Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans and the National Urban League president, speaks during Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the New Orleans Jazz Market in New Orleans, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. 

America D. Lenox has had a tough time. She had a daughter while a junior at Southern University New Orleans. She was denied child care three times while working to read and study enough to do well and graduate, so she had to improvise to make it all work.

New Orleans black empowerment and policy conference to draw Edwards, Cantrell starting Sept. 27

She did graduate. Then she went two years before getting full-time employment. Her story, shared at a recent conference in New Orleans hosted by the Urban League of Louisiana and the state's Legislative Black Caucus, is now inspiring others.      

The conference drew some big-name speakers, including CNN commentators Bakari Sellers and Angela Rye, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, who now heads the National Urban League, and Gov. John Bel Edwards. While those celebrities certainly helped fill the seats at the conference, which drew some 400 attendees from around the state, a lot of the real work was done by lesser-known but important panelists who aired practical solutions to problems like health care access and economic and racial inequality.

The participants came from nonprofits, local and state governments, small and corporate businesses, the ranks of college students and educators, affordable housing and transportation advocates, health care administrators and providers. There were ideas about making government and politicians more responsive, advancing mental health as a priority rather than a stigma, and some frank discussions about what African Americans are not doing so well — and understanding why.

Inside 'Black Out Loud': Conference highlights justice reform, financial empowerment and mental health in black community

Lenox, 25, told the conference how her firsthand experiences as a single mother and college student with no child care shape her passion and her work as a parent navigator with Ubuntu Village and as a program manager at Youth Rebuilding New Orleans after earning dual degrees, in criminal justice and addictive behavior counseling and prevention, from SUNO. With the help of Lenox, parents like her get connected to housing, school, mental health and social services.

It’s people like Lenox this conference aims to help, so we were happy that Urban League of Louisiana President and CEO Judy Morse Reese focused on establishing policy work groups and made a commitment to develop a specific state legislative agenda as next steps as the event closed. Those attending the conference have first dibs to get on the ground floor of this work, but the Urban League welcomes others who want to make a difference.

We look forward to hearing and seeing the results. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and as the speakers at the conference amply reminded us, there’s a lot of work to do.