was waiting a few minutes for him to finish his standard answers to practically the same topics he has to talk about all the time. Though I don’t directly work in the journalism arena, being a public speaker and media trainer gave me the weapons I needed to fight through all the bullet points the Chief was about to give us. Every one of my fellow NOLAbounders began to lob pointed and relative questions towards the Chief. I didn’t hear once a question a TV reporter would ever ask, maybe out of fear their press credentials would be revoked for asking tough, pointed questions. What was the Chief going to do to us? We weren’t the press. We were the NOLAbounders tasked with a mission. And that mission was going to be achieved.
Then it hit me. Looking directly across at this man, this leader (whose job you couldn’t pay me enough to take), began to make quizzical faces as if he’d never heard these questions before. His responses gave him away when he told us we were asking really poignant questions. Trust me when I say my questions weren’t as nearly as tough as my fellow NOLAbounder’s.
Here is our exchange, as best as I can remember: First, I introduced myself, “Chief, Stan Gill, I’m a film and television producer out of Los Angeles via the Westbank (of New Orleans).” He cuts me off, “I grew up on the Westbank.” “Yeah, yeah, don’t throw me off course,” I thought to myself. “Chief, what is your opinion on the national main stream media and how fair it treats New Orleans’ crime problems?” What happened next, I never expected. Chief Serpas grinned from ear-to-ear. That little bit of body language told me he completely understood New Orleans was not getting a fair shake from the national main stream media and he was about to say his peace. To paraphrase, he relayed his department had two issues, with regards to my question.
One, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) needed to do a better job of getting relative, timely and accurate information out to the public. He readily admitted the NOPD was not doing that efficiently. Two, he would hope when his department achieves those goals, that the national main stream media would then reluctantly have to give New Orleans a fairer outlook with regards to its crime problems. Yeah, good luck with that. But, he reeled me in. Save for the spikes in certain areas of crime, for example the rate of homicides in New Orleans versus the national average, Chief Serpas did not shy away and give us a convoluted answer. He was direct. He was to the point. And, I sensed he felt he needed help. Help which could only be solved by better budgets. I can tell you by sitting there for hours and finally putting the Chief on-the-spot (because I didn’t have a press pass to revoke), Chief Ronal Serpas is the right man for the right job. He even inspired me while sitting in front of him, to come up with a thumbnail action plan where my company could actually help the NOPD with these issues the Chief spoke about. I was in. How could I help solve these problems? I had a plan. I just had to be asked to help.
SHOOT ME CHIEF, I DARE YOU
My second question went something like this, “Chief, why don’t you just pack-it-in? Go somewhere else where you can make more money and not have to deal with these headaches here in New Orleans. You know you can make more money.”Ron Serpas smiled and said, “I love this city. I grew up here.” Signed. Sealed. Delivered. I replied, “Chief, I see you through the media lens out in Los Angeles. The sound bites. The cut-off sentences. No in-depth coverage. Thank you for your service to my city.”
Whether real, or perceived, there was a tension in the air which slowly vanished when I heard sighs of relief come from within the room. Was I too arrogant to ask my questions? Was I rude? Did I embarrass my fellow NOLAbounders by coming out firing? I don’t think so. I think the entire room felt the same as I did – Chief Serpas is the right man for the right job. He had convinced me.
Keep my city protected, Chief. I’m coming home and I have a plan.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: To be fair, I have no idea whether or not press credentials are pulled from reporters asking pointed questions as the NOLAbounders did. I doubt credentials would be pulled after listening to the Chief. He’s a leader. Oh, by the way, this experiment went horribly right. *Chief Serpas has since corrected me to say he’s actually 6’5″ and CRAWFISH-fed. Duly noted, Chief. Duly noted.