Caroline Gerdes

Journalist, Oral Historian

Young Explorers Grantee


Photograph by Laura Gerdes Colligan

Picture of Caroline Gerdes

Photograph by Robert Giglio

Birthplace: New Orleans, Lousiana

Current City: New Orleans, Louisiana

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I actually wanted to be a geologist, like both of my parents. But my love for writing and storytelling won out in the end.

How did you get started in your field of work?

As a journalism and history grad, oral history was a natural progression. I was inspired to document the Ninth Ward as a New Orleanian with roots in the Lower Ninth Ward—where my father and paternal grandparents grew up.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to cultural preservation?

I am inspired to dedicate my life to cultural preservation because I want to pass on history and traditions to future generations.

What’s a normal day like for you?

A normal day during my fieldwork usually included driving to another part of Louisiana and battling summer thunderstorms. My project included a lot of driving because there is a diaspora of original Ninth Ward residents throughout Louisiana due to various hurricanes, a peak in crime in the eighties, tumult during integration, and the passage of time.

Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?

My grandmothers. My paternal grandmother, Yvonne Gerdes, grew up in the Ninth Ward and was the inspiration for the project. Sadly, I lost my other grandmother, Charlotte John, at the end of my exploration. She was a major part of my support system and an excellent storyteller. I got my appreciation for travel, adventure, and good food from her.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

My favorite experience in the field has been making more than 50 new friends. My subjects were incredibly welcoming. They invited me into their homes and were glad to share their stories with me, including difficult ones about racism, crime, poverty, and hurricanes.

The most challenging part of my fieldwork was covering sensitive topics like the ones listed above without being exploitative. My subjects who still live in the Ninth Ward survived Katrina and are skeptical of sensational journalism surrounding the storm. Once subjects learned I was not focused on Hurricane Katrina, but instead life in the Ninth Ward, they were happy to participate.

What are your other passions?

I am a foodie and a major dog person.

If you could have people do one thing to help save the Ninth Ward, what would it be?

I would ask them to go to New Orleans but not to gawk at Katrina damage. And, if you do take a Katrina bus tour in the Ninth Ward, choose a company whose proceeds go to the affected area. I also invite everyone to visit New Orleans—there is so much to experience here!

In Their Words

I am inspired to dedicate my life to cultural preservation because I want to pass on history and traditions to future generations.

—Caroline Gerdes


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