St. Charles Avenue Activists of the Year 2021
What does it mean to love New Orleans? It’s a question asked every day, whether it be taking a sunrise stroll through Audubon Park or dealing with broken car windows. It isn’t the easiest of cities to live in, but for many mysterious, individual reasons, we stay.
For some, this affection for the city extends to giving back to the community through their work, nonprofit organizations or personal efforts. Many also share their activism nationally and internationally.
Twenty years ago, St. Charles Avenue magazine started honoring people who are making a difference with the Activists of the Year Awards. To date, we have honored more than 70 truly worthy individuals.
For 2021, the magazine chose three couples: Robin Burgess and Terence Blanchard, Drs. Joy and Howard Osofsky and Angel and Taylor Beery.
Their focuses are different, but all have a common goal: to help their fellow man and make New Orleans and the world a better place.
Angel and Taylor Beery
Walker Beery is a hero. The son of Angel and Taylor Beery, he embodied the best of the human spirit.
In July 2019, at age 7, Walker was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, an aggressive pediatric brain cancer.
Family and friends rallied around Walker, who endured multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments and hospital stays.
“While the fact that tragic underfunding has left children with cancer with zero progress in treatment over the last 30 years, it became immediately clear to us what we would do about it, but as a family it was less clear,” says Taylor.
“Clarity was provided by Walker himself, who was touched by another sick child in the hospital and committed himself to forming Kids Join The Fight (KJTF) to encourage the superpowers and creativity of children to help cure pediatric cancer patients and care for their families.”
Throughout the years, Angel and Taylor supported multiple causes, but admitted that they “didn’t know the true depth and meaning of connection to a cause until Walker was diagnosed,” says Angel.
The Beerys – Taylor, a native New Orleanian who works at Lapeyre Stair, part of Laitram, and Angel, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, who now focuses on the foundation and the family, McLain, 3, and Evelyn, 7 – and Walker started KJTF, a nonprofit that “empowers kids to join the fight against pediatric cancer by raising money to provide local care for pediatric cancer patients and their families and to fund research to cure childhood cancer,” states the website.
Among the sobering facts about childhood cancer are these: More is spent in the U.S. in three days at Starbucks than there are annual funds to improve treatments for children with cancer; and that only four percent of federal government cancer research funding goes toward the study of pediatric cancer.
Those facts among others, along with Walker’s mission, give the organization its drive. The founding of KJTF also pushes back against the misconception that activism is the realm of adults.
“One of the things that’s so different about KJTF is the emphasis for parents to view fundraising activities as an opportunity for their children to learn about philanthropy and empathy while doing something super fun together,” says Angel.
“Parents and children from across the country have given us such beautiful feedback about how their kids have learned about pediatric cancer and philanthropy while bringing the creativity that often only children can to Walker’s ‘Cure and Care’ mission.”
There are plans for a rapid expansion of KJTF, including opening branches (infrastructure and programmatic support for families) around the country.
The first fundraisers were lemonade stands in August 2020. Funds are also raised by the KJTF signs, hats and T-shirts as well as events, such as run/walks, pet shows and bake sales (even a “Be the Change” drive, where students donate the spare change around their house) that aren’t just happening in New Orleans, but across the U.S. – in September, KJTF had events in all 50 states.
“Whenever we feel weak, we just have to remember Walker. His strength has been, and will hopefully always be, our guide,” says Angel. “One memory that frequently jumps to mind was his insistence to dance behind his lemonade stand, for several hours straight, during his first fundraiser. He was exhausted at the end but wanted to celebrate the joy of helping others and thank everyone that contributed with his dance moves!”
Walker passed away at age 9 in early September, and through KJTF the Beerys, including Walker’s two siblings, will continue his mission: “Walker’s time with us was too short but will have a lasting impact on this world, and we know his brother and sister have no less ambition,” the Beerys say.
Both Angel and Taylor admit that watching Walker, in the midst of a brutal battle with cancer, care so much about others redefined philanthropy for them.
“Walker embodied the ability to find joy where many couldn’t and, in that way and many others, was a proud son of this city,” the Beerys say.
“While we often wish we, as a community, would strive harder to do the things that reduce pain (crime, jobs, effective government services, etc.) New Orleans does understand resilience and the ability to somehow find celebration in pain,” says Taylor.
Taylor adds that they’re so grateful for New Orleanians and others supporting the cause, and that the success of KJTF was due to the incredible community of all ages that embraced the family to support the cause.
Drs. Joy and Howard Osofsky
Sometimes the best advice is often the simplest: Listen.
That’s what Drs. Joy and Howard Osofsky did after Hurricane Katrina, when they were working with city and state officials to help first responders, New Orleanians and others recover.
At that time, Howard was Clinical Director of Adult Services for the state of Louisiana and Joy served as Clinical Director of Services for Children and Adolescents for Louisiana Spirit, which operates during a Presidentially declared disaster under the oversight of the Louisiana Department of Health, Office of Behavioral Health.
The duo says that being able to help with recovery by supporting children and families during this time was a life-changing experience.
“I remember spending time in the cafeteria on the boat visiting with families and seeing if a conversation of a listening ear would make a difference,” says Joy, referring to the Ecstasy cruise ship that they, first responders and others were living on during the city’s recovery.
“And it did, many times. It’s not typical ‘mental health’ support. However, sometimes a person just needs someone to listen.”
This also translated into their work when schools reopened, when “at first many were hesitant to think that mental health support could make a difference,” says Joy.
“We had an important role in helping to support the schools as every child and every family had a story to tell.”
This type of work continued through the years, including during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida, though the Osofskys admit it’s difficult to reach out personally due to health safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, when families are suffering with loss and grief.
“We’re continuing to find other ways to reach out virtually and continue to advocate for support for families that don’t have resources for virtual connections,” say the Osofskys. “Our successes in the face of adversities have made a significant difference that always encourages us to continue this important work.”
The Osofskys have been doing important work even before they landed in New Orleans in 1986. The duo met while Joy was attending Simmons College and Howard was completing his fellowship in obstetrics, gynecology and surgery. The married shortly after, moving to Syracuse, New York, where Howard got a job on the faculty of Upstate Medical Center and Joy finished college at Syracuse University and pursued a Ph.D. in psychology.
The Osofskys say that they’ve long been committed to working to make a difference in the lives of children and families.
This took root early in their lives, as both came from families who were involved in the community. Joy remembers her father’s involvement with the Boy Scouts; Howard, his father’s commitment after the death of his brother to preventing family and community violence and to protect children and families, as well as his mother’s commitment for her sons to get a good education.
Joy was directly affected by her father’s death when she was 16 years old, learning “personally that children need support when dealing with grief and loss.” And says that, “As my career evolved, I wanted to find ways to identify trauma early, whether it was from experiencing a death of a loved one or adverse environmental experiences and to find ways to help.”
Howard’s work at the Upstate Medical Center had him working with high-risk pregnant women and in 1969 he started a program, Young Mothers Educational Development, for pregnant teenagers who had to leave school. Joy would work at the program one day a week while on the faculty of Cornell University.
They then moved to Philadelphia, where in addition to their positions, they worked collaboratively with the community to start programs for low-income pregnant women.
The couple was also involved with the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Rights in the 1960s and 1970s.
After gaining more experience at universities, medical schools and hospitals in Boston and Kansas, including psychoanalytic training at the Menninger Foundation, the couple moved to New Orleans, where the Osofskys dove into their work and raised three children – and are now grandparents of six.
When asked of what programs they’re most proud of, the couple says they’re “proud of our work and development of programs to support children and families impacted by COVID-19 pandemic and disasters, including Hurricane Ida.”
Individually, Joy says it’s the Harris Center for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health at LSUHSC, which provides training for mental health providers, psychologists, social workers and child psychiatrists, as well as services for young children and families experiencing trauma.
For Howard, it’s developing programs to help support adolescent mothers and their children, and directing programs related to help people recover from substance use disorders.
Currently, Joy is a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, and Howard is professor of psychiatry; both are at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center.
Though the years, both Osofskys have been honored locally and nationally for their work and are known as the organizers of “Sunday at Emeril’s,” a benefit (the last one was in 2018) that was hosted by Emeril Lagasse for more than 20 years to benefit LSUHSC programs the couple had developed for children and families.
“Without Emeril and his staff’s generosity over so many years, we wouldn’t have been able to pursue many of the efforts to help children and families,” the Osofskys say.
The couple believes New Orleans needs to deal with issues of inequality in health care, education and other areas, as well as provide all children and families with opportunities to grow and thrive in this community and beyond.
Robin Burgess & Terence Blanchard
On a cool November evening last year, the sounds of jazz from an at-home concert overlooking Bayou St. John infused the air, entertaining invited guests and attracting people who just happened by on canoes, and no doubt an alligator or two.
Terence Blanchard and Robin Burgess were hosting a benefit concert – adhering to COVID-19 protocols – to help raise funds for musicians who were struggling during the pandemic. For the couple, supporting the arts and artists, as well as education, is second nature.
A native of New Orleans, Terence is a six-time Grammy award winner. His latest album, Absence, features him with the E-Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet. He does extensive work for film and TV, and is a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee on his movies, including BlacKkKLansman and Da 5 Bloods, which were nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Original Score.
On September 27, 2021, he became the first black composer to have an opera presented at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Fire Shut Up in My Bones, composed by Terence with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, is based on Louisiana native Charles Blow’s memoir of the same title.
It wasn’t Terence’s first opera, that’s Champion: An Opera in Jazz, which the Met is interested in staging in the future. The organization has also commissioned him for new opera.
Joining Blanchard that night at the premiere was Robin, and their family Terence Jr., Olivia, Sidney and Jordan, who flew in from London, as well as numerous friends and fans.
Robin is founder and CEO of Burgess Management and Over the Garage Productions, which guides Terence’s and other musicians’ careers.
Both Robin and Terence got their immersion in the arts at an early age.
“I can’t remember a moment that music wasn’t in my life in some form,” he says, who in addition to being a composer, plays the trumpet and piano, and is a “frustrated drummer and a terribly frustrated vocalist.”
Giving back the community was a natural process for him.
“It was the way I was brought up,” says Terence. “I saw people who supported the arts from the time I was a kid and I knew great artists who gave back from that time.
“It became part of the process for me. A no brainer.”
Terence says listening to John Coltrane’s “Alabama” when he was a young musician playing in Art Blakey’s band had an “impact on me because he was so socially conscious and was about a topic that was so moving.” “Alabama” was recorded in 1963 as a eulogy for the black girls killed in the bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that took place that year.
Hurricane Katrina was a transformative moment for many. It was when Terence began to fully realize the power of music and how it can help people through troubled times.
“And then it just became a part of my life,” says Terence. “Why just create music for the sake of creating music? There needs to be a purpose.”
He remembers an interview with a musician from 15 to 20 years ago, when the musician said that they created music to help people’s souls.
“That is what music has done for me. How selfish would it be for me not to give back?” Terence says.
When she was a child, Robin watched her mother, who volunteered for Young Audiences.
“One of the group’s missions is to take kids of out of the classroom and to the arts,” says Robin. “I would sometimes accompany her to the Kennedy Center or the National Symphony Orchestra, and it was a profound experience for me because it brought joy to everyone. But I also realized that even though I had access to this, not everyone else did.”
Robin also cites her grandmother as an inspiration. “We weren’t extremely religious, but one tenet I try to live by is you don’t have to be a Buddhist or a Baptist, but if you believe in humanity, you’re your brother’s keeper.”
Education is a key part of that tenet for the couple. “I remember when I was a wide-eyed kid and scared about my future,” says Terence. “And luckily I moved through a lot of things in my life and I think part of what I want to share is to tell them is ‘If I’m doing this, you can do it. I am no different than you.’”
“People look at those who are successful and think they are an aberration,” he says. “Anything is possible.”
Terence attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Among his teachers was musician and composer Roger Dickerson, who he notes is a huge influence in how Terence currently teaches his Improvisations and Composition class at UCLA.
Another facet of education is out of the classroom: Terence would like to see more international acts in New Orleans, so musicians can be exposed to different styles of music.
“When I was a kid, I remember hearing Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard and Clark Terry. Ellis Marsalis had a regular gig at the Hyatt,” he says. “You would hear musicians from all over at the Blue Room and at Rosy’s. Now they only come through during Jazz Fest, Voodoo Fest.”
“And I know why that happened, we wanted to help local talent that’s worth being recognized,” he says. [But,] “They also need to be exposed to international talent. We need not forget there’s a wide world out there with people doing amazing things that our kids need to experience.
“And, these things can be extremely helpful to a young musician.”
Robin is involved in music and arts education. She was on the board of NOCCA and is currently on the board of the Mr. Holland Opus Foundation, an organization that provides “vital support services to school districts, and new musical instruments to underfunded music programs nationwide, giving under-represented youth access to the many benefits of music education, leading them to success in school and inspiring creativity and expression through playing music,” says its website.
Robin is also helping out in non-traditional ways. “After getting involved with Terence’s opera side of his career, I began meeting a lot of singers of color and over cocktails you learn a lot and how they couldn’t afford an audition tape, so I started mentoring some of them. Not like I know how to make an audition tape, but more like, ‘What do you want to audition for? And I’ll pay for it.’”
Robin also helps makes connections for these young singers with groups such as OPERA America who can help them with audition tapes, as well as something as basic as a headshot, which may be out of reach for some of them.
“It’s artist development and it’s something I’m passionate about,” says Robin.
It’s this passion that also extends to New Orleans, where she sees a need to decentralize who sits at the table. An example are boards of directors, which she notes regurgitates people from other boards.
What happens, she says, is “There is a lack of fresh ideas. Instead of boards serving the community, the boards serve themselves.”
It isn’t unlike Terence’s belief that more international acts need to come through the city and perform at regular venues to help kids experience differing views.
At heart, it’s an abiding love of New Orleans, faults and all.
“New Orleanians rally around for a cause, once our hearts are in it,” says Robin.
“It really comes down to one of the lines in Terence’s opera, ‘We bend, we don’t break.’ New Orleans bends but doesn’t break,” says Robin.
“And, we celebrate like no other city. It doesn’t take a lot to have a good time in this town,” says Terence.
“New Orleans is a city of moments,” Terence recounts a friend saying to him after dropping in and having an afternoon-to-evening discussion.
“I love that about my town. I love the fact people would come to my mom’s house and have a good time because she would cook a meal and we would have a conversation. It’s moments I cherish.”
“And now Robin is passing that down that tradition.”
It’s the ability to have a seat, break bread and talk, he adds. That’s when the great collaborations start.