Meet Our Heroes

AGAINST THE ODDS

STUDENTS SELECT A HERO AND DISCOVER HER STRATEGIES FOR EQUALITY

Students at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School were quite definitive about what hero they wanted to research and discuss. The Nola4Women Heroes of New Orleans students, says teacher Melanie Boulet, overwhelmingly voted for local Civil Rights activist, Rosa Freeman Keller. “She won by a lot,” says Boulet.

The process, says Boulet, first started by working with the word hero. Students discussed characteristics that define a hero and soon discovered that they had rather diverse opinions on what that meant. Together, after much debate, students came up with a consensus and developed a working definition that fit the characteristics they found most essential. Next they examined a list of 15 heroes with short (picture-less) biographies. Each student was given 10 tally-mark votes, she says, which he/she could spread among different candidates or put them all in the same basket. “There were 250 votes cast, which made it exciting,” says Boulet.

What drew students to Keller, says Boulet, is that she was a “White woman taking on the cause of Blacks” in the 1950s. Her commitment to Civil Rights wasn’t superficial, she says, and that made an impression on students. Keller helped found Save Our Schools, which shuttled Black children to and from newly integrated schools and fought the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Legislature’s threats to shutdown public schools. Students examined the creative ways Keller, as a woman in the 50s, navigated behind the scenes to successfully create change.

One exciting find, says Boulet, is a resignation letter students uncovered in their research. “It was like finding the big rabbit at an Easter egg hunt,” she says. Students read about Keller’s threat to resign from the library board as a way to push for integration, says Boulet, but to witness the methodology in her own words was exhilarating for students. “The letter is a piece of history and students found it invaluable,” she says.

The class was also able to meet with Keller’s daughter, Mary Zervigon, who told students stories about threats to Keller’s life for the work she did to desegregate institutions in New Orleans such as public schools, medical school libraries and Tulane University. “The students were amazed that she fought on, despite push back from her family and threats to her life,” says Boulet.

“They learned that resistance just made her fight harder for equality.”

DISCOVERING A HERO

Selecting a hero from a long list of outstanding candidates isn’t easy, say Nola4Women Heroes of New Orleans students at Lusher Middle School. After listing out thirty women who have made outstanding contributions to the city of New Orleans, students used a process of straws in cups to select their hero. The woman who received the most straws was Charin Richard, a residential counselor at Raintree House, a 10-bed group home for abused and neglected girls. Richard provides advice, structure, love and friendship to Raintree’s young residents and maintains her role as friend long after they graduate.

Heroes students were eager to learn more but quickly discovered that there was a dearth of information on Richard. In fact, much to their astonishment, students were only able to find a single article that talked about her work. Students discussed various methods of investigation and decided the best option was to conduct primary interviews of Richard and Ashley Dewey, a Richard mentee and former resident of Raintree House. Dewey, now a student at Southern University, and Richard came to the Heroes sixth grade classroom and were met with a celebratory cake from the students and a multitude of questions.

Students’ questions ranged from asking what friends shaped the lives of Richard and Dewey to what role racial inequity played. Dewey spoke of the abuse she experienced throughout her childhood. She filed for emancipation at 16 years old and was assigned to Raintree House. The moment she arrived at Raintree House and met Richard, she says, is when her childhood began. The process wasn’t easy. Dewey didn’t trust anyone, she says, and initially tried to isolate herself from the counselors and other residents. Richard was strict but loving and soon Dewey began to turn to her for guidance and support. Raintree House provided Dewey with access to resources such as an in-house library and a family style sit down dinner each night. The support and structure from Richard allowed Dewey to focus on school and her future instead of worrying about where she was going to sleep or how she was going to eat. During her remaining years of high school, she says, Dewey became student body president, homecoming queen and a member of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Today, Dewey is a senior in college and majors in accounting. She makes multiple trips each month to Raintree House to see Richard and offer support to kids similarly situated. In the end, Heroes students learned that the guidance of one hero created another.