Louisiana Native Dedicated to Public Service
Issue   |   Fri, 11/11/2016 - 02:53
John Pourciau ‘05
Pourciau was known for his loud, welcoming personality while at Amherst. Now, he uses it as a way to connect with his neighbors and constituents in the hopes that he can take steps to better the lives of Louisianans today and in the years to come.

Growing up in Baton Rouge, John Pourciau ’05 has long felt a special connection to the bayous and back roads of his native Louisiana. The distinct culture and people endowed Pourciau with what he termed “a tremendous sense of place,” one that he carried with him throughout his travels and, ultimately, drew him back to his home state. Not only did this bond lead him back to the vibrant city of New Orleans, but his deep relationship to the state of his youth has no doubt drawn him into the career of public service that he’s embarked on since graduating Amherst.

A Public, Political Persona
Pourciau started on this political path at an early age, crediting both Lousiana’s deeply political nature and his upbringing in the state capital as driving factors for his start in public service. Pourciau’s early interest on politics manifested itself when he got involved with the student government of his Catholic high school in Baton Rouge.

However, his desire for involvement wasn’t sated by high school politics, so he got a job as a page for the Louisiana State Senate. Laughing, he noted that the job “really consisted of getting coffee and making copies for people.” He even made copies of any newspaper clipping that included a senator’s name — a job that he ruefully noted is now utterly obsolete with the advent of Google. Yet Pourciau says this job was invaluable to him as a teenager, and it provided “access to government and access to the way that things work … it’s great to be at the ground level of it.”

This passion for political involvement and his desire to continue to act on it in college was pretty much the only surefire idea that Pourciau carried to Amherst, a college he’d never heard of before being offered a subsidized trip to the students of color open house. Immediately upon his arrival, he acted on his passion by running for first-year class president. Imbued with what he termed “a profound sense of justice,” he campaigned on a promise to make sure each of his classmates’ voices would be heard.

“They have to feel that they are important to the system,” he argued. This dedication and belief that politics is, at its core, rooted in caring for people — not just status or some meaningless line on a resume.

“When seriousness overtakes him, he has wisdom beyond his years,” English professor Barry O’Connell said.

Although he lost in a runoff by what he remembers to be a margin of only 14 or 15 votes, this defeat, if anything, spurred him on to throw himself into the Amherst community with an even greater vigor. Pourciau, as was and still is the case for most Amherst students, joined countless organizations, from La Causa to the Black Students Union, a group he chaired during his time at the college.

He distinguished himself, though, through his dedication to the larger community. While on campus, he worked for ABC (A Better Chance) tutoring and led a campus-wide effort to redefine the college’s relationship with the surrounding area.

“I was active in trying to coordinate some volunteer work even my senior year, trying to connect some organizations and clubs to outreach work,” he said. “[We were] trying to transition from a concept of charity to a more equitable relationship with communities and with the work that’s being done with the people that needed that help.”

Yet even with all this time dedicated to the wider community, Pourciau still had a larger than life presence on the campus. His enthusiasm was infectious and many of his peers fondly remember the joy he brought to the Amherst community and his ability to strike up a conversation with seemingly anyone he met.

“Everyone at Amherst College knew John,” his classmate Peter Weiss ’05 recounted. “It was next to impossible to walk to Valentine with him because you’d never make it … before the dining hall closed — he was constantly stopping to say hi to people. Just the friendliest dude.”

Character in Action
Pourciau capped off his Amherst career with the commencement address. After his classmates selected him for the honor, he validated their selection with a moving speech that emphasized a simple message: “What you do and who you do it with are the best examples of who you are.” By this maxim, his actions over the next years clearly illustrate his dedication to public service in the truest sense of this phrase.

Leaving Amherst with a degree in political science, Pourciau immediately returned to his hometown and launched into politics, finding a job as a legislative assistant for the Committee on Health and Wellness in the Louisiana State Senate. His first month on the job tragically coincided with one of the worst events in the past decade of American history, when Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the state in late August 2005.

As a staffer for the the Committee on Health and Wealthness, he played an integral role in trying to help the city of New Orleans rise from the ashes. Focusing on “issues relating to how to rebuild the New Orleans system,” the committee dealt with problems ranging from destruction of one of the biggest New Orleans hospitals, Big Charity, to the exodus of huge swathes of the health care workforce and to the lack of mental health professionals in New Orleans. Even as a junior staffer, Pourciau played a central role in drafting legislation for the state senate that would deal with these issues. Working for this committee provided him with “a really good experience,” he said, “because again I felt like I was on the frontlines of policy and of government and of things happening.”

A True Public Servant
After 17 months working for the Committee on Wellness, Pourciau chose to carry on in Louisiana state politics rather than attending law school, becoming Director of Voter Outreach for Louisiana’s new Secretary of State, Republican Jay Dardenne. While Pourciau is a registered Democrat, he saw his new job, that of expanding the electorate and giving a voice to the voiceless, as something that transcends partisanship.

Dardenne “respected that there was really important work to do outside of politics,” he said.

After moving to Philadelphia to attend Temple University’s law school and work for a health care organization, he returned to the world of bayou politics that he knew and loved so well. Instead of taking a job at a big law firm or becoming a congressional aide, he joined New Orleans Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell’s team, becoming her legislative director.

Pourciau is still working for Cantrell, where he has led the charge on drafting legislation to deal with several issues currently facing the Big Easy, most notably in regards to smoking bans and housing affordability. Although he is quick to assign credit to Cantrell’s excellent leadership and direction, Pourciau was vital in drafting the legislation that banned smoking from casinos and bars. This victory was not just some minor city ordinance that would affect few, but rather represented Pourciau’s dedication to fighting for the voiceless.

“The city’s musicians particularly thanked him, since now they don’t have to sing in a fog of cigarette smoke,” Weiss said. Pourciau himself sees his success in this situation as an example of how “stuff gets done on the city and state level.”

“I really like working at the state and city level because I’ve been able to see stuff move in a way that’s been great,” he said.

His commitment to action and actual progress ties into his work on housing. As in most cities throughout America, New Orleans has experienced rising rents and is losing many of its older residents who simply can’t afford to live in the city any more. Pourciau sees the housing crisis as one of the biggest problems faced by New Orleans.

“What New Orleans has is its people,” he said. “It has cultural producers. It has chefs and artists and Mardi Gras. If we lose our people, we lose what makes us as a city special.”

He and Cantrell have taken steps to begin to address these issues by arguing for the creation of inclusionary zoning policy and a rental registry, measures that would increase the number of affordable housing units in the city and improve the quality of such units. Although these measures haven’t yet been successful, he said he hopes to continue fighting for these and other issues that will improve the life of every Louisianan for the years to come.