Rachel Breunlin, Co-founder & Director
Top Row: Watercolor of Queen's Ann Lace from around the corn fields of Paris, Illinois, where my grandmother grew up; painting of rock pool on the northcoast of New South Wales, Australia; painting for Legba in front of the F&F Botanica. Bottom Row: Painting of trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands; the prairie walk near my house growing up outside of Chicago; painting of shotgun house in the Sixth Ward. All photographs and watercolors by Rachel Breunlin.
Since 2004, the Neighborhood Story Project's mission, "Our Stories Told By Us," has been one of the central guiding principles of my working life. During this time, I have co-written and edited more than 15 books, written academic articles, renovated an old corner store building, created exhibits and events related to our books and programming, and taught public culture and storytelling in the Department of Anthropology & Sociology at the University of New Orleans.
When we first began the NSP, I had not been trained in the "collaborative" part of anthropology, but experienced a lot of happiness in the community organizing, vivid and complex storytelling, honesty, and unexpected connections that came together when we co-edited the work with our students and the people they interviewed for their books. As I was working with them to develop their stories and interviews, I also found that I often drew on my background in Africana and Feminist Studies. Created out of a struggle to share the complex perspectives of people across many bodies of water, Africana Studies demands that the cultures of Africa and the African diaspora are not just the subjects, but the authors and producers of cultural work. It was in Africana Studies that I also had an opportunity to study the role of art in day-to-day and ritual life, which is so central in New Orleans, and ultimately, many of our books. In editing and framing stories and photographs in our books, I pay attention to the production of knowledge, voice, and home languages in writing. How do we share the poetic details of personal points of view within larger historical moments? How we represent spoken English in the written form? How do we create dialogues that drive deeper narratives about place, ancestors, cultural production, and the lived experiences of race, gender, sexuality, and class? How do we deal with violence? How do we deal with change?
I've carried variations of this interdisciplinary model throughout the ethnography I've led at the NSP. I enjoy sharing it across disciplines, mediums, and places. I love my students at the University of New Orleans, and have presented and/or taught the work of the NSP abroad in Australia, Spain, Morocco, St. Thomas/USVI, the Bahamas, Ghana, and Haiti. Along the way, I have learned a lot about the healing found in our processes as well. One of the great gifts many of the books have given has been a place to forgive and imagine other ways of being.
These days, as director of the NSP, I lead long term, collaborative ethnography, and try to nurture our workshop with programming and classes that give room for people to be in touch with their best selves--as individuals and collectives. In my own creative practices, I believe in dwelling in the right side of the brain, the unexpected, and the surreal. Below are a few of my articles connected to the bodies of work created at the NSP:
"Can There Be A Critical, Collaborative Ethnography?: Creativity & Activism in the Seventh Ward," by Rachel Breunlin and Helen A. Regis in Collaborative Anthropologies
"Bridge Work: Repatriating Mardi Gras Indian Photography with the House of Dance & Feathers" by Rachel Breunlin in African Arts
"Putting the Ninth Ward on the Map: Race, Place, and Transformation in Desire, New Orleans" by Rachel Breunlin and Helen A. Regis in American Anthropologist
"Entertaining the Spirits" by Bruce Sunpie Barnes and Rachel Breunlin in South Writ Large