In Louisiana in 2014, 20 percent of women lived in poverty, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Among black women, the poverty rate was worse by half: 32 percent.
Statistics like that could discourage a young woman on the brink of adulthood, such as Diamonique Harrell, a 12th-grader at Algiers Technology Academy. But Harrell and hundreds of other high school students got inspiration and motivation during a Youth Empowerment Day speakers program and job fair Oct. 2 at Landry-Walker High School.
“I learned that black women, although through struggles, can still make it in this world as people,” Harrell said, and “can still be heard.”
Separate sessions were held for the young men and women, so they would feel more comfortable asking questions.
Women addressing the students included Nandi Campbell, a criminal law defense attorney; Kourtney Mason, an author, professional dancer and lawyer; Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson; Ericka “Chef Diva” Lassair, chef and owner of Diva Dog; Freddrenique King, an Edna Karr High School graduate who is now a junior at Southern University; Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson; and Orleans Parish Juvenile Judge Ernestine Gray.
The male speakers included 4th District Cmdr. Sean Ferguson, of the New Orleans Police Department; former New Orleans Saints player Marlon Favorite, an LSU graduate; Louisiana State Trooper James Jefferson III; Xavier University professor Silas Lee; WDSU meteorologist Damon Singleton; and actor James Mable.
Young people don’t need to choose among their passions, according to presenter Mason, a lawyer with Gray Casualty and Surety Co. in Metairie. Outside the straight-laced world of corporate law, she danced with Beyoncé during the 2013 Super Bowl halftime show and wrote the children’s book “Little Miss Dancey Pants.”
“You can do multiple things,” Mason told the students. “You don’t have to pick only one thing.” She said students should “expect occasional failures” but to “dream big, think outside the box” and, most of all, “trust in your greatness.”
Lassair emphasized the importance of hard work, not only in her words but in her actions: She was the first of the presenters to speak because she had to go set up her Diva Dawg food truck at the Gretna Heritage Festival.
Lassair cited the inspiration of her grandmother, whose hard work as a janitor allowed her to play hard, traveling the world. Lassair said she started working at age 13 and took every job she could, earning a reputation for reliability and making connections along the way, including a period of training at Commander’s Palace.
The event was organized by New Orleans City Council member Nadine M. Ramsey, who also cited the importance of connections with supportive allies. She said she was a lawyer in private practice when she got an opportunity to enter the realm of politics, when Landrum-Johnson appointed her to act in the judge’s absence. She reminded students that where you are from doesn’t have to define who you are.
When King took the stage, she rhythmically knocked twice on the podium and exclaimed, “Where my E.K. girls?” King, 20, graduated from Edna Karr in 2013. She maintains a 3.0 grade-point average as a psychology major at Southeastern Louisiana University, with an ambition to be a federal judge one day. King urged the young women to be mindful of whom they associate with. “Birds of a feather flock together,” the crowd exclaimed with her. “Show me your company, and I’ll show you who you are.”
King ended her talk with a powerful message that “love does not hurt,” reminding students that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.