Foreword: Leslie Leavoy

Foreword South NOLA interviewed Deputy State Director for Democrats for Education Reform Louisiana Leslie Leavoy, fittingly, in a renovated school building. It’s now home to a grocery store whose mission is providing fresh and affordable food, and a coworking office. Like much of the city itself, the space has evolved to serve the neighborhood around it. Leavoy has done the same. She’s a Louisiana native who moved from DeRidder, LA all the way to Washington, D.C. for graduate school and work, and finally, back to New Orleans. Talking about her time up North, she’s grateful for the experience. “But I could not ignore the pull of Louisiana to come back home,” she says. Now, she uses her political knowledge and experience to champion the New Orleans community’s concerns with the public school system with DFER, one of many political advocacy groups in the New Orleans area.

 

For people outside of New Orleans, and even those new to the city, narratives like these feed into a common tale of two cities fallacy. As Leavoy puts it, there are the daytrippers, and then there are the people who live here. These groups look different, have different incomes, and there’s a lower level of expectations for New Orleans residents. But Leavoy and her colleagues at DFER don’t accept the dichotomy without a fight. “Every day at DFER, we try to change that,” Leavoy says, talking about the misleading perceptions of city residents fueled by media and coded political speeches.

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"i’m a twenty-something white girl going into Tremé and Algiers talking to parents who are older and don’t look like me. I need to show them I am an ally in helping their students succeed.”

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Leavoy says her job is a delicate balance between actively listening to community members and educating them on issues and practices they may not be aware of. “It’s really hard to find that balance. Especially with the need to remember I’m a twenty-something white girl going into Tremé and Algiers talking to parents who are older and don’t look like me. I need to show them I am an ally in helping their students succeed.” Many of the parents with whom she speaks work jobs that don’t allow them to ferry their students between home and school, leaving some students with bus rides starting before the sun rises and getting them home after sunset. Shortening their school days is one of DFER’s many priorities as an organization.

The history of public schools in New Orleans follows a similar pattern of schools elsewhere in the South.

The public school system in New Orleans needed a change, but in the same way the hurricane dismantled much of the city -- here, the hurricane prompted the city to make a few necessary changes. Today, New Orleans is the first city to have an all-charter system. It rates highly among parents for ease of enrollment and educational satisfaction, but the change was predicated on the backs of almost 7,000 teachers -- many of them African American -- who lost their jobs and public pensions following the storm. They won a court ruling in 2014 for damages, but the system has been completely overhauled in the meantime. In a school system whose student population is 95% African American, the teacher population has shifted from 71% black to just under 50%. The number of teachers with less than 10 years of experience has risen as well. By the numbers, this change isn’t all positive. Student essays from the time just after the drastic change outline diverse feelings on the matter: Some dislike their teachers’ lack of experience and cultural understanding, and some appreciate the diversity and greater classroom energy they felt that came with an influx of younger teachers. With recent research into how the demographics of teachers reflects student success, however, it becomes obvious that teachers who look like their students have more of an impact.

The history of public schools in New Orleans follows a similar pattern of schools elsewhere in the South. There’s the forced integration of students, the failure of separate but equal facilities, and the interminable racism that came from school administration, teachers, and parents alike. There are records of building manifestoes for wooden-frame schools to be built specifically for black children after laws passed prohibiting this in light of their ease of burning. When parents and citizens pushed for the integration of teachers and school leadership in the 1970s, there was a major drop in white enrollment in public schools, in a dramatic white flight that left schools with much less access to resources. The students who left attended private schools whose tuition costs upwards of $20,000/year and whose major public boast is religious-based education. Walking on any of these campuses, you’ll also see they’re also majority white in a city that is majority black.

As Leavoy explained, DFER takes a three-pronged approach to championing community education within the Democratic Party: They organize a PAC for donation to candidates who support their views, support a nonprofit called Education Now, and advocate directly to politicians on a district, parish, and local legislative level. In short, they’re a community-driven force for governmental good. Leslie Leavoy handles their communication, is the direct line to politicians, and yes, she also writes press releases.

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Before becoming an integral part of DFER, she was the only Southern student in her graduate program at Georgetown University, which wasn’t always easy. Some of them came in with preconceived notions about Southerners, especially those educated in a public school system, being uneducated and ignorant. “I’ve worked really hard academically and professionally to debunk the stereotype of dumb Southern sorority girl, and to be written off as that very quickly would really piss me off. I kinda had to double down in those environments and work twice as hard,” she said with a smile. Throughout the interview, she brushed off the difficulties of her position with well-balanced words and laughter. She attributes this attitude partially to how she grew up. “I’m lucky to have been raised by a long line of strong, incredible women,” she said.

“I’m lucky to have been raised by a long line of strong, incredible women,”

After working as a Communications Assistant for Pew Research Center, and before that the Deputy Press Secretary for U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La), she informed her boss she was headed home to be a Deputy State Director with DFER and was met with the same attitude toward her value. “He said ‘I had no idea you had the skills to do that.’” His perception didn’t worry Leslie. She knew it was high time she returned to the South, back where people said hello to you when you made eye contact and friends knew taking care of someone entailed helping them blow off steam with a beer, some live music, and a warm bowl of something delicious.

 

Making the decision to leave D.C. came easily after she found it difficult to form relationships with anyone in town outside of the Landrieu office that weren’t purely transactional. “It was just this weird, different energy, and after a while it just kind of started sucking out my soul. I kind of missed running into people that I recognized or even strangers on the street and saying good morning. It was very rare for me to come in contact with that sort of genuine personality walking around the streets of DC.” She’d put in her time learning and growing out of the South, and it was time for her to come home.

“I kind of missed running into people that I recognized or even strangers on the street and saying good morning. It was very rare for me to come in contact with that sort of genuine personality walking around the streets of DC.”

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I always thought, well of course you’d want to move back, if you did you’d have this idea of wanting to move back to contribute positively to a place that has given you your life,” Leavoy said. Where Leavoy came from, not going after something she wanted wasn’t an option. Her mother was the first woman elected to be a judge in Louisiana’s Beauregard Parish. “Growing up under her roof there were no excuses about what I could or could not do based on my gender or where I grew up,” Leavoy said. “I was taught not to think of those as excuses. And then I’d go out into the world and think ‘This is so different than what my parents and I talk about!’”

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The realities of her job and the inequality afforded to public school students in New Orleans hit hard sometimes. She heads home some days when school lets out, and watching the children board buses and joke around waiting for their rides, she wonders how their days went. She asks, “What did I to do today to make their school day better?” And sometimes, there’s nothing. “Because life happens,” Leavoy says, “And we have setbacks professionally and within the different groups we work with.” On those days, it can be difficult to see the positives. When she talks about the children, though, she lights up and is aware she’s speaking in cliches. “Those kids are literally our leaders for the next generation. Someone is going to take my spot as Deputy State Director of DFER Louisiana. I hope it’s one of these kids in a New Orleans public school. I hope it’s someone who benefits from work advocates like us all over the city do. And that makes it worthwhile.”

“Those kids are literally our leaders for the next generation. Someone is going to take my spot as Deputy State Director of DFER Louisiana. I hope it’s one of these kids in a New Orleans public school. I hope it’s someone who benefits from work advocates like us all over the city do. And that makes it worthwhile.”

Learn more about DFER Louisiana by checking out their chapter site here. 

- M. D.