For over 20 years, Avenue has been honoring philanthropists, volunteers and community activists — in fact, more than 85 people have been recognized for their efforts as Activists of the Year.
Focuses have included mentoring, music, the arts, children’s issues, fighting illnesses, education, mental illness, food insecurity and other matters that move them to help.
Last year’s honorees were Robin Burgess and Terence Blanchard, Drs. Joy and Howard Osofsky, and Angel and Taylor Beery.
This year’s class includes Ashlye Keaton, Ernest Johnson, David Sherman, Claire Thriffiley and Isaac Toups, whose focuses align from art in hospitals to the juvenile justice system.
Works to A New Orleans Beat
It is a love story with New Orleans that started with Mardi Gras.
Ashlye Keaton, native of Arkansas, arrived to go to Tulane Law School. She lived just off the parade route and realized this was it: “Mardi Gras is a unifying, celebratory experience,” she says.
“I think New Orleans took all my sensations, shook them up like a cocktail, and remixed them when she poured me out into this vessel of a city — and in that way — I was reborn into a new way of experiencing life.” Little did she know at the time that her career would one day become intertwined with that of a long-standing tradition: the Mardi Gras Indians.
And she didn’t really waste much time; she co-founded The Ella Project a year after graduating from law school.
The Ella Project “provides pro bono legal assistance, arts business services, and advocacy to our cultural community,” says its website.
“Musicians and other culture bearers are a precious people in our community and need and deserve support,” says Keaton. “With rare exceptions, these are not high-earning people and yet they distinguish our city. They need to be supported, nurtured and, most of all not hindered, in pursuing their art.”
“They are as important to New Orleans as Broadway is to New York or Disney World to Orlando.” As an intellectual property lawyer, “I figured out very quickly that most artists cannot afford legal counsel, I simply did what I thought was logical and developed the programming and ultimately an organization that filled a big gap by providing comprehensive legal counsel, business advice and an advocacy platform for artists, musicians, culture bearers, grassroots nonprofits and others who contribute to our cultural landscape,” says Keaton.
A big example of this is her work with the Mardi Gras Indians.
“I think my proudest achievement has been working with Mardi Gras Indians to ensure that their elaborate, hand-sewn, ornate Suits qualify under the U.S. Copyright Act as sculptural works of art,” says Keaton.
A familiar sight at Mardi Gras Indian parades are photographers, who for many years sold — and still do sell — their photographs of the Indians, with no money going back to the person who created the Suit, which is what the ensemble is called. “Copyright protection of Mardi Gras Indian Suits has worked to ensure that the Mardi Gras Indian community has recourse against people and entities that are using their works without their permission,” says Keaton.
The copyright protection, Keaton goes on to explain, has served as a credentialer in some respects when it comes to licensing and other arrangements from European museum exhibitions to transactions with private collectors for those who are interested in participating in the marketplace.
“In some ways, this copyright protection seems to generate a better playing field in the marketplace, by providing the creator with better leverage, stronger negotiating power and opportunity to maximize output,” says Keaton. This protection serves as a way for Mardi Gras Indians to maintain control of their work in any given context, adds Keaton.
“The greatest privilege and unfettered joy in my career has been to work with Mardi Gras Indians,” says Keaton.
Guiding Keaton in her path were her parents: “I was raised by a family who believed in the importance of giving back and demonstrated the positive outcomes of doing so from the time I was a young child.” Julie Jackson, who was the assistant dean of public interest and oversaw the pro bono programs at Tulane Law School, was an early and continuing influence: she was an original co-founder of The Ella Project, along with Keaton’s business partner Gene Meneray.
“[Jackson] continues to be a mentor and an inspiration, but in the early stages of my career, I really looked to her as I transitioned from my private practice with part-time public service to a full-time career in the nonprofit sector,” says Keaton. She also cites as mentors and inspiration, The Roots of Music’s Derrick Tabb — “Derrick is a hero of mine” — and Howard Miller, The Ella Project’s board president, who is well-known as the Chief of the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indian tribe and as president of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council.
“He is a commanding, wise and patient leader, and I have learned so much just by observing him in various leadership capacities for more than 20 years,” says Keaton.
The Ella Project has partnered on projects with The New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Assistance Foundation, and as proximity can often be fortuitous, the organization is housed in the New Orleans Jazz Museum, along with OffBeat Magazine and the Trombone Shorty Foundation, and it has partnered with these organizations in one way or another. Other partners include the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and WWOZ 90.7FM.
“We love the Jazz Foundation of America, and we work closely with Music Policy Forum, a North American nonprofit that I also co-founded and which serves to provide resources and strengthen networks in cultural communities across the globe,” says Keaton.
The attorney advocate does have some thoughts about improving New Orleans.
“New Orleans needs to get its basic infrastructure in order,” she says, adding “New Orleans still needs to work harder to prioritize the way it allocates resources, with a focus on how to have a more positive, measurable impact on the cultural community.”
Along with her husband Joel Scilley and dog Django, Keaton says, “I feel like the luckiest person in the world and am humbled to work with some of these amazing cultural warriors within that dynamic, only-in-New Orleans, extraordinary community.”
Brings Ubuntu Village to The Village of New Orleans
Ernest Johnson’s path to Ubuntu Village was a statistic: “I realized and was astounded that 99.5% of the kids impacted by the juvenile justice system were black.” For this lifelong resident of New Orleans, part of the Lafitte/Treme community, as well as a husband and father of three, this resonated with him, as he has his own experiences with the system.
He founded and is the Executive Director of Ubuntu Village. The core of its mission is to work with families with children in the juvenile justice system.
The organization has multiple programs, including the Parent Navigator Program at Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. There are two Parent Navigators at court who explain the legal process and help guide families through the process, also teaching them how to advocate for themselves and their children. The Parent Navigators have been through the system themselves, plus have training by Ubuntu.
There are parent leadership classes that help them understand the system and find ways to work for their family, ensuring their well-being. Participatory action research projects include Parents Fighting for Youth Justice, which addresses the issues families face at court and offers solutions. The second research project is focusing on language barriers in court, which was a collaboration with Tulane’s Mellon Program.
There’s mentoring and cultural programming for incarcerated youth at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center at the city’s juvenile jail, and at the state prison, the Bridge City Center for Youth. Ubuntu also holds quarterly family holiday meals for them.
Johnson also highlights, “Our Parent Leaders Educate for Action (PLEA) program directs families to resources and civic engagement tools to create quality-of-life policies for disadvantaged communities.”
Ubuntu also helped alleviate juvenile fees in Louisiana, which were burdensome to mostly low-income Black families. Gov. John Bel Edwards signed Act 123, filed in the 2021 state legislative session, which states it “temporarily suspend all juvenile court fees, costs and taxes associated with juvenile delinquency cases; and to provide for related matters.” The act goes until June 30, 2026.
There is also a program, Integration Navigation Services to End Arrest and Detention (INSTEAD), that aims to help those who have been arrested and help them get services, while for those who are facing charges, Ubuntu staff will recommend alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.
“Fulfilling the vision of Ubuntu, ‘I am because we are,’ and the common connection we have with each other, sometimes unknowingly, because this vision resonates with our encounter with different organizations and groups that share similar beliefs and hope,” says Johnson about his accomplishments with the organization.
Johnson’s work is rooted in the community, from the street corner body to elected officials, with the same value for humanity for all.
Johnson cites James Bell, the founder of Haywood Burns Institution in Oakland, California, as a mentor.
“He inspired me with his vision of a world without prisons for children but with investment in resources that brings laughter to children,” says Johnson.
Also helping guide his vision is another nonprofit dear to him: “Family and Friends of Louisiana Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) [which] gave me the opportunity and the structure to build relationships locally and nationally to amplify the voices of parents and youth,” says Johnson, of the group he was a state organizer for.
Johnson is a community member of the Sandy Kransoff Criminal Justice Council and serves on the Foundation for Louisiana Truth Racial Healing Transformation Advisory Committee. He is a member of the National Debt Free Justice Campaign, former community chair of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, former president of Treme Booster Club and president of Broadmoor Community Church, and co-founder of One More Time Social and Pleasure Club. Johnson has also been a national organizer, South Region, for Justice for Families and a board member of Safe Streets and Lafitte Greenway.
Johnson is the recipient of the The Favorite Father Award and 2014 Beth Arnovits Gutsy Advocate for Youth Justice Award given by the National Juvenile Justice Network.
In an article by the National Juvenile Justice Network, “Ernest Johnson was a natural choice for the Gutsy Youth Advocate Award,” says Director Sarah Bryer. “He started out advocating tenaciously for his own son, but quickly committed himself to helping as many other families and parents as he could. His determination and his desire to create a fair and just response to youth in trouble with the law by focusing on the appalling racial and ethnic disparities in the system are inspiring to us all.”
His hopes for New Orleans is to eradicate poverty and to invest in cultural bearers to build parallel equity in the quality of life for all New Orleans citizens.
New Orleans is what drives him. “I love its vibrant culture, people’s perseverance through consistent struggles, and their ability to exemplify joy like no other place in the world,” he says.
“Giving back is a purpose of self and a reflection of humility for the better of humankind,” he adds.
Attorney David Sherman may have been recently inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation Hall of Fame and the Leadership in Law Hall of Fame, as well as been named a New Orleans Icon by New Orleans CityBusiness and since 2010, as one of the Best Lawyers in America. But the most important award to him is the handwritten certificate from his five grandchildren proclaiming him “Grandfather of the Year.”
“Being named Grandfather of the Year by my grandchildren is certainly the most meaningful award I have ever received,” says Sherman. “The way I look at it, it means that either I am really special or my grandchildren are really smart since at their young ages they have already figured out how to manipulate me!”
Kidding aside, for this lifelong New Orleanian the city and his family are where his heart is.
Philanthropy and volunteering play a big role. “My parents were diehard believers in philanthropy,” Sherman says. “Growing up I remember them always volunteering for one community endeavor or another.”
Sherman played and developed a real love for football, basketball and baseball in his youth, and as such wanted to attend the games of his favorite teams as well.
He is a fan of the New Orleans Pelicans and the New Orleans Saints, of which he has been a season ticket holder since the team’s first year in Tulane Stadium.
“My proudest accomplishment is helping to create and guide the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation during the 34 years it has been in existence,” says Sherman, who is one of the founding members of the organization. “The Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation is truly one of the Greater New Orleans Metropolitan area’s greatest economic engines and considered the top sports foundation in the United States,” he says.
“It is responsible for bringing world-class events such as the Super Bowls and NCAA Championships to New Orleans,” he says. “It not only brings these events to the city but manages them.”
Working with the foundation, Sherman has been part of the team that successfully bid on four NFL Super Bowls — including the upcoming Super Bowl LIX on Feb. 9, 2025 — four NCAA Men’s Final Fours, three NBA All-Star games, four Bass Master Classics and the Olympic Track & Field Trials to name a few. Sherman is also involved in varying capacities with The National WWII Museum, Team Gleason and Discovery Health Sciences Foundation.
For the museum, he was on the hotel board and calls working with museum President and CEO Emeritus Nick Mueller and President and CEO Stephen Watson “an experience I’ll never forget.”
Also, an unforgettable experience is working with Team Gleason. “Serving on the executive committee and on the legal team of Team Gleason is also close to my heart,” says Sherman about this organization, which is a pioneer in ALS research and named after former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who has it. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease.
“Becoming part of the Gleason family and working with an organization that has enabled ALS victims to lead meaningful lives has been nothing short of incredible,” Sherman says.
Sherman is also a product of the New Orleans Public Schools System. Even though he sent his children to a private school, working with the Discovery Health Sciences Foundation, one of the top performing charter schools in the state, “brings me back to my roots,” he says.
Along his philanthropic and volunteering journey, Sherman has had a number of mentors along the way, such as Henry Shane, Susan and Bill Hess, Fred and Jennifer Heebe and the late Dr. Merv Trail, just to name a few, he says. And, “I am constantly amazed and inspired watching someone as successful as Boysie Bollinger devote so much of his time to philanthropic and community endeavors.”
Sherman adds that what he loves the most about New Orleans is the fact that its people truly care about each other. “New Orleanians have survived some of the worst hurricanes in history, we have survived an unimaginable pandemic and we have survived a period of social and racial injustice,” he says. “We have survived all of this because New Orleanians always rise up to help each other and their community in tough times.”
Sherman believes crime is the city’s biggest challenge and though he says he doesn’t have an answer, “I do know that we all must work together and work with our elected officials to solve this problem. “Tourism is this area’s largest industry. We will lose this industry if we cannot work together and solve the crime problem.”
Sherman cares and wants to see New Orleans prosper.
“Giving back to the community is important to me because I have benefited tremendously, both professionally and personally, from being part of it,” says Sherman.
“I want to make sure our community flourishes for the benefit of my children and grandchildren.”
Brings Joy Through Art
Claire Thriffiley is surrounded by beauty every day, whether she is at her Claire Elizabeth Gallery or volunteering at Children’s Hospital with her Amy’s Art Cart.
The gallery, which she founded in 2016, is located in the French Quarter. “I feature emerging and mid-career artists because I enjoy seeing artists develop their career and build confidence in their own innate talent,” says Thriffiley. “I like to think of myself not only as someone that sells an artist’s artwork, but also someone that helps artists build confidence in themselves and their creative voice. It is that nurturing and supportive role that I find the most fulfilling.”
This carries over to Amy’s Art Cart at Children’s Hospital. While an art cart already existed at the hospital and was manned by its volunteer department, Thriffiley took the reins, giving it a constant source of funding so it could expand its offerings but also create new programming.
Thriffiley also gave it a name, which was honor of her cousin Amy Palmer, a talented artist and art teacher who passed away from complications of multiple sclerosis in 2012.
Thriffiley and her family recognized that for Palmer creating art gave her a sense of purpose and an outlet, even as her health deteriorated. Amy’s Art Cart, a custom-designed mobile cart with art supplies, coloring books, craft sets, games, sensory toys and a mini library, is meant to honor Amy’s creative spirit and to give patients the opportunity to use art, creativity and play as an escape from their own health care obstacles.
“Growing up, my cousin Amy was that nurturing and supportive force for me and I hope to be that person for other artists like her and honor her memory in that special way,” she says.
Thriffiley also credits her grandmother, Bonita “Bunny” Nebel, who taught her the importance of caring for others and giving back through acts of service. “What I learned from my grandmother — a career and World War II military nurse — is that care can heal the parts of a person where medicine or treatments leave off. That is a big part of what we hope to achieve with Amy’s Art Cart.”
“The work we do with Amy’s Art Cart is so important as it gives patients the ability to use creativity, imagination and play as an outlet and escape from the rigorous and emotional toll of undergoing treatments and recovering from injuries while in the hospital,” says Thriffiley.
Amy’s Art Cart has raised close to $100,000 in money and in-kind donations, as well as items for the cart. Because of this funding, there are now two art carts and one music cart for a music therapy program, in addition to designing and installing two ceiling murals for the trauma rooms in the hospital’s emergency department.
“After almost a decade of giving my time to Children’s Hospital, I have seen some amazing projects come to life, but if I am to be honest, the greatest accomplishment for me is the simplest — seeing the joy on the faces of my patients,” says Thriffiley.
“Recently I was visiting one of my patients and saw that she had been working on drawing butterflies with shapes, which was a lesson that I had taught her the previous week,” Thriffiley adds. “The pride and sense of accomplishment on her face when she showed me the drawings in the sketch pad that I had given her made every hour I have spent and dollar I have helped raise for Amy’s Art Cart worth it.”
Thriffiley believes giving back to the community is important because it “reminds every single person that they matter in this world and deserve to be treated with kindness, respect and care.”
In addition to her grandmother and cousin, Thriffiley considers Rene Louapre, Becker Hall and Zandy Rainold of Hogs for the Cause as wonderful role models, mentors and friends.
“Their team motto — ‘Together we can do something great’ — continues to remind me that no effort is too small in giving back to the community,” she says, adding that, “I am also in awe of the fundraising that Hogs for the Cause has done for pediatric brain cancer patients and their families, both locally and throughout the country.”
Thriffiley notes that the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts Foundation and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art are both very special to her as “they do so much to nurture, support and elevate the city’s arts community.”
She also has an immense appreciation and respect for the work of Son of a Saint.
“My grandfather died when my father was nine years old and he will often say how much it meant to him to have family friends and mentors step in to help during his adolescence,” she says.
“I think the programs and resources that Son of a Saint has developed for fatherless youth are so valuable and important in our community.”
This also ties into her belief the greatest need in our city is to invest in our youth population through education, health care, social services and after-school programs.
“Our future depends on our ability to support and nurture the next generation of New Orleanians,” says Thriffiley.
Brings His Philanthropy And Food To Many Tables
You’ve seen him on Bravo’s Top Chef, have his cookbook Chasing the Gator – Isaac Toups & the New Cajun Cooking, or eaten at Toups’ Meatery — but do you know Chef Isaac Toups’ philanthropic side?
It is something that comes naturally to Toups, a native of Rayne, Louisiana, whose roots in the state span more than 300 years.
“I find that the service industry is one of the most philanthropic industries, especially in New Orleans,” says Toups. “Every charity event needs food so we are asked quite a bit and we say yes as much and as often as we can.”
“I’ve been around philanthropic causes my entire career and especially since Amanda [Toups] and I opened Toups’ Meatery in 2012.”
Toups’ Meatery took New Orleans by storm with its bold takes on traditional Cajun cuisine that Toups updated with a modern approach.
Before Toups started the restaurant, he worked 10 years for Chef Emeril Lagasse, who Toups cites as a mentor for his career, and “Not only is he a very philanthropic, as you know, but he taught me how to be a good boss and that’s made me a better chef.” (Lagasse has the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, which focuses on helping youth through culinary, nutrition and arts education. He is also a past Activist of the Year.)
Toups also mentions Chef José Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides meals in the wake of natural disasters.
“José Andrés is a massive inspiration to myself and my crew. We had the honor to be the first restaurant tapped here during COVID-19 pandemic and we have worked with World Central Kitchen many times since then and for long periods of time,” says Toups.
The pandemic was a pivotal moment for Toups and the restaurant.
“My proudest accomplishment is how my crew reacted during COVID-19 when we were needed the most,” he says, when “Toups [Meatery] in many ways over many months became a community center not just a restaurant.”
Toups’ Meatery chefs made “Herculean efforts to keep people fed and get that amount of food cooked every day. My front of house had to actually speak to and be around the people in desperate need,” he says.
Over the course of 18 months, the restaurant’s family meal program put out close to 100,000 meals into the community, with some targeted to specific facilities but in the beginning, it was mainly people coming to the restaurant’s door.
“I don’t want to sound too preachy but the last two and a half years have taught me a lot, and my number one wish for New Orleans is a better social safety net,” says Toups.
“Within days of COVID-19 striking, people had no food and I mean zero food. It enraged me and Amanda that the best food city in the entire country would have people begging for food for their kids within days of being sent home from work. Food is a human right. Period,” he says.
Through the years, the couple — Isaac credits her for pointing him “in the right direction where we might be needed the most” — have been familiar sights at local fundraisers. Among them include the New Orleans Women & Children’s Shelter, “which is especially close to my heart. It is the only shelter that doesn’t separate fathers from the family in the entire area. Often when a family is in crisis the shelter takes the mother and children in and the fathers become homeless.”
Son of a Saint is another favorite, and Toups taught the boys some cooking skills for Thanksgiving this year.
The couple were co-chairs of The Leona Tate Foundation for Change NOLA Public School Desegregation Anniversary Gala on Nov. 18, celebrating the 62nd anniversary of New Orleans Public School desegregation.
“Ms. Tate is an icon and I’m honored she’s asked us to help,” Toups says.
The funds were raised for the TEP (Tate Etienne and Prevost) Interpretive Center, which will teach visitors about the history of civil rights in the city. Toups and his crew cooked a five-course meal.
“As a chef it’s my job to care for my community, but as a proud Cajun man it’s in my blood. New Orleans has given me everything, I intend to reciprocate as long as I’m able to contribute something positive,” he says.