If not now, when?
While 2020 had so many life altering implications, it will forever be defined as the year that Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry and “I can’t breathe” a collective dirge.
Black change makers are passionate about a host of social ills that affect their community. The common thread that unites each of them is the urgent business of making a difference, to push back against ignorance and systemic racism with revolutionary results always the end game.
These six change makers of color are making dramatic strides in their respective fields, transforming lives in ways little and large. Because change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, support one or all of them and see what persistent leadership, resources and dreaming big can accomplish.
A pandemic is the perfect storm
Erica J. Washington
Epidemiologist, Louisiana Department of Health
Before COVID-19 created a global health crisis, Erica Washington collected data on all kinds of infectious diseases, from heavy hitters like MRSA and Ebola to more common strains of measles and mumps.
“Now it’s all COVID, all the time,” said the Baton Rouge native who moved to New Orleans to earn her master’s in public health from Tulane. “All of our team is focused on the pandemic. We’ve onboarded a lot of staff to handle the workload.”
Washington always wanted to work in public health. “It’s an altruistic field of service as a vocation. Being involved in public health makes you feel purposeful.” She toils in the infectious disease epidemiology section for the state, working with a team to coordinate data surveillance as it relates to COVID-19, working with healthcare facilities to keep frontline workers safe.
Although there’s nothing sexy about mining data in the name of public health, it’s painstaking work that provides the state with the kind of metrics needed to shape policy and save lives.
Washington has always loved science, making her an anomaly in her family. “I’m an only child who comes from a family of artists. “I can’t even draw – my love for science made me an outlier for sure.”
She is most proud of the job the state is doing to support healthcare workers. “We do a lot around infection prevention. Our power is data – using it to show which are the most impacted communities, which all too often are communities of color. Yes it’s a dire time, but we can use these metrics to improve our residents’ quality of life.” Monitoring healthcare-associated infections across the provider spectrum makes up most of her job. “We work with facilities to execute prevention and surveillance to track how infection is spreading.”
Washington points to her time working closely with Dr. Raoult Ratard, the dynamic Louisiana State epidemiologist who passed away in April, as the most influential relationship of her career.
“He was an amazing mentor and I’m so thankful for his leadership. The hallmark of any leader is to create more leaders. Dr. Ratard’s approach to communicating, whether with the public or internally with the department, was to always be sure the message was digestible and relatable. He used every moment as a teaching moment, which kept me learning all the time. He took a commonsense approach to public health which I try to emulate.”
Washington has been recognized many times over for her leadership, dedication and public service. She earned the Reverend Connie Thomas Award for her years of service and dedication to Luke’s House, a clinic that provides free medical and mental health services to more than 800 medically underserved and uninsured people per year. She was also recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Prevention and Public Health. Additionally, she was a 2016-2017 Informatics-Training in Place Program Fellow through Project S.H.I.N.E. (a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, and the National Association of City and County Health Officials) that seeks to increase the informatics capacity of health departments nationwide.
Washington feels hopeful about the vaccination programs rolling out, while acknowledging the virus’ ongoing toll. “Communication is a huge part of public health. I feel that in all of this, I’ve been able to key into very human moments, where people really just want someone to listen to them. It’s interesting to actually be present with folks, help them to understand what’s going on. Empathy goes a long way. This is larger than us. Empathy is what is going to help us supporting our front line workers, impacted residents and communities.”
It’s a lot, dealing with the reality of a raging pandemic, day in and day out. Maintaining personal balance in her life outside of work is more critical than ever. “In order for us to be effective, we have to recharge. That’s always a challenge.” She finds solace in cooking – crawfish fettucine is a specialty – and assigned herself a pandemic reading project to help clear her head. “I’ve never read the Harry Potter series and I’m on book four. I’ve avoided spoilers for 20 years. Now I’m finally figuring out who Voldemort is and why he’s after Harry.”
Fighting mass incarceration with social justice
Executive director, Vera Institute of Justice
When Ahmaud Arbery was chased by armed white residents and killed for “running while Black” in a South Georgia neighborhood, William Snowden’s heart broke.
“What happened to Ahmaud wasn’t more horrific or tragic than what happened to George Floyd, but it hit close to home. I had the privilege of not being shot and killed while running when I was 14.”
What happened to Snowden – being stopped by police while running far behind his high school cross country team through a white Milwaukee suburb – was not the last time he was profiled as a black man. The son of a black father and a white mother, Snowden learned a few critical lessons from that experience.
“I learned that people were going to look at me and assume certain things because of the color of my skin. And seeing my parents, especially my mother, challenge that police authority taught me that when a person without power is wronged, someone needs to stand up for them to be sure that wrong is corrected.”
This early life lesson was pivotal to Snowden’s decision to go to law school. He saw his choices as either to lean forward and embrace equity and fairness or fall back to a broken legal system instilled with white supremacy. Because this country’s criminal justice system has a disparate impact on Black and brown people, Snowden moved to New Orleans in 2013 to become a public defender.
“Louisiana is the prison capital of the world,” he said. “This state is locking up too many Black people. I felt it was a privilege to stand up for people who couldn’t afford to pay for a lawyer.”
Snowden arrived at the public defender’s office with a fire in his belly. “I had the desire to use my trial skills to give poor people the best representation that they could ever get,” he recalled. What he quickly realized, however, was that the state’s draconian laws actually prohibited him from doing just that.
Because of the three strikes law, a throwback to the war on drugs in the 1990s, a felony drug possession, whether it was of marijuana or heroin, could get the defendant a life sentence in Angola. “The design of the system drove plea deals instead of offering the opportunity to take a case to trial,” he explained. “Victories became reducing a felony to a misdemeanor, for getting credit for time served. Knowing what was at stake, I leaned on my clients to take the plea deal. I got to the point that I was so frustrated at the kind of attorney I’d become, I just got burnt out.”
That frustration, with the incarceration cycle, the sense of being a cog in a wheel, of not being able to affect policy, sent Snowden to the Vera Institute for Justice. An outgrowth of the Manhattan Bail Project dating to the 1960s, Vera Institute of Justice works in partnership with local, state and national government officials to create change from within. Active in 40 states, the Institute tackles the most pressing injustices, from the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, racial disparities, and the loss of public trust in law enforcement, to the unmet needs of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and those harmed by crime and violence.
In his role as director, Snowden casts a wide net. He leads workshops around the country to discuss how implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotypes influence actors and outcomes in the criminal justice system. At the start of the pandemic, with jails a petri dish for infection, Snowden led conversations with judges, identifying non-violent offenders over the age of 55, many with bail set below $5,000 for possible release. About 250 prisoners were set free. He also launched The Juror Project, a passion project aiming to increase the diversity of jury panels while changing and challenging people’s perspective of jury duty.
With Jason Williams newly elected as the city’s district attorney, Snowden is engaged on several levels. “First we worked to educate people as to what they can expect from a DA, how that office can wield its power for good.” Post-election, Vera is providing technical assistance to create a data infrastructure to allow for transparency and accountability, all designed to set the new DA up for success, giving him the tools he needs to keep his campaign promises.
While the Black Lives Matter movement shed a blinding light on incidents of police brutality and racially motivated violence, Snowden still remains hopeful. “Hope is a survival tactic. If we don’t have a vision, a north star, then we aren’t doing the work we need to do,” he said. “We need to have difficult conversations, create spaces for truth telling about this country’s history. Losing faith in the ability to change what our reality is isn’t an option.”
Providing perinatal care when families need it most
Founder, Bloom Maternal Health
Black women are four times as likely to die in childbirth in the state of Louisiana than white women. In Texas that number is nine times as likely, in New York eight times.
As a Black mother, Nikki Hunter-Greenaway, aka Nurse Nikki, takes that very personally. Hunter-Greenaway, a Dallas native who has lived in New Orleans with her husband and three children for 13 years, is a trained doula and nurse practitioner who is also internationally board certified as a lactation consultant. Her mission, to not just help women survive childbirth but to thrive before, during and after pregnancy, speaks directly to her own experience.
The year 2012 was a banner one for Hunter-Greenaway. She graduated in May with her masters from LSU as a nurse practitioner. In June she moved into a new home in Pigeon Town and in July she had her first child. With her husband busy with work and family out of state, she felt alone with her baby. All of that added up to a crippling case of post-partum depression. “I could barely get out of bed,” she recalled. “I felt like somebody should be checking on me.”
Hunter-Greenaway had studied abroad in the U.K. during her undergraduate time at Northwestern University, and had seen how that country’s healthcare system supported women with pre- and postpartum home visits. Hunter-Greenway confided in her brother, a professor and pastor at Emory University. “He challenged me to be the change I wanted to see,” she recalled. “Therapy is almost taboo in the Black community,” she said. “Depression isn’t something we talk about. The common belief is that you pray and everything works out. That isn’t always the case.”
It took nine months for her to feel like herself again. She started her business as Nurse Nikki, intent on educating women about post-partum depression and the host of other reasons pregnant women especially communities of color, are at risk. With Louisiana currently 49th in the U.S. when it comes to breastfeeding, she focused on lactation education with her clients. Her practice grew by word of mouth, but it took four years for her to get her first Black client. “We have mommies and aunties surrounding us, the feeling is, ‘I don’t need help, I know what to do.’ But the numbers tell a different story.”
Black women face implicit bias in healthcare. They are expected to have hypertension, so the condition often goes unchecked. Pain isn’t managed as it should be. Information isn’t always provided. “My biggest frustration is politics – we shouldn’t be politicking somebody’s health.”
As a member of the Maternal Child Health Coalition, she was asked to speak to City Council about the current health crisis facing pregnant women of color. “We’d come before council in October and there was hardly anybody there – nobody was listening. I never knew council members would come in and out of meetings during a presentation, get up and get coffee.” When the meeting was rescheduled for the following January, it seemed as though council was hearing the Maternal Child Health Coalition’s message for the first time.
“There were two council people at the table. I’m not one to take the spotlight, but I just stood up and said, ‘We aren’t doing this.’ This problem affects every district in the city. I told them I’d wait until everybody was there.” As council members came back into the room to listen, Hunter-Greenaway had an out-of-body experience. “I went off script and spoke from my heart,” she recalled. “I said I was tired, tired of sack lunch meetings when mamas are dying. Y’all allocate money for so many things, if you don’t help mamas and babies you’ve helped nobody.”
As she expands her practice with its focus on women’s health visits at home, Hunter-Greenway finds creative ways to partner with non-profits like Covenant House and Kingsley House to get paid for services. While some insurance covers care, Medicaid still does not.
“I’m looking forward to providing more services as we continue to get grants,” she said. Grants from Tulane and Pelicans player Jrue Holiday and his wife Lauren helped underserved families get care as well as a supply of wipes, diapers and feminine hygiene products.
She’s added electronic medical records into the mix, another layer of documentation that can and should be integrated into all practitioner’s care. “We can all work together so there’s no gaps in information,” she said. “That’s how women and babies die. There is a huge gap between hospital and community. Really, it’s more like a cliff.”
Making sure chefs of color get their due
Executive Director, Made in New Orleans Foundation (MINO)
When James Beard award-winning chef John Besh was accused of multiple cases of sexual harassment in October 2017, the scandal reverberated not just in New Orleans, but throughout the culinary world. He was one of the first high profile chefs to be so accused, fueling the #metoo movement that quickly crossed borders and industries, as women found their collective voice and used it to topple kingpins and serial sexual predators.
Lauren Darnell had heard of Besh, but she wasn’t working in hospitality when her friend Shannon White made her a proposal. White took over as CEO when Besh exited the Besh Restaurant Group, now known as BRG Hospitality. She asked if Darnell would consider taking over the Besh Foundation as executive director.
Established in 2011, the foundation provided scholarships, grants and loans to New Orleans businesses, chefs and culinary students of color. Since the scandal, the four culinary students being funded through the foundation were basically left to their own devices.
Darnell had experience with non-profits – she’d been working as director of partnerships and programming for Son of a Saint charity, an organization that mentors boys left fatherless due to death or incarceration. “It really seemed wrong that these students going to culinary school in New York were not be getting the support they deserved,” she said.
Darnell took the job. “I guess I was naïve,” she recalled. “But I saw the alumni and the students and all the people they would help in the future just being overlooked. It felt like a lot of good people working in that restaurant group, women and people of color – their stories were just sucked up by a tsunami. Somebody needed to take this on.”
When she learned that one of the students getting ready to graduate on the dean’s list from ICC, the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute), wasn’t going to graduation because she couldn’t afford it, Darnell knew she’d made the right decision.
“I called her – of course you’re going, we’re covering the plane ticket and I’m going too – that was worth the months of what I’d put up with.” Darnell had to deal with plenty of blowback. She heard it all – she was complicit, she was hired as a token Black person, how dare she be involved in anything associated with John Besh. “I knew these students were worth it.”
Darnell took the job on her terms. She installed a new board, including alumni. She changed the name to MINO – Made in New Orleans Foundation and focused solely on scholarships, mentoring and business coaching for Black, indigenous and people of color in the restaurant and hospitality business. The board paid her salary for a year, until May 2018. After that, MINO was independent, no longer associated with BRG Hospitality.
“At the industry level, we amplify the voices of professionals of color and provide support to hospitality companies that are seeking to eliminate bias in their organizations,” she explained. Inclusive mentorship and educational opportunities are directed to lead spaces that have historically been exclusive.
Concern for social justice isn’t new to Darnell. Born in Lafayette, she moved with her family and two siblings to New Orleans East when her father, an attorney, took a job with a local law firm. “My dad’s always been the embodiment of service,” she said. “He taught us not to put ourselves first, to want to make a difference for others.”
From her father, who went to college and law school at Yale University, she learned there isn’t just one story, people have multiple experiences, and both being neutral and listening is critical. From her mother, the notion that you can be anything you want to be with hard work and persistence gained heft. “My parents came from modest means, but they always strived for great things. They instilled a love of new experiences in me, a passion for always growing and learning.”
Darnell was always aware of race and color. Her dad’s family was dark skinned, her mom was a light skinned Creole who grew up speaking French. “I knew I was Black but that I had a layered history.” When she went to the mostly white Academy of the Sacred Heart on St. Charles Avenue and would visit friends Uptown, she remembers seeing pictures of plantations on the wall. “I’d just think, ‘now that’s not cool.’”
“There’s just no escaping race. I wanted to be seen as a human, a girl interested in lots of things.” She remembers people assuming she was Puerto Rican when she was working in New York. “I’d say no, I’m Black. They’d say, you can’t be, you must be mixed. That taught me not to make assumptions which are always laced with our own bias.”
Although she didn’t get into Yale – “my dad was gutted” – she went to Pepperdine University in Malibu for a year, then finished her degree in anthropology and women’s studies at UNO, where she felt incredibly supported. “I’d been surrounded by 18-year-old privileged blondes in California, in New Orleans there were students of all ages, shades and voices.”
Over the years, she’s taught tennis to underserved youth in Harlem, worked for a PR agency representing the Center for Constitutional Rights, as a global event planner for an Israeli tech firm and a wellness and yoga instructor implementing yoga in a public school setting. “I’ve learned that I have to do something I believe in,” she said. MINO fills that bill.
“I’m most proud redefining how you serve and provide support for others. Help is too often given in the way we think it should be given, as opposed to asking, what is it you need? This past year has proven again that we need to have a conversation about race that’s real. We can’t be scared to talk about the past and present and what we want to create for the future.”
While she loves her city and its hospitality industry, she believes we can do better. The anonymous Black cook in the kitchen is a prime example, said Darnell. “The invisibility of the Black cook, that should no longer exist. There’s a Black cook in the back of the kitchen who is the reason for that barbecue shrimp recipe. We have to do better acknowledging the individual and celebrating their achievements. We are all better by lifting each other up as we go.”
A profound commitment to education
Sr. Attorney Advisor for the State of Louisiana
Victor Jones may be the only guy with a master’s in education from Harvard whose first job after graduation was to teach kindergarten. “I know from experience how important early education is,” said Jones, 36. Born in Pascagoula, Mississippi and raised by a hard-working single mom, Jones grew up poor but always with a thirst for education. He saw his mom finish her degree and become the first person in her family to graduate college. That was 1989 and he was five.
He believes that his early time in Head Start, a national program aimed at education and caring for low income kids and kids with disabilities, was a launching pad to his life’s success. “When I was seven, I knew what being on the honor roll meant, and it’s what I wanted,” he recalled. “Everything I’ve done in my career and life relates to my personal experience. I wanted those kids to see a man in a teaching setting. I was only 22. I think my students and I raised each other.”
Jones went to Xavier for undergrad, followed by Harvard and then law school at Loyola. His academic prowess and low-income status became a passport to his education when he qualified for the Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) Program, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Established in 1999, the program provided outstanding students of color a paid education, with the option for graduate school funding.
“The program took 20,000 high achieving students of color living below the poverty line and asked the question, what happens if money is not an option? What happens is that stereotypes get dismantled. I didn’t have to focus on anything but school. I had friends who didn’t meet the income qualifications and some of them couldn’t afford to go to college – they had to work instead.”
To say that Jones was mindful about his educational evolution is an understatement. Although he loved teaching early ed., he wanted to impact education on a systemic level. He went to law school with the intent of becoming a public interest lawyer specializing in educational law and policy. “I hadn’t seen anyone do it – and when I got out in 2012, I found that there were no jobs at the intersection of civil rights and education.”
Recruited by the local law firm Adams and Reese, Jones practiced corporate law but also had the chance to develop an education law practice with special expertise in special education law. “I see things from all angles, as a teacher, student and lawyer.” After working closely with New Orleans charter schools for six years, Jones took the next step and joined the Southern Poverty Law Center as a civil rights lawyer for children.
“I’d grown up idolizing Thurgood Marshall and Ella Baker, heroes in civil rights education. I wanted to be a part of that movement.” During his time with the Law Center, a few of his initiatives included filing a suit against the Louisiana State Health Department on behalf of 47,000 children in need of mental health services and co-authoring a bill that required school districts to collect data on students they disciplined. “Once we had that data we could act if a school was disproportionately disciplining a segment of the student population.”
Jones had been at the Law Center for two years when two things occurred that set him up for his next initiative. The pandemic happened, having an immediate effect on education; and he was offered the chance to impact policy as a senior attorney advisor to the state, exactly what he wanted to do. Based with the Board of Regents, a state agency that coordinates public higher education, Jones is at the forefront of working with the governor and department of education to help families, students and schools navigate an unprecedented health crisis.
His efforts have ranged from monitoring how schools are providing special education services to ensuring that some 5,000 students shut out of the ACT testing deadline by Louisiana’s hurricanes can still take the test and qualify for financial aid.
“Higher education was the one piece missing from my portfolio,” said Jones, who lives with his wife Nicole and daughters Nola, 6 and Zora, 2 in Algiers. “We really need more policies in place that tie all education together, a cradle to career pipeline.” Questions like how to develop harmonious policies at the state level to foster a more robust work force and keep all students involved with STEM projects occupy a lot of his focus.
Jones is proud of the work he’s doing and thrilled to be working closely with Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s Commissioner of Higher Education, who is leading an initiative that calls for 60 percent of working age adults in Louisiana to hold a degree or similar credential by 2030. “The work she’s doing is phenomenal and very exciting.”
“Louisiana has been the lodestar of education policy for COVID,” he said. “We have experience keeping education running when everything around us has collapsed.” As a lawyer, researcher, policy maker and educator with insight into all stages of schooling, Jones is staying the course, doubling down and working to realize a singular over-arching goal: to impact education in Louisiana on a large scale. “I’ve lived it, I know what education can do. Every student deserves that chance.”
Because Black births matter
Founder, Birthmark Doula Collective, registered nurse and certified lactation consultant
There are two pivotal realizations that set Latona Giwa on the course she’s following in New Orleans. The Minneapolis native recalls doing an internship while going to Grinnell College that involved working with homeless youth. Many of the young women she encountered were either pregnant or parenting. “I clearly saw that pregnant women are more financially vulnerable, more apt to become homeless. I wanted to learn more about how to support them. My research let me to the concept of a doula – and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” She was 19.
Giwa moved to New Orleans after graduation as a Grinnell Corps fellow, a role that involved community service and promoting leadership and social integrity. Working with the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative in Central City, she focused on quality of life issues for women. “I’d chat with women of all ages about their lives, their bodies, their motherhood and their birth experiences,” she recalled. “It didn’t matter if someone was 20 or 80, they remembered their birth like it was yesterday, and those memories were often traumatic.”
Black women are twice as likely to experience pregnancies that result in early delivery, low birth weight, or even infant death, according to National Vital Statistics. After graduating from nursing school, Giwa founded the Birthmark Doula Collective in 2011 to provide emotional, physical, and educational support to mothers-to-be, most of them Black and poor. “Black infants are twice as likely to die in the first year of life as white infants,” she said. “That’s a preventable tragedy.”
“We know that Black women are not seen as whole people when they seek healthcare in America,” she said. “That’s exacerbated at the moment of birth, when a woman is most vulnerable.” Anecdotally, time and again, she hears women say they were not listened to, they weren’t able to get pain medication, or they were turned away from the ER.
In a “New York Times” article she authored in 2018, Giwa put it this way, “For Black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions — including hypertension and pre-eclampsia — that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death. And that societal racism is further expressed in a pervasive, longstanding racial bias in health care — including the dismissal of legitimate concerns and symptoms — that can help explain poor birth outcomes even in the case of black women with the most advantages.” Segregated health care, with women on Medicaid often seen on separate days of the week and at different locations from women with private insurance, is one reason for disparate care.
“We know it’s not just biology killing Black women, it’s social conditions. So in the last maybe five years, there’s been a resounding cry across the country from organizations like mine, amplified by the media, to change policy on both the state and federal level.”
Giwa sits on the Louisiana Pregnancy-Associated Mortality Review board, which in the past four years has expanded its board beyond physicians to include pre- and paranatal practitioners including doulas.
There has been some progress, but not enough. “There is a move toward implicit bias training in hospitals in this city and state. Doulas, who serve as advocates for pregnant women, are increasingly being recognized as part of a cohesive care team. But, too often women are cared for by a rotating cast of nurses and doctors who they’ve never even seen before,” she said.
Fueled by Jim Crow laws that prevented equal access to healthcare, there is a long history of Black women giving birth with community support and midwifery. “When women are cared for in community there are better outcomes,” said Giwa, who is also training doulas from within Black communities.
“The benefit of having an advocate who knows about your birth history, how you express fear and pain and what your triggers are – it’s game changing.” Doulas are shown to reduce C-section rates really dramatically, by between 30 and 50 percent depending on the study, reduce the rate of unnecessary medical interventions, reduce the use of anesthesia and epidural medication, and thereby improve birth outcomes, Giwa said.
This spring will mark 10 years since she founded Birthmark Doula Collective. Two years ago, she co-founded New Orleans Breastfeeding Center, the first free-standing breastfeeding clinic in the state of Louisiana. The two organizations offer pregnancy support at every level, with clients charged on a sliding scale – more than half pay nothing at all, with those that can pay full fees helping to fund those that cannot.
When she’s not chasing grants, Giwa is engaged with policy initiatives to try and advocate for Medicaid and private insurance to reimburse for doula care. In the past five years, insurance has stepped up to pay for lactation services. Clients are never turned away, with doula services offered to women in prison, victims of domestic violence and homeless teens at Covenant House.
Looking ahead, Giwa’s focus is on insurance company advocacy. “I envision a future where everyone has access to both birth and lactation support whether their insurance is public or private,” she said.
The pandemic has fueled the doula and midwife movement in New Orleans. “Hospitals are where sick people go,” she said. “Pregnant women who are not at risk are not sick.” Giwa, who lives in Gentilly with her two daughters, one birthed at Touro and her youngest born at home, believes that all women deserve access to the birth they desire, whether that be a hospital, birth center or at home. “We support women wherever and however they decide to give birth.”