Turning the Kernel of an Idea Into a New Career"Before, it was really the Big Easy. Now there's more of a sense of urgency — we woke up a little. We're aware."
Sometimes you never know where inspiration will come from. One day, Alex McConduit, a young New Orleanian who worked in social media for a major entertainment corporation, was helping his mom take Christmas decorations up to the attic. And a stray phrase popped into his head: "the little Who Dat."
You don't have to be from New Orleans to know about the Who Dats. They're the rabid local fans of the New Orleans Saints football team, named after the raucous chants of "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints!" at home games. The two-word phrase also became something of a rallying cry as residents drifted back into the city to rebuild their lives after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the failed levees.
McConduit filed "the little Who Dat" in the back of his mind ("When I get an idea I let it chill"), and then a few days later another phrase popped up: "the little Who Dat who didn't."
And he thought: That could make a good children's book.
And so began McConduit's improbable secondary career as a children's book author. He wrote out a tale about a non-believing young Who Dat who finds his voice, then he tracked down an illustrator, self-published his book last spring, and started a tour through the region's elementary schools, becoming an advocate for literacy and self-empowerment. "If it's in your head, you can do it," he says. "If you can envision it, you can do it. It's just the fear that stops you from doing it. That's what I like to talk about when I'm at schools."
Like many city residents, McConduit divides New Orleans into pre- and post-Katrina. "It's like pre-Katrina doesn't even exist," he says. "It's not even real." He has fond memories of growing up in the city with supportive parents. "It was a great childhood, best I could ask for." But that was pre-Katrina.
When he returned after a month in a hotel outside Atlanta, he found a profoundly changed city. Not just in the landscape of ruins and destruction, but also in the people. "When I came back home, everybody was working together," he says. "Everybody was trying to do something. Before, it was really the Big Easy. Now there's more of a sense of urgency — we woke up a little. We're aware."
One of his bigger challenges was resuming his studies at Loyola University while simultaneously working part time gutting flooded houses. He had a hard time understanding how his fellow students could concentrate on schoolwork when so many people nearby were trying to simply right lives that had been turned upside down. "I just couldn't focus," he says.
But he persevered. He graduated. He got a good job. He wrote his first children's book. And now he's working on sequels to his original story, along with some new tales. And he's been taking his message to local schools, working to get young kids writing and even publishing their own books on a modest scale.
"My personal goal is to help people achieve what they can do," he says. "When you're a kid, you're like, 'I want to be a doctor! I want to go to the moon!' Then when you get old, you just lose that. If you can give them a sense of accomplishment early, they'll do more."
Check out Alex's New Orleans.