Stepping into Power: New Orleans 2022

“I spent two hours with a client, helping her pick out a suit for an interview. She came out of the dressing room with the biggest smile and then started to cry. She’d never owned a suit before in her life.” Shristi Sharma (UNC ’25) spent her Community Summer working at Dress for Success in New Orleans. It’s an organization dedicated to helping women in need secure economic independence through career support, professional attire, and on-going personal development opportunities.

“Having Scholars working with us during the Summer, literally doubles our staff,” shared Lori Byargeon, Director of Dress for Success New Orleans. “They’re working as personal shoppers, they’re running our social media accounts, and they’re helping us with important data collection and analysis,” she said. By Lori’s count Shristi and fellow scholar Malaika Khumalo (UNC ’25) helped more than 60 women by the middle of summer alone.

Malaika & Shristi and RSLP Staff with Lori Byargeon and Tracee Dundas at Dress for Success New Orleans

“I’ve been working on social media for Dress for Success, but I’ve also been in the community talking abut the organization and tabling at a lot of events,” Malaika said. “My goal is to connect with other non-profits in the area and see how our client base may overlap and what complimentary levels of support we can offer.” Malaika also says that she’s learning a lot about the city through the clients and the experiences they’ve shared with her, “So many of them grew up here, or came for work and to plant roots. But they all share with us the inequalities they’re living with and working through. It might seem small, but there’s a lot of personal impact that comes along with helping someone get a dress or a suit for a job interview. You respect their individuality, and focus on them as a person. For some of our clients, they may not have ever felt seen or respected like that.”

“You go out of your way to form one-on-one connections with clients, and you see them leave with a different outlook on their lives or situation. They feel and look powerful, and to be a small part of that makes me feel incredible,” Shristi shared.

This summer, ten scholars spent eight weeks working with a variety of community partners throughout New Orleans. Those experiences ranged from education, to entrepreneurship, to advocating for prisoners’ rights. However, through each of these seemingly disparate experiences in New Orleans, there is an underlying current of Scholars working to help community members step into their own power.  

At Propeller, Jordana Rockley (UNC ’25) spent her summer working on the program’s Impact Accelerator. “Basically, that means that we take a majority of small businesses that are BIPOC-owned, women-owned, and local and provide consulting to them by connecting them with mentors and experts in their field. We want to help them reach their goals so that they can actively contribute to the field or business sector they’re trying to make their way in. The mentorship aspect is so important especially since BIPOC and women-owned businesses historically have more issues getting liquid capital because of systemic racism and misogyny.”

For Jordana it’s a way to apply theory from class into real world experiences, “I read about social innovation incubators during my first and second semester of college, and I’d never heard of them until UNC.” At Propeller, Jordana connected with the business owners and helped them hone their pitches and grant proposals for the Impact Accelerator, while helping them identify mentors. “It makes a difference. These pitches are really important and illuminate some incredible innovations around issues like immigration and education, food deserts, green infrastructure, and arts and culture. There’s something for every entrepreneur.” In fact, three of the nineteen pitches selected for the Accelerator were ones Jordana helped with and advocated for.

At Breakthrough New Orleans Melat Woldentensae (Duke ’25) taught 7th grade math and mentored15 students as they prepare to start high school – all with a focus on graduating on to college.  “I used to be a part of a program really similar to Breakthrough when I was younger, and I see a lot of myself in these kids,” shared Melat.

Breakthrough New Orleans focuses on allowing young, talented, middle school students tap into their potential and power, through a series of intensive summer programs. “Our mission is to prepare middle school students who are high achieving, but from underserved backgrounds, for college. When students are selected it’s a commitment from their 6th grade summer through their 9th grade summer, and they go on to great high schools in the area and four-year colleges. And from there, they continue to go on to incredible things,” said Ashley Adams-Johnson, Director of Breakthrough New Orleans.

“Some of these kids have never had a teacher who looks like me,” shared Bryce Jones (UNC ’25), “It’s special to be in a community where the students can relate to their teacher and here I get to embrace my inner kid but also help the students deal with any issues they may be facing and really develop relationships with them.” Bryce lead 6th grade reading classes and a short entrepreneurship course for students.

“I think of teaching now as pushing yourself to the fullest potential in the realm of education. You’re cheering, you’re doing two subjects, two grade levels, and you’re creating these deep relationships with students and working to support them,” Zack Finacchio (Duke ’25) said. This summer he’s taught 9th grade writing courses, 7th grade Literature and Reading, as well as two Performing arts electives focused on improv and musical theater.

Scholars enjoy a Swamp Tour

Skylar Hughes (Duke ’25) and Kolby Oglesby (UNC ’25) also spent their summer working in education, but with a twist. At TORSH, a software company aimed at real time professional development for educators, they’re focused on elevating the platform so that teachers and administrators know what’s working in their classrooms. “I’m also working with a climate non-profit here in New Orleans called the Urban Conservancy. For both positions I’m working on storytelling, marketing, and communications” Skylar shared. Within her positions, Skylar is learning about the intricacies and nuances between start up culture, and nonprofits.  “I’m also learning a lot about communication across different sectors.” But for Skylar, the real learning is unfolding as she explores her goals as a leader, “Community summer is important to me because it makes you face yourself, in my opinion. It allows you to grow, and push past some of the more stagnant parts of yourself. I think it also shows the beauty in community and fostering support systems because it can get difficult at times,” she said.

Rachel Hatfield and Jax Nalley with Summer Mentor Ginger Parsons

Community and support are two concepts that permeate the roles held by Jax Nalley (Duke ’25) and Rachel Hatfield (UNC ’25) at Orleans Public Defenders. They were part of a multi-faceted team of social workers and lawyers working to break the cycle of incarceration in New Orleans. “Forty to fifty percent of people incarcerated are experiencing mental health or developmental disorders, or substance abuse disorders and that can lead to high recidivism rates,” according to Jax. “So the goal is to try to aid those needs and stop them from coming back to the system, or providing context on their life for a better outcome in a court proceeding.”

“Essentially we’re meeting client’s needs,” Rachel added. “We’re creating mitigation and release plans and evaluating what brought these people into the carceral system and how can we address those problems in the first place. OPD makes it really clear that jail isn’t a place to address the types of problems that might bring folks to prison in the first place.”

The power lies in the individual narrative for each person they work with through OPD, according to Jax & Rachel. “Medical care, substance abuse treatment, partnering with a disabilities rights organization, or finding long term housing – all of those are important for mitigation and support. OPD is really working with someone’s narrative and humanizing them. We collect all kinds of information and letters of support and present it to the court in the effort to show that the client is more than a criminal. They have a history of underlying issues that might have led to this moment, and that there are solutions that exist outside of incarceration to help them,” Rachel said.

“I’ve not been in situations before where I’ve had to lead from behind. But at OPD you realize the monstrosity of the system you’re working within and you have to lead from behind in order to support clients, and I’m learning how impactful that can be as a leader and for my own experience and my own perspectives,” Jax shared.

“Nothing is one-sided, every client and every case is multifaceted. And you need to come up with solutions and alternatives that you put in place to address a broken system. Imagine, what if the carceral system didn’t exist the way it does now? How do we get there? What are the interconnected systems of oppression that need to be fixed? Does the solution work for the problem or is it causing more harm? It’s challenging and exciting to think of those questions and check your preconceived notions on how to deliver justice. You need a lot of different perspectives to really create transformational change,” Rachel reflected.

It’s a lesson Rachel and Jax learned first-hand during a meeting of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE). “It was a meeting on what would be effective change in the prison system. The Warden was there and it was such a welcoming space, believe it or not, and the people who were there who had suffered trauma at the hands of the system and sharing their stories – you could see how everyone was listening to each other. What we heard, and what still sticks with me is this idea that ‘those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,’” Jax shared.