Inaugural Louisianians of the Year

Our picks of the 8 best categories

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Visual Arts

Jenny Ellerbe
Photographer / Monroe

Louisiana landscapes through a lens.

The idea of using a kayak to explore Louisiana bayous didn’t occur to Jenny Ellerbe until “sort of late,” she says, perhaps because of the demanding schedule she’d kept during a 20-year career as a pediatric intensive care nurse. Even though the Monroe native had grown up smack in the middle of a region considered a sportsman’s paradise, “I was not really an outdoors person,” she says.

That changed one day when Ellerbe, who had for years done amateur photography, decided to seek a new view of her surroundings – from a kayak on the bayou.
“In a kayak, you’re down at the water level,” she says. “Winding through the cypress trees and Spanish moss, I was actually in the middle of it. It was like the light bulb came on, and I said, ‘Oh, my God.’”

The experience sparked a connection with her environment that Ellerbe had never felt before. “I rediscovered the wetlands of northeastern Louisiana and probed their depths with the reverence of a first-time explorer,” she wrote in a statement about her art.

Ellerbe’s photographic depictions of Louisiana and its wildlife have landed her work in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Masur Museum of Art in Monroe.

Through exhibitions at galleries in sites from New Orleans to Dallas to Boston, her work garnered an audience that she has expanded through her books, including the 2008 hardcover monograph, Here is Home, and the more recent Lenswork Extended #89.

Ellerbe’s moody black-and-white photos give emotional expression to the bayou scenes and rural landscapes of Ouachita, Union, East and West Carroll, Morehouse and Richland parishes, a region she says will always be home.

“Even if I moved away, I would be coming back all the time to photograph it,” she says. “I’m just so connected to this place and land, I can’t imagine not coming back to it.”
In a departure from her landscape photos, Ellerbe’s latest project deals with documenting the ancient Indian mounds of northeastern Louisiana, which date back thousands of years.

“I’m working with archeologists to find the mounds and contact land owners to get permission to photograph,” she says. Her goal is to create a photographic display that can be taken to schools and libraries to help explain the mounds’ significance and encourage preserving them rather than “just plowing them under.”

Ellerbe’s photographs can be seen at jennyellerbe.com.



Wildlife Conservation

James Dickson
Forestry professor / Ruston

When he talks turkey, experts listen.

He was an undergraduate at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., when he got the itch to visit Louisiana. You might assume that James Dickson, like untold numbers of other college students, was simply feeling the lure of Bourbon Street, but you’d be wrong.

“I came to Louisiana to see a swamp,” Dickson says of the trip he made more than 45 years ago.

His first glimpse of a cypress bog, drenched in the somber hues of a netherworld and teeming with rarely seen creatures, drew Dickson in.

“Louisiana is so different from other places – the marsh, the bottomland hardwoods, so many people of different ethnicity, the Cajun culture – I was intrigued by all of it,” he recalls.

Today, Dickson looks back on a career filled with efforts to understand, document and preserve Louisiana’s unique natural environment. With a master’s degree from the University of Georgia and a doctorate from Louisiana State University, the Frank Merritt Professor of Forestry has spent the past 12 years at Louisiana Tech University, where he is coordinator of the Wildlife Habitat Management Program.

Dickson has racked up dozens of awards for his scholarly works and efforts to broaden public understanding of Louisiana’s forests and wildlife. His investigations helped define wildlife relationships in Southern forests and expanded professional knowledge of the birds, small mammals, deer and amphibians that populate these regions. Through hundreds of presentations to professional and lay audiences, he contributed to better wildlife management practices and habitat models nationwide.

One of his biggest achievements was completion of The Wild Turkey: Biology and Management, a book that was instrumental in the conservation of the birds and
is now seen as the bible of wild turkey management.

“We’ve been able to return a species that was limited to a few pockets in mostly remote places and really bring it back big-time,” he says, reflecting on the book and his leadership in the National Wild Turkey Federation.

More recently, he compiled the award-winning Wildlife of Southern Forests: Habitat and Management, which he wrote with several other wildlife experts.

The father of two says the message he’s aimed to spread through his work has to do with humans’ responsibility to the natural environment. “We are part of the land,” he says, “and with that comes responsibility to perpetuate the resources as best we can.”



Civic Activism

Gina Womack
Advocate for incarcerated children / New Orleans

Offering support for jailed and castoff kids.

When she landed a job with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana in the late 1990s, Gina Womack was grateful. She had recently separated from her husband and needed the work to help support her three children. But she had no inkling of what the job would become.

“As an office administrator, I was doing books, budgets, payroll and also answering phones,” she says. “That’s when I really learned what was going on.”

Many of the phone calls came from children who were in juvenile detention facilities or from their parents who said their kids in the facilities were being mistreated.

“I thought parents needed a way to talk to each other and share information,” Womack says.

She decided to form a support group for the parents, and in no time her effort snowballed.

Recently, Womack, her staff and many supporters celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a statewide organization that works to improve the lives of young people involved in the juvenile justice system.

In September, Womack, as co-founder and executive director of the organization, received the national Alston Bannerman Fellowship award, presented by the Center for Social Inclusion. She was one of six fellows selected from around the country.

“I’d like to say I had some brilliant idea, but I didn’t,” she says of the organization’s growth. “Our support group turned into parents really getting a sense of their power.”

The thousands of young people who are placed in detention centers and jails each year range from kids who are first-time misdemeanor violators to repeat offenders who could be headed for a lifetime of crime. Most come from low-income households, and many have dropped out or been expelled from school. What many also share is the lack of opportunity to turn their lives around.

The Families and Friends group aims to re-route the school-to-prison pipeline in several ways, including reducing unnecessary school suspensions and expulsions that funnel kids into centers offering little chance of rehabilitation.

The group also formed the Parent Leadership Project to encourage more positive behaviors in the classroom and at home.

One of the organization’s biggest successes was the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, which led to the closing of the notoriously abusive Tallulah Correctional Center. But Womack says she can’t rest on such achievements.

“We closed the prison, but some of the same problems still exist,” she says. “Systemically, we have a long way to go.”



Education

Gary L. Jones, Ph.D.
Public schools superintendent, Rapides Parish  / Alexandria

Schools chief ‘negotiates’ with troubled students.

Not everyone would agree that military training is the best preparation for a public school administrator, but that doesn’t worry retired Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Gary L. Jones.

“Some people like it; some don’t,” he says. “I take the position that leadership is not necessarily a popularity contest.”

Yet Jones, who for the past eight years has been superintendent of the Rapides Parish School District, seems to have plenty of fans. Members of
the American Association of School Administrators and the Louisiana Association of School Executives recently named him Superintendent
of the Year for 2011.

Jones was born in Washington state, but his military father kept the family on the move. Jones considers his home to be Monroe. He was a school superintendent in Monroe and in Claiborne Parish before moving to the Alexandria-based system.

The Rapides Parish district was running on empty at the time Jones took charge, but he eventually turned an $11 million deficit into $14 million in reserves. He says he did it by “targeting” resources.

“A lot of money comes through our district,” he says. “I just try to put it where it will get the best results.”

Jones’ success has not been limited to the balance sheet. He is also seen as a successful innovator.

Two years ago, with Louisiana schools under pressure to graduate high school students in no more than four years, Jones came up with a way to keep kids in classes even when outside circumstances disrupt their schedules. An online learning program he instituted lets students switch back and forth between traditional classroom and online learning in order to keep them on track toward graduation.

The program also lets high-performing students take extra courses and move through high school faster.

“I’ve got a kid who’s a freshman, got a 30 on his ACT in the eighth grade and took high school algebra 1 this summer; he’s now taking algebra 2, geometry and advanced math at the same time,” Jones says.

Jones says some of his most rewarding work has been with troubled students who could easily end up in detention centers rather than classrooms.

“I get personally involved with troubled students,” he says. Instead of getting expelled, such students meet with Jones to sign a performance contract.

“We negotiate a contract between the student and me,” he says, “ and then we both agree to live up to it.”
 

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