Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission. Because victory for Louisiana requires you. I'm your host Lynda Woolard. This episode is dropping on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood that destroyed so much of New Orleans. And of course, we now have that twin anniversary of Hurricane Ida, which hit on the same date 8/29. My conversation on this podcast is with Nakita Shavers. And we spend more time than usual on her origin story because her political activism was a direct result of events that followed Hurricane Katrina. The heart of our interview, though, is about her nonprofit work in education, and reproductive health care, and repro rights, which dovetails with her political work. This season, I really wanted to introduce the individual work being done in our state, the piece that I call, living our values, that fills in the gaps where our government, and our legislation either falls short, or actively harm Louisianans. This is the third leg of the stool of the progressive movement that begins with, number one, campaigns to elect candidates who can bring big sweeping change continues, with number two, advocacy work to educate and lobby elected officials who need a push to do the right thing for the people. And as rounded out by number three, the individual work through nonprofits and progressive businesses that helped Louisianans who don't have the luxury of waiting for those changes we're fighting for through those first two avenues. Nakita Shavers, thanks for joining me on Louisiana Lefty.
Thanks so much for having me.
Well, I always start with how I know my guest, and we met during, if I recall correctly, during the 2014 Mary Landrieu campaign where I've met so many people. Many of my guests, I believe, that have come on... I've said "It was Mary Landrieu 2014." You worked on that campaign? What were you doing for Mary Landrieu?
I worked field. I worked in the trenches. That was my fresh-out-of-college, first introduction into the hardcore political world, and I loved and hated every moment.
It was a tough year for that to be an entrance into politics because it was such a heartbreaking year. What was your activism origin story? Because you got involved in politics through activism. I was, well... we did not meet this day. I was aware of who you were, when we marched on city hall after Hurricane Katrina and the flooding. What year was that? Was that 2007?
2007. January, 2007.
Tell me about that, and how you got involved in activism like that.
Yeah. So, I would say, when people ask, I've been an activist my entire adult life, pretty much. Hurricane Katrina hit my first day of college. And as you can imagine, that was my freshman year. And when I was finally kind of getting my bearings, during my sophomore year, while I was home on Christmas break, my brother was murdered. And that completely changed the game of any normalcy of a 19 year old young woman, college student life, that I had aspired to have. That kind of definitely changed the game for me. And from that moment on, I've been an adult. I've been forced to choose society and the betterment of society over myself and my needs, and at the time, I didn't see it that way. But looking back, as an Adult, I could see that I didn't really enjoy those years because I had so much pressure to save the world, in a sense. And when my brother was murdered, December 28th, three days after Christmas 2006, which was very fresh after Katrina. You're dealing with a very dismantled criminal justice system, broken city. So many people are still displaced. My family is still displaced, at the time, when my brother was murdered. The only two family members I had living in the city at the time was my brother and a cousin, who was a homeowner in New Orleans East. And my brother, who was a musician, was a founding member with the Hot 8 Brass Band. He was an educator, a teacher, and he had come back to help retrieve the bodies from the houses and he was helping with the with the first responders process. And so he was back here at the city.
Yeah, he was a really important figure in the community.
Yes, yes, most definitely. Before he died, Dinerral was, like after Katrina, teaching at Rabouin High School. For those of you who are true New Orleanians, you know that Rabouin was always the career magnet school, it was a school where young people went for their trades, right? You went there, focus on your education and your trade, you graduated with cosmetology license and barber license and electrician, you know, all of these things. And he went there. Rabouin never had the marching units, and he never participated in Mardi Gras. And he never had those types of opportunities that all of the other New Orleans high schools had. And after Katrina, he went there, and he started that. He got all of these kids together, he created the first ever marching band at Rabouin High School, he brought in all of his musician friends to help build this band, he started all of the marching units, and he brought in all of these amazing passe dancers and majorettes to help create these opportunities for these young people. And then, literally, he went after all of the, like, free grants and money that was out there, post Katrina, to help get the instruments for the kids. And three days after he was murdered. The instruments all arrived at the school, and the kids were literally, you know, in December in New Orleans, you're in full swing, focus on Mardi Gras season, right? It's like the holidays. Whoo, whoo, whoo. But the big deal is Mardi Gras. So December, you're kind of like, "Yeah, we're on Christmas break, but when we come back, it's Mardi Gras season." And the instruments and uniforms had arrived. I remember we did this 48 hours mystery special, and the principal at the time, Kevin George, broke down on camera when he was saying, when he got back to the school from Christmas break, and all of the instruments and all of the uniforms had arrived... he just broke down crying, you know, opening the boxes, and that was the reality at the time. For me, I was a sophomore, I mean... what was I?.. I was a... Yeah, going into my sophomore year, the beginning of my sophomore year at Florida A&M, and I was home on Christmas break when my brother was murdered. And from there... He was murdered December 28th. A week later, Helen Hill, who was a filmmaker, was murdered. And so the following week, a bunch of activists from the city of New Orleans came together and created a March For Survival, which was what the name of it was. And it was at that time... that was when blogs... It was like a turn of technology, right? So it was when all of these things were just kind of forming, right? "What is this? Immediate access to information?" And so the organizers like Baty, Ken, Helen, they didn't expect anything but like the neighborhood folks, right? Maybe 50-75 community members to come together. And the morning of, like, people began to start blogs, you know, that we can... social media was a thing. And although Facebook was limited to, like, the universities at the time because I was on there, but... it was a new turn in technology that really, like, helped to explode, you know, and help to get the word out and help to reach all the different communities. And a fun fact, people think that I was here, at the time. Actually, my mom and my family was still displaced living in Baton Rouge. And I have finally, from the moment my brother was murdered December 28th, up until a day before the March, I was stuck in New Orleans. Like, we didn't have clothes, we were forced to, like, plan a funeral, get everything, you know. So I had just gone back to Baton Rouge, and they invited us to the March. But I was exhausted, my family was exhausted. And so we had gone back to Baton Rouge and I was preparing to finally go back to school. I was about three weeks late for school at the term. And the morning of the march, I was, like, getting dressed with the television on and it was CNN, MSNBC, Fox News reporting live from New Orleans, and my phone began ringing off the hook. And it was, like, Baty and Ken and they're like, "Listen, I know, you're exhausted, you're trying to get packed up, but if you, you know... this march is beyond any of us at this point. And it would not be right if we did not have you all as a part of it." And they were like, "If you get in the car... just get in the car. Right now. The march is about to start. If you get in the car right now, you will make it here just in time when we make it to City Hall." I didn't even participate in the march because we were driving from Baton Rouge, like, literally flying. And my mom, my aunt and I got in the car and they asked if there was any family members here that could represent Dinerral. And I contacted my cousin, who was the only other family member here, and my cousin Michelle, who hates crowds, hates, you know, publicity, hates all of those things, she marched at the front of the marchers, you know, original footage, next to the Hot 8, next to Bennie Pete, next to all of my brother's Hot 8 brothers and led the march. While we've sped to New Orleans to, like, make it just in time to get to City Hall. And I just remember pulling up, jumping out the car. We didn't even park the car. It was just so many people, somebody got in the car and parked it, but I just remember they took us by the hand and guided us through the crowd, like security, and led me up to the stage. And I remember the whole ride. I sat in the back of the car and I wrote a speech. It was on little bitty stickies. It was on small pieces of paper, but I wrote a speech. And as that 19 year old kid, I just spoke from my heart. And I remember standing there at the podium, and I'm looking out and I can see Ray Nagin, Alva Thomas, James Carter, all of the council people, and then I see, right in the front, it was all of Dinerral's students and then... it was just people everywhere. And as I begin to speak, my papers fluke... I remember... the papers just.. like a strong gust of wind just took all of the papers. And the front of the stage was lined up with all of the media outlets. And I just remember everyone jumping in the air. Like, all the camera folks, like, everybody jumping in the air, trying to catch my papers. It was a really funny moment where I was like, "Alright, Dinerral..." And I just remember his students just started screaming and cheering me on. Any anxiety I had, any fear I had in that moment just disappeared because it was like "This is for y'all." And they were standing there and they were screaming and they were holding his signs and they were crying. And I just remember pouring my heart out. It was just my love letter to the city of New Orleans, and you know, I remember saying that I want to someday become the first female African American mayor of New Orleans. Like. I vow to, like, bring our city back, you know, I... you know, I pleaded with the community to come together and to stand together and, you know, to speak up, you know, on all of these things that... they weren't just affecting my family, but they were affecting all of us, right? And so often we wait until we're the victim, you know, to want to speak up. And I really just took that moment to write a love letter to New Orleans, right? It was a very, very sacred and scary time in the city. No one knew if we were ever going to come back.
Well, right. And you're talking about this march where the two people you mentioned who were murdered were sort of the tip of the spear, right? Like, there was a lot of violence happening in the city at the moment. So they were sort of, like, the straw that broke the camel's back in a lot of people's minds were it's like, "Yeah, something's got to be done now."
Yes. You know, I was born and raised in New Orleans. I was born and raised in the heart of the 9th Ward, right? And for me, it was like, "Yeah, I want to go to school away, I want to get away." I'm not going to lie. It was like, "I want to make it out the city." That was my goal, right? There was always violence in New Orleans, New Orleans has always been a violent place since the beginning, right? But it was, "I'm going to make it out. I'm going to become someone, I'm going to help my family, you know, I'm getting away and I'm never looking back." Right? And it was something about Katrina, even before Dinerral was murdered, it was something about Katrina. And the thought that something as special and sacred as New Orleans, not existing? Like, what is a world without New Orleans, right? So even before Dinerral was murdered, it was my goal to make it back to New Orleans after my education, right? Like, "Wait, I'm... I could never, like, leave and never come back. Like I thought I would. But I'm going to get my education become a better person, become an amazing woman, and bring that knowledge back to my city." But when Dinerral was murdered, that just made it... It made it so much, you know, like, "Nah, it's immediate. Like, we need to NOW." Right? And that's, essentially, what happened, I helped to start Silence is Violence. I was able to, with Silence Is Violence, create a space, music programming, different things, outlet, just counseling, opportunities, different things for the young people at Rabouin. And so it was brand new. We were all trying to feel the need out, you know, we had resources, what are the needs? Well, I don't know all the needs, but I know these kids, who just lost a man who many of them saw as a father figure, abruptly coming out of Hurricane Katrina, they need us. So we went into Rabouin, we started some therapy programming, some therapeutic programming, where myself, Baty, Ken, the Hot 8 would go into the school, would talk to the kids. And it was natural that they felt a very close connection with me because of the age difference. I wasn't too far away from them. And because of Dinerral. And because of the love that they have for him. And then we were able to create music programming that we held at the Sound Cafe for the young people. And that's where, like, really the nonprofit activism world started to come into full circle for me.
So let me interject here. So that's how you got sort of involved in... The space you occupy now is sort of this mix of, you know, the political and activism and nonprofit world. You have all of those melded together, you went from that time and that moment where you realized you were marrying all these things together. So how did you go from that moment to where you are now?
That is what taught me the importance of politics. Right? The post-Katrina era, but also introduced me to the love of nonprofit, right, and the immediate impact that I can make on young people. When I helped to co-found Silences is Violence in 2008, I officially incorporated the Dinerral Shavers Education Fund. 2008, we got our 501(c)(3). And for our official 501(c)(3) I did the entire process myself. And I only had one correction. But we did our 501(c)(3), and I realized, through that past two years, that I wanted to create youth programming. I wanted to create educational programming. What time? I didn't quite know. But I knew that that's what I wanted to do. I want it to be a voice that relates to the young people. I can take any amount of information and make it relatable to young people. That's my superpower. That has always been my superpower. But over the course of the years, I have worked in all of the different fields. I have worked in strictly political lane. And then I shifted into criminal justice work. Well, activism work. And then in public health. And what really was kind of my introduction into public health was being chosen as a youth ambassador for the Packard Foundation. And that also happened in 2014. So that was coming out of the Mary Landrieu campaign. I applied for this opportunity to become a youth ambassador for the Packard Foundation for their 50th anniversary, and that was the turning point into my public health work. Um, essentially, like Packard champion reproductive health issues across the world, so globally. And so I was chosen amongst 22 youth leaders from Ethiopia, Pakistan, India, and the US South to create reproductive health programming strategically, and specifically for young women and girls in our community. I got the opportunity to create a program, and then to pitch it to the Packard board for funding, and that is where Girls Nola was born. So we've been doing Girls Nola since 2014, that was our very first cohort. Actually, our first graduate, who just graduated from high school, was eight when she first participated in Girls Nola. And so that opportunity allowed me to really assess the needs of young women and girls in my community, and especially coming out of Hurricane Katrina, and the things that, you know, I was viewing that was happening with, like, just the lack of health care, the lack of, like, just education and knowledge and all of these things... And as I became more and more involved in the legislative process, and, you know, basically putting all of these things side by side, right? We're passing these type of bills that are limiting sexual health education, and then STDs are... you know, rates are sky high, like, where is the common sense in all of this, right? And so, how could I be effective in a solution? So that was where the concept for Girls Nola came from, access to sexual health programming. When I was in school, we had health every year of high school, one half of the semester, I mean, of the year, and PE the other half. Many schools have shied away from even touching the subject of sex ed because there are so many implications to it if you're not teaching it in an abstinence way, or if you're not delivering it in a certain way. And there are so many implications around women of color receiving adequate support and education, you know, around sexual health. And those things are the things that, as a black woman, as a black young woman, had become important to me. And so I created this program called Girls Nola because I saw that as an immediate solution to a problem.
So you have been working on that, you're still working on that. You've also worked in several of the organizations, that are fairly well known in the area, that focus on reproductive health, reproductive justice. I know you've given talks internationally on this as well. So you've really have a lot of experience in a lot of different like nonprofit spaces. And so you're bringing all of that back to what you're putting together in Girls Nola.
Absolutely. So from 2014, I will say 2015, I've been working in public health related reproductive health nonprofits across the city of New Orleans. Parallel to that I was also the Youth Champion for the Packard Foundation, in which I was chosen to speak at many international conferences, including... I've spoken in Bali, I've spoken in Denmark, I've spoken at the UN International Conference on the Status of Women, I've... to be that voice for African American women, right? One thing I've noticed, at these high level international conferences, there isn't a lack of black women because women are represented from every African nation from all over the world, right? But there is a, very much so, a lack of African American women and that African American voice. And I think it's two things right? To the world, America does not have problems, right? America shows up on the world stage as perfect, and like we don't have problems, right, which is why when it comes to topics such as reproductive health... reproductive health funding is very small. That pour of funding is very small into the US because it's way more sexier to fund underdeveloped countries when it comes to those reproductive health issues. My colleagues in the Packard Youth Champions were champions because of stopping genital mutilation. And stopping child marriages, you know, in India. Like, there were detrimental things that were happening to the masses in these countries. In Pakistan, India, and Ethiopia. Whereas here in America, it's a very small... it's a demographic of black women that are suffering from the lack of reproductive access and health and education, right? You take abortion, for example, right, like...
You're talking about comparatively small...
Yeah, by any means, right? But the fact that the people who it affects, right, it doesn't make it a priority. And on the world stage, it was me in those rooms, screaming that black women, the state of black women in America, like... we're not the same as white America, you know, like, women are at a grave disadvantage when it comes to reproductive health disparities, when it comes to reproductive health education, when it comes to reproductive health access. And people are shocked! Right? You know, like, "Ma'am, I'm the same as you in Ethiopia, like, my access is limited. Just like yours." Just the access for education, right, is limited. And that's where I drew all of my inspiration to pour basically all of my resources into this bucket of educating and empowering young women, right? Because it starts with them. And something as simple as going to the doctor and getting birth control, right? I've worked... I've done a lot of temp work, in between time, in the hospitals, and I know, I know the power of pharmaceutical companies. So you're gonna get whatever that pharmaceutical companie is pushing at that time. Whatever pharmaceutical company bought lunch for that doctor's staff, cause' trust me, I ate a lot of their lunches as a temp, whatever pharmaceutical company was present in that office, that bought that staff lunch, that dropped off those samples, that's what that patient, who is uneducated about what works for their body and their health, that's what you're gonna get. So it was important for me to educate these young women on their options, right? You take birth control, that's one module. But every type of birth control doesn't work for everybody's lifestyle and everybody's body. So empowering young women to understand what works for me, what works for my body, what works for my lifestyle, that is the power of this program. That is the power of Girls Nola.
I do want to talk about your program so we're gonna get into that. You are currently... so I've mentioned that you've worked in all these other spaces, you've mentioned that you've temped in healthcare, and you've worked for a lot of nonprofit organizations. And you're currently... can I mention that you're working at YEP?.. So the Youth Empowerment Project, you also were there doing educational work with kids in the city. So you're still doing Girls Nola and DSEF as a side project. Just out of curiosity, what would it take for you to be able to do that as your full time position?
Money. Resources. Yeah. I mean, that's the only thing standing in the way of what we do. We really run fully full fledged programming, right? But I love my work at YEP, I get to impact the lives of young people every single day. I'm a program manager at the Youth Center. We create programming, from athletics, to art and music, dance, whatever you could imagine, whatever the kids want. I have elevated YEP to Mardi Gras parades. And so I love the work that I do, like, just to be able to be hands on with the young people, impacting the lives of young people every single day. If I had to have a mission, if I had to have a model, that would be it, regardless of what capacity, like, just being influential, and shaping the trajectory of the lives of young people. Like, that is who I am, and that is who I want to show up as. And, you know... So yeah. I do that every day as my day job. YEP pays the mortgage, right? But my love and passion, and that's no secret to no one, is my baby, which is the DSEF and Girls Nola and Boys Nola, which is what we've also created for a gender specific, for the boys. And that's what I love. And that's what, you know, essentially, I would someday do.
So yeah. So I really want to talk to you about the programming you're working on, and I know a good bit about what you do, but tell me about DSEF. When you initially created, it was sort of to fill in that open space that you saw a need for in the educational system, but you've really pivoted, it isn't your greater focus now. And I know you've added Boys Nola, but hasn't your greatest focus been Girls Nola? And, correct me if I'm wrong, there's reproductive health and education, but there's cultural education and it seems like it's a mentorship based program also. So can you explain how that?..
Absolutely. So when I created DSEF, which is the Dinerral Shavers Educational Fund, the common thread was education, right? And for me, it's about making education fun and integrating art and gamification into the work, right? And so essentially because of who we are, who we started as, and who Dinerral was, our first program that we ever created, like, first curriculum was our music and culture education program. And it's basically a music and culture education curriculum that teaches young people about New Orleans culture and New Orleans cultural history, which is something that is still very important to us. The next program that we created was Girls Nola. And that came from solely me, right? So the music and cultural piece, that is representative of Dinerral, who he was and who I believe we are, you know, as an organization. Girls Nola was all me.
You know, we've talked a lot on this podcast about campaigning and politics and advocacy. And so there is that political space where we try to elect officials who are going to do the things we need to protect women and make sure, you know, women and children, families are healthy and vulnerable people are protected. And we have all these advocates, and activists who are doing the policy work and the advocacy work going to the legislature and trying to get the legislation passed. And so this sort of, to me, completes, like, the third leg of the stool, right, is that nonprofit space, where you're directly reaching out to the impacted people, the people who are directly impacted or would be directly impacted if someone doesn't get to them in time. So that sort of the piece where I feel like... you play in all three legs of the stool, but this is really the other piece of that. Your focus really is in working directly with people who are affected by the laws that are passed against them, or the lack of laws to protect them. So that's sort of why I wanted to kind of bring this in. And this is generally the focus that I wanted to put on this season, all these ways that our nonprofits are picking up the slack where our laws and our legislation are not protecting people. So that's really sort of where I wanted to go with that. So tell me what it is you're doing? The DSEF is generally a really great umbrella doing great work, but the girl Girls Nola is sort of that important piece, particularly in the world, the post Dobbs, post Roe, world we're living in today where Young women, girls, people who can get pregnant are so incredibly vulnerable right now.
Yes. Yes. Yes. So Girls Nola is a two-part program. Track one is our 11 modules sexual health program. With this curriculum, we teach young women everything from puberty and anatomy to STDs, HIV, condom demonstrations, contraception, mental health, social emotional health. We teach about self esteem, teen sex and Louisiana law. Like. everything you could think of we have built a curriculum to help with that. Our program is catered to young people from the ages of 8 to 18. When we go into certain schools or certain programs, we have enough material to basically tailor a curriculum to a specific age group. And so, our track one program, our sexual health program, could be administered one of two ways. Number one, pre COVID era, we were 100% in person. So we would partner with churches, community organizations, schools, to go into that space and teach our curriculum. When COVID happened, we were stuck. We were literally in the process of starting our fall 2020, we had our new cohort about to start, spring 2020 cohort that was about to start. And just like the rest of the world, we had to shift and explore virtual options. So we created our virtual programming. So now for track one, which is strictly our sexual health curriculum, we administer that one in two ways. We do partner with all of these different spaces throughout the year, but we also host a virtual cohort, which we found to have the greatest reach. So with our virtual classes, we not only reach young women and girls all across the state, I mean, all across the city of New Orleans, but we have had young people from all across the state join us. We have had young women from out of state. We had a graduate from Houston, a graduate from Michigan. So we have impacted young women even outside of the state of Louisiana, so far virtual...
How are you finding these people like that? Either the churches or schools you're partnering with or the individuals you're doing the virtual?
So when we have a specific target for locations, so say, if a school contacts us to come into the school, or other organizations contact us to come into their space, essentially that's, you know, they do the recruitment for that programming. So maybe they...
How did they find you? Like, how did they know you exist, I guess I'm asking?
From the community, just from the work that we've already done. Like, the name is out there, right? What we caution is that... the thing is, I know there is a need for this program. However, there is a lack of resources. So for me, the greatest issue is not with finding the schools, finding the capacity, you know, all of these things, it's with keeping it at a balance, where we're not overreaching with the limited resources that we have. So for me, that is the greatest challenge, to be honest. With the schools, community organizations, it's a little bit easier because they do the recruitment. It's essentially their demographic of young people that they want us to come in and educate. So it's an opt-in program so everyone has to have a consent form signed by parents, parents have to understand everything that we're teaching the young people, you know, and all of these things. So on the school partnership end, the organizational partnership end, they take care of that, you know, they get the consent, they collect the, you know, all of these things. When we do our virtual cohort, which is what we're gearing up for this coming fall, we advertise throughout the TV, radio, newspaper, and that is open to all of the young women and girls across the city of New Orleans. However, space is limited because we have limited funding and limited resources. But this is the most important piece for me. Because even if your school didn't call for us to come in, if your parents see the need, if you see the need, if you would like to be a part of this, you can! And for our virtual program, we meet every Monday for 10 weeks, for one hour, and each week we cover a different topic. Prior to the start of the program, we have a parent, a mandatory parents orientation, we have a check in with all of the parents because also it's opt-in. So it's you seeing this flyer somewhere on the internet and clicking and filling out this application for your child, right? And so we have a check-in with that parent, we have an orientation with all of the parents where we introduce DSEF, our work, Girls Nola, what we do to them, and every Sunday, the parents get an overview of what we will be discussing on that Monday. It's a very involved program, right? Prior to the beginning of that program, our Girls Nola staff do porch drop-offs to every last one of those girls. Every girl receives a binder with their Girls Nola packet with every lesson, their workbook, every lesson. We have lessons. Every lesson that they will cover, they get a notebook, they get school supplies, everything that they will need. We build sensory kits. We build, we teach them, for our mental health modules, we teach them about...
What's a sensory kit? When you say you build a sensory kit like...
So we teach them about, for our mental health lessons, for our social emotional lessons, we teach them about identifying stressors and coping skills. And when I was a kid, they'd say "Hey you ain't got no stress, you ain't got nerves." And I say, "Ma'am?! Yes, I do have nerves. And yes, I do have stress." These kids are stressed out, they need an outlet, they need a safe space to express themselves. And we teach them how to identify those stressors. We teach them positive coping skills, with our social emotional lessons, we build sensory kits, and it's basically teaching them how to be in tune with their different senses, right? We have five senses, senses touch, sense of smells, sense of hearing, you know, all of these different things. We teach them how to be in tune with these different senses, and how they can develop a coping skill, right? And so with that, for instance, in their packets that they receive, they also received, like, supplies to create stress balls, supplies to create aromatherapy masks, right, where we infuse rice, with aromatherapy oils, and then put them in a sock, tie that sock and then a sock becomes an aromatherapy mask that they could warm in a microwave for 10 seconds and put over their eyes when they're stressed out and help them to fall asleep. You know, like, different... we have so many different activities that, like, the goal is to help them build a sensory kit at the end that would help them when they're stressed out, when they mad at somebody, pissed off at the world, "Okay, before I pop off, let me take a few seconds. Let me find my Girls Nola sensory kit, and let me calm down before I get in trouble." You know? And those are the things we try to pour into these young people because we're all having a hard time. And even, what I've noticed, like, I have amazing instructors, what I've noticed one is that one of the most important things is creating that safe space, right? Creating a space where young people don't feel judged, where they don't feel, you know, they don't feel obligated to, you know, show up like you want them to show up, but to allow them to show up how they can because our kids are really going through a lot. Our parents are going through a lot. My mentees, like, their parents reach out to me every day, like "How do I handle this situation? How do I handle that situation?" I'm not a mama, but I could tell you how I would handle it. Right? So we create these spaces for them. So all of that is our Girls Nola track one. The really amazing thing is, the young people who have participated in our programming are very instrumental in a trajectory that our program has taken. So we had girls that literally would take the sexual health cohort over and over and over and over, and finally they're like, "Mr. Nakita, what's next?" And so during COVID, there was a great need for some personal, like, interactions, relationships, "Let me put my hand on you. Let me take you out. Let me take you out of this space. And let me spend time with you. Let me pour it into you." And so the young women that I had at the time requested that we... "Can we go out to eat? Can we have sleepovers? Can we just be around you?" And that was the start of our Girls Nola Mentorship Program. I brought these women together, these young women who were craving that love and that nurturing and that mentorship. And I created, what is now called, track two. And it's our Girls Nola Mentorship Program. And each of our girls who is a Girls Nola mentee, are a graduate of track one, they've done the work. They've done the hard part, whether we went to their school, their organization, whether they set online and did our virtual programming. They have done the work. They've done everything that was required of them and they are now allowed to join our Mentorship Program. And this group of girls... it has organically created a sisterhood.
Tell me about the pink drive.
Yes. So the pink drive... So for me, you know, community work, community activism, giving back is a very big part of my heart and my life. And so because we do so much for our girls, I definitely... it's important to me to teach them the value of giving back to others. And so I created this initiative called the Girls Nola Pink Drive, where we partner with Touro hospital's Birthing Center, the Youth and Family Services, and we host this Pink Drive. Every year we collect feminine hygiene, health, self care products for girls. And then we collect them, we package them and we go out to the different schools and we distribute them.
And tell me about, like, how that went. This year, I was just on a Zoom with you not that long ago where you were reporting the numbers and... yea... so tell us how many?
Yeah. So this was also an initiative that started during COVID. And so over the years, this was our third year, we started in 2020, I think we hit about 150 in 2020, about 250 last year, and I would say this year, we've reached, currently to this day, as of last week, about 350 bags in over 15 schools and nonprofit organizations.
So when you say bags, you have bags that you're filling with feminine hygiene products, self care products, and distributing them to places where young girls aren't going to get those?
Yes, yes. In each bag, the basics are the same with feminine hygiene. And then the self care part may change from back to back. But you could guarantee that every bag is packaged with love because it's packaged by our girls that come together, and they sort through all of the donations. And it's a whole process, you know. And then they form an assembly line and package all of the bags. It's a very beautiful process seeing it come together and seeing these girls. And also this year, in particular, I challenged our girls to host their own drives. And I put a wager on it, of course, but I challenged them to host their own drives within their communities and their families and their schools. And we've got donations from pretty much all of them. But there were three that really stood out in, I mean, they collected just as much as we collected from our drop off locations. They did a really good job. And I was very impressed with our young people and their families that really took the time to pour into this process.
Well and I love the idea of normalizing these things that every woman, at some point or other, has to buy or get her hands on. Yeah, so I really love that you're making that.
Absolutely. One thing that you will learn is that any space that myself and our instructors enter it's normalized, right? And that happens in the first two modules, right? Once you hit that puberty module... and I think that it's very important in every girl's life. Not one young woman on this earth should be embarrassed about having a period, should be embarrassed about, you know, feminine hygiene and those sorts of things. Like, we very much so create that safe space. That mental health class was, this past session, was probably one of the most intense, gratifying, loving, nurturing spaces that I've ever witnessed in Girls and Boys Nola. We had young people who were really pouring their hearts out into the stress, the everyday stress and the family dynamic situations, the personal, the self harming. Like, all of these different things that they have gone through, that they have been through and It was very... it was that moment for me... this is why we do the work. Even to see the young men open up, and these same young men like, "Man, nobody ain't talking," You know? But it took one to express, you know, the pressures of like feeling the need to, you know, bring money into the household. How do you bring money into the household when you're 15? How do you bring money in a household when you're 15? You can't even legally get a job! You know, in these are the things that our young people are dealing with every single day. And once one express it, they all express all of the things that they were dealing with. And they were able to help each other cope with those things.
But I think this is so important, Nakita, there is a national conversation. So I've mentioned the importance of the work you're doing with the girls and the young women, how we've ended up in this space where that's... folks we really need to protect and nurture. There is a national conversation on boys and young men not getting the kind of attention you're talking and how, in general, there's a conversation going on about how loneliness is an epidemic. People are so married to their phones. And COVID has played a role in that as well. But there is a national conversation going on about the epidemic of loneliness. And what you're talking about is giving people a safe place to go find community at a young age, a safe place to go find community, where they're getting educated on things that matter to them, as they transition from young people to adults. And the opportunity to express themselves and find others, find people who understand them and are like them. And that's so critical. And again, this dovetails into the politics of today and how a lot of what we see of the extreme partisanship and the extreme anger and the inability to have conversations with folks who don't see eye-to-eye. This kind of comes from the space where people aren't being nurtured and raised in these kinds of spaces like you're creating. So I think this is critical work, not just for those individuals, but for the community as a whole, and it's something that really needs to be done at a national scale. I'm not suggesting you have to take on doing a national scale, but what would it require to do this sort of thing at scale, Nakita?
Um, I mean... for me, I... I need myself, you know, I need...
So how would you get... how would someone support this? Like, I know that you operate on grants, so you need grants for it, but there also can be individual donors, I suppose?
We are currently looking for donors, sponsors, grant support, you know, I'm filling out grants every single day. The need is there. Even sponsors for, you know, things for our girls, things for our program participants, things for our young people. There are ways to start and we're actually creating a sponsorship thing right now for Girls Nola, like, ways that people could sponsor. We take these girls on outings once to twice a month, you know, all of those things are, you know, could be sponsored. We host these different cohorts. Like, everything can be broken down to the dollar sign that can make this program a success. But, I mean, there's definitely a need. There's definitely a need. And these babies need us.
Well, so... So I mean, I think you need to be able to grow your program. And I think the other piece is becoming a model that can be duplicated. And I'm always looking for models that can be duplicated elsewhere. So I will definitely put in the Episode Notes how to, you know, participate with y'all, how to reach out to you, how to donate and all of that. I'll get that information from you so you can have it the episodes so folks can find that information. I think it's really important that folks know that part of the reason this need is so great, and you kind of alluded to it before, is that there... I've known people who have gone to the legislature, year after year after year trying to get them to pass age-appropriate sex education to be taught in schools. And we are just not in a space right now where that's going to happen in the state, which is unfortunate. And as you pointed out, it's sort of dodgy because there are those sort of restrictions that, if you are going to teach something, it has to be abstinence based, which is, as we know, not particularly great. And we do have these HIV and other STD issues still happening in the state, we've now got situations where young women who want to be pregnant are still at risk because of not being able to be treated. And doctors are just being afraid to treat them if they have a problem pregnancy. So these are all things that are happening, that what you're doing is filling in the gap for. But what I love, Nakita, you're doing also is this is heavy stuff. And we're talking about advocacy and dangers and risks, and... but what you're doing is, for the most part, enjoyable for them. And you talk a lot about gamification. Now, I want you to explain what you mean when you're talking about gamification of your materials.
Yes. So I, like I said earlier, my superpower is taking any type of information and making it user-friendly, making it so our kids will love it, appreciate it and understand it. And for me, that's integrating art and gamification. Like, I could create curriculums for just about anything. And I love games, I love creating games, and for girls Nola, I thrive off of creating games to help our young people retain the knowledge. And so we have like Girls Nola Jeopardy, Girls Nola Family Feud. I'm in the process of creating an actual sexual card game. And I have some other really cool games in the works that, you know, I do on my own time. But yeah, like, our curriculum is filled with games and art activities because art is very therapeutic as well.
You've tried to do any of this online or in apps or anything?
Yeah, I'm actually in the process of, like, putting my options together. And, you know, I think that's definitely an option.
And that's something that someone, if they are in the tech community, might be able to partner with you and help. We started talking about how we met on the Mary Landrieu campaign. I just wanted to give you a moment... and I think you found a way to do something very positive that's helping people, so I don't want to pivot from that too much, but you've also since become very disillusioned with politics, and I kind of wanted to give you an opportunity to speak on that if there's any of that information you wanted to share.
I always felt that, you know, nonprofit allows me to make an immediate impact on people's lives. But politics is where the real impact happens, the policy, the legislation... Um, you really, you know, we...
You change people's lives in one fell swoop.
Right. And so for me, politics was always my endgame. Politics was always my love. It was my first love. Political Science, pre-law major, you know, like, that was really my first love. Somewhere, in between the last three years, I've lost that fire. I've lost that... love.
The game. The game changed. Or maybe the game didn't change, but for me... it unveiled itself, right? And call me a fool, but I always thought that politics, its ultimate goal, was to help people. I always thought that the ultimate goal was to fight for, to be the voice for the people that otherwise wouldn't be heard, right? Even the people that I thought was supposed to help and save the community, the people that I looked up to and the people that I thought had my best interests and our best interests at heart... I realized it was just the game, you know, everyone is playing this game. And I was always that person that spoke life into the other folks that didn't really care about politics. When I was on Mary's campaign, like, I thrived on going in the trenches, out in the hood, talking to my people. I was asked to talk to the drug dealers, I could talk to the people... I could talk to anybody that didn't care about politics and breaking down politics one-on-one to help them understand how this person, in this position, could make an impact on the things that are important in their lives, right? I feel like right now, the state of the country, the state of our state, the state of our city, is in a very critical and fragile moment. And it is very important that we have the right people in place. And I just feel like, unfortunately for me, I have been privileged to be in spaces where I don't believe in many of the people that have been put, or will be put, in place. I don't... I'm just not interested in the machines and the games, and the all of those things... I don't want to be a part of a game. I just want to be a part of a solution. And as I've straddled that fence, for the majority of my adult life, in politics, and dabbled into nonprofit, you know, I've played a very important role, from my point of view, in both worlds. But I have come all the way over the fence, from politics to nonprofit, in this present moment because I'm exhausted mentally.
Well, I think you probably voice the concerns of a lot of people. And I agree that what politics is possible, or what is possible with politics, is to do good for your community, to be there to make things better for people. And we do seem to be in a space right now, for some folks, where power is more important. And that is not unique to one party or the other. I remain hopeful that there is a space where people who do care about others and who are entering politics, for the right reasons, can still be successful. What I'd love to see and what I hope will happen is that the people like you, with your heart to serve, will learn how to win elections and be the folks who end up being the leaders. I hope that that's true someday. I know there are a few out there, but obviously not enough, obviously not enough.
Yeah. And I definitely have... I haven't lost hope.
You're not closing the door.
I'm not closing the door.
Very good. Well, I'm glad to hear that. Well, Nakita, let's pivot to the last three questions. I asked a version of every episode and because you have some political background out, I'll ask you this way. What's the biggest obstacle for Democrats?
Regardless of which part of the scale we fall, our goal should be united. We should have a common goal. And I think somewhere along the lines, we've forgotten the battle that we're fighting. And it's become not just a uphill battle, you know, compromising and fighting with the Republicans, but... it's so much infighting within one another. And the thing is, I don't think the infighting is even necessarily ideological, like, it's not political, ideological stances, its power, right? Like, who wants the most power in the party. And it it has blinded us as a party from the real goal. So I think our basic obstacles is ourselves. I think for me, that's the exhausting part.
So then what's the biggest opportunity for Democrats?
If we revert the attention and focus back to the constituents, the people, the needs of the people... because if you're going by when you thought about running in 2018 and you're going off those same needs? Those needs have drastically changed over the course of the last four or five years. So if you're not reassessing and taking a tone... if you're tone-deaf to what the community actually needs. If you're tone-deaf to what is happening in these communities, on a national level, if you aren't in tune with what is happening from state to state, what is happening in these different congressional districts, like, you are going to lose those folks. Plain and simple. The need of the people has changed. And the greatest opportunity we can have is not just doing your... what is your name recognition, trying to pull on your name recognition, but try to do some polls on what are your people suffering? Like, what do your people need? Like, why would they choose you? What causes should you champion? Because that's the basis of politics. And it's too many people out here flying blind, right? You just going by, "You know, back in the day when I wanted to run this is what I'm runnin on now". Because a couple of big things has happened in society. And these people are hurting out here. Democrats are already at a disadvantage because, I mean, let's face it, the majority of Democrats don't have money, right? Like the Republicans have money, right? So what you do need is, even if you can't run those campaign ads, like the Republicans can, even if you can't bust through my Pandora station while I'm trying to listen to my 2000s r&b, you need to be able to articulate their needs. You need to be able to be a champion for what those people are going through, it's the greatest opportunity. It doesn't even cost money. Get out there in your districts, into your communities, survey these people, knock on those doors, and see what is important. Don't go knock on the door and ask for their vote. Knock on doors, introduce yourself and ask them, what are the top issues that are important to them? And that's what you run on. And that's how you get their attention. So that's the opportunity.
I agree with you. And Nakita, who's your favorite superhero?
Oh, I will say Olivia Pope, but then...
That's all right.
Olivia Pope is definitely my favorite superhero.
I love it. That's fantastic. I love it. You haven't given up on politics completely then?
I have not. I've just given up on the pool of people we have, personally.
Fiar. Nakita, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me about the work you're doing that's so vital to our community. We need so many more of you. So thank you for that.
Thank you Linda, it's been fun.
Thank you for listening to Louisiana Lefty. Please follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thank you to Ben Collinsworth for producing Louisiana Lefty, Jen Pack of Black Cat Studios for our Super Lefty artwork, and Thousand $ Car for allowing us to use their swamp pop classic "Security Guard" as our Louisiana Lefty theme song.