Jane Wholey, a communications guru, came of age during the tumultuous 1960s. It was a decade marked by a youth-led revolt against old-school conventions, but she didn’t take part in the rebellion. While Wholey’s peers across the country protested the Vietnam War, she studied philosophy and dreamed of seeing the world, not changing it.
As it turned out, she has spent much of her life doing both.
At 65, after nearly four decades of handing a microphone to unheard voices, she has retired as the executive director of Rethink, the organization of underage activists she founded seven years ago. The Rethinkers, a group of about 100 New Orleans public school children, have been “rethinking” public schools since the disarray left by Hurricane Katrina opened a new era for public education. With Wholey’s guidance this group of 9- to 17-year-olds has earned a place at the table of educational discourse, a place schoolchildren have long been denied.
Wholey’s spare frame, fair coloring and minimalist style mask the large resolve that has directed her life. Even though she’s a native of Massachusetts, the home of the Kennedys, her activist side didn’t develop until after she graduated from college. Like St. Patrick, the patron saint of her ancestors’ homeland, she had to discover a distant and less-privileged country to be awakened to her destiny. The product of protective Irish-Catholic parents, avenues to the foreign adventures she desired were limited; so when she heard of the Peace Corps, she grasped the opportunity to take flight under the protection of the U.S. government. A two-year stint to West Africa turned out to be the pivotal experience of her life.
She and many of the young Americans she met there were changed more by experiencing the culture than the culture was changed by them. Wholey says that they came back “very humble people” committed to listening more than talking.
“It was the beginning of a long conversation I have with myself about self-determination, race and poverty and bringing voices into the democratic process,” Wholey says.
After Wholey returned from Africa, she worked as a freelance journalist, writing about social and political issues. While living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she wrote for publications such as the Village Voice and New York Magazine and wrote a steady column for Home and Garden about alternative technology. She got involved in what she calls the “New Left,” a term associated with progressive social and political change that includes racial and gender equity.
She met Jed Horne, her husband and former Times-Picayune newspaper editor, while living in New York. They had two sons. Motherhood became a central focus so, while living near Esopus Creek in the Catskills Mountains, Wholey began a home-based media consulting business in 1981 aimed at developing creative media campaigns for grassroots organizations. She says the idea came from the realization that community organizations don’t communicate well with media outlets.
Esopus Communications allowed her to focus on three priorities: family, activism and travel. For about three decades, she helped disenfranchised people from the Appalachian Mountains to the Amazon River establish a voice in the political debates that impacted their lives. It was the perfect business for an intrepid traveler who speaks French and Spanish and thrives on meeting “interesting” people.
“I intended to do it for the rest of life,” Wholey says, “until I got knocked over the head with Rethink.”
Rethink, like many recently formed organizations, grew from Katrina’s floodwaters. Wanting to get involved in the recovery, she set to thinking about how she could apply her skills to problems facing the city. Reshaping schools was on the forefront of the news in 2005, and she noticed that the one segment of school culture that was not represented in the debate was the students themselves. With that idea in mind, she began working with other local and national activists to set up a summer program for students that focused on visualizing perfect schools.
After a period of brainstorming, training and planning, a group of students as young as 8 dramatized their desired changes in front of a storm-damaged school. The event drew national attention. Wholey expected the project to end with that press conference, but the children involved had other ideas.
Before she knew it, she’d given up her media consulting business, which earned up to $50,000 a year, and was working six to seven days a week, as many as 10 hours a day, for free. She says it took two years of writing grant proposals and honing the children’s public speaking skills to build a large enough budget to pay her a modest salary.
Now the organization operates on a budget of $380,000 and employs a staff of 10. Not only have two Recovery School District superintendents agreed to adopt most of their recommendations, the group was featured in a recent HBO special called “The Great Cafeteria Takeover.”
The Rethinkers have been pushing for better food in school cafeterias for years. Their efforts have prompted school officials and food providers to provide more locally grown fruits and vegetables on school menus. They have adopted a clever title for their efforts – “Candy Bars, Prison Bars,” a reference to how poor nutrition leads to acting out, which often leads to trouble with the law.
The group’s influence grows each year, but Wholey, with support from a Kellogg Foundation succession grant, handed it over to a new director June 1.
Ready for a more “contemplative life,” Wholey plans to divide her time between a second home in Mexico and the family’s magnolia-shaded shotgun Uptown. After a time, she plans to work again, but she’s not sure what direction that work will take.
“I’m just giving myself a break,” she says. “I need to give myself a lot of space and silence and see what bubbles up to the surface.”