Editors Note: The following series “Women Making History” is a week-long series curated by Marisa Long as part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Insitute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities. You can read Marisa’s full introduction on this series here.
As we reach the last week of Women’s History Month, I wanted to take some time to celebrate women who have made history in New Orleans and women who continue to make history today. This curation of articles is designed to highlight several of these women and to honor all women who have helped to shape New Orleans into the cultural center we know and love whether through art, reform, or entrepreneurship.
Danielle Wright is one individual who is touching the lives of women and children of color across New Orleans as the founder and director of Navigate NOLA. Author Nora Daniels tells us about Danielle’s journey with Navigate NOLA, where she draws her motivation and the value of vulnerability. Here’s their interview, which was first published on July 18, 2018, and appeared in a series highlight unique female voices.
Who: Danielle Wright
What: Founder and Director of Navigate NOLA
Where: Schools and organizations all over New Orleans, particularly in Central City
Born and raised in New Orleans, Danielle Wright has dedicated her life to supporting the women and children of the Crescent City. Her multifaceted work spans the visual (check out the Navigate Her and Navigate Him documentaries) and the audible (she co-hosts a weekly radio show, The Wellbeing), and serves New Orleanians young (the social and emotional wellness program serves school-age kids) and a bit older (the Women of Wellness self-care group for young women of color meets monthly). We spoke about the birth of Navigate NOLA, normalizing vulnerability, and how the city’s unstoppable creativity infuses Danielle’s ongoing work.
Nora: How did Navigate NOLA start?
Danielle: Navigate NOLA started when I was doing qualitative interviews of African American women across New Orleans. I was interviewing them about their experience growing up in New Orleans, and I was trying to pull out some common themes around resiliency and how they’ve been able to break barriers in their careers and how they managed balancing family life. The youngest person we interviewed was three—she talked about what she wanted to be when she grew up. The oldest person was in her seventies. We talked about people having the experience of having to step behind the colored sign in public transportation growing up here in the city before integration happened, all the way to current day experiences of black girls growing up in the city and what that’s like. That became the Navigate Her documentary.
After the documentary, I felt a strong sense of responsibility around creating some sort of work that focused specifically on the gendered needs of African American girls, because we interviewed some high school girls and what they were saying about their lives and about growing up in the city really sat with me. […] I felt a large sense of responsibility to the girls who went to the screening and the ones that we interviewed.
At that time, there were very few programs [specifically for African American girls], and not a lot of visibility around the experiences that African American girls have. It was very closely aligned in timing with Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, so there was a lot of focus on that time around African American boys. Also, during Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration there were specific programs that targeted African American boys, but not many for girls.
Nora: How did you get into this work?
Danielle: I got into this work as a teenager, when I was a New Orleans Recreational Department camp counselor. At that time, I worked with the youngest group that we could possibly work with. There were some kids at the camp that were too young to be admitted to the camp because you had to be five. The director of the camp, though, was a compassionate person, and loved children and families, so she and I would sneak younger kids into the summer camp program, so their parents would have somewhere for them to go.
So we had three and four year olds, and she [the director of the camp] would always send them to my group. She told me I had a gift for working with young children. I didn’t really believe it at the time, but the children that I met and worked with changed the trajectory of my life, my career path, what I was sent here to do.
Two kids in particular that I worked with were game changers for me. One of them was exposed to drugs in utero and he was hyperactive because of it. We didn’t know quite what to do with him, so we would let him run around in the gym, because he could not participate in any sort of organized or structured anything at the camp. A really sweet little boy. Lots of energy. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of conversation around the over-diagnosis of African American boys of ADHD. His caretaker at the time didn’t know what to do with him and took him to the doctor. The next summer, he was like a zombie. He was diagnosed with ADHD and given Ritalin. He was tiny, already underweight, so the Ritalin changed his personality. He did not have as much energy and he just was in solitude all the time. He would still be isolated from all the other kids.
That was heartbreaking for me, to see that change in a child in just a year. I didn’t understand quite what was going on at the time, but I knew it wasn’t quite right. Later on, I got to understand that when white children are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the traumatic experience is being acknowledged for them, but for black children, they’re often diagnosed with ADHD with no additional considerations. In this community, African American children are exposed to violence at something like 60%. Children in New Orleans suffer from PTSD at three times the national average.
The other experience that sat with me was a little boy that had eczema. I didn’t know how to help him, and I never got over that. I’m in my 30s now, and I still carry Gold Bond for eczema in my purse, just in case I run across a child with eczema. But I didn’t understand the nutrition piece—things like dairy can trigger eczema. He would just cry. Nothing is more painful than seeing a child who can’t help themselves. We, as adults, are here to help them. To help them manage their stress and emotions, to keep them safe, and I couldn’t help, because I didn’t know what to do. So sometimes I would want to cry with him.
Those two experiences sat with me forever. Though I went on to do some macro-level work, most of my work is clinical. Now, as founder and director of Navigate NOLA, which has grown to eight programs now, I still go in [to schools] and do social and emotional learning with kids and stuff, because the interaction with the little kids really energizes me, and it reminds me of the value of the work. The frustrating part is that I’m up all night, because there’s an administrative part to running all this, so I’m literally jumping out the car to go do programming with our staff and then coming back and running payroll or working on bringing more grant funding in so we can sustain our work. It could really be a full-time thing just to run the administrative side of Navigate NOLA, but I would say my love and commitment to the children in this community is what drives me to keep doing this work, and I’m reminded of that with every school that I work with, every child I’m blessed with being able to work with. For me it makes life worth living.
Nora: New Orleans bleeds culture—music, visual arts, dancing. How does the city’s creative spirit show up in your work with Navigate NOLA?
Danielle: New Orleans has a strong history of tapping into culture in a way that is healing. Because African Americans in New Orleans have been discriminated against and segregated into certain communities that have less access, I think one of the ways we’ve dealt with not having access is through arts and culture. The level of talent we have in the city, for example. When I was a kid, it was very normal to walk down the street and see black boys tapping. I’m talking talent like Savion Glover. Street talent.
My sister’s high school sweetheart grew up in the Treme area and was a stellar athlete–he and his twin brother. He went on to the Junior Olympics; he really is a New Orleans legend. God rest his soul, he passed away last year, in August. But he grew up in poverty, and his mother was so dedicated to her sons getting out of New Orleans and having access to opportunities that she was never able to see. She worked harder than one can ever imagine. She didn’t want them to sell drugs, so she got an additional job, just to give them a weekly allowance that would stop them from being enticed into selling drugs for extra money. A single mom. I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated.
Anyway, they grew up in Treme, and my sister’s boyfriend attributed his athletic talent to flipping off mattresses in abandoned lots in Treme with his brother. Recently I went to a photography exhibition and there was an old black and white picture of little boys flipping off of mattresses, taken by this black photographer, Harold Baquet. I posted it on Instagram with a little caption and so many guys from New Orleans commented and said that that was how they learned to be an athlete, flipping off of mattresses in their neighborhood.
So you think about this concept of resiliency and the byproduct of that in athleticism, in arts, in culture, in music, and how much that’s normalized here, because of the enormous level of talent. […] When I went away to college, to Spelman in Atlanta, what was really elevated was academics. All the girls there were super smart, all the boys at Morehouse had great grades, and I really valued all the other stuff that people brought to the table. Are you funny? Do you have a really charismatic personality? I’d come from a city where people were talented in so many different ways. When I moved back to New Orleans, when I tried to talk to my friends about how special the city was, they’d be like, ‘No Danielle, everybody can do all those things.’ And I’d say, ‘But they’re all here!’
Nora: What do you tap into to sustain your 24/7 work? There’s so much to Navigate NOLA—a radio show, multiple documentaries, almost 10 separate programs. How do you manage all of this and still take care of yourself?
Danielle: What’s been difficult for me over the years, growing up in New Orleans and being in a family among a lot of strong black women—my mom to name one, my younger sister—they all subscribe to the superwoman archetype for black women. That’s something that I think we’ve built up to address all the negative archetypes of African American women, the mammy, the jezebel, the welfare queen, all of that stuff. We build ourselves up, and we tell ourselves that we’re supposed to be magical, and none of that allows for a space of vulnerability. Vulnerability, for me, is how we heal. It’s how we process emotions, and it’s also how we don’t get sucked into avoiding being vulnerable because it’s painful sometimes. Sometimes we use busyness to move through that.
It’s a challenge for me because I’m sensitive. I cry when I’m sad. I’m a very self-aware person, and I don’t have a problem talking about my feelings, and that’s seen as weak. My friends are all strong black women, and my family members are all strong black women, and I just look like a little weakling sometimes. I think that my comfort with vulnerability makes them uncomfortable. So it can be difficult. And there’s some strength that needs to exist for me to stand in my truth and show and express vulnerability when I need to, but it helps me to be a better friend, daughter, sister—all of the roles that I have to take on throughout life—and I’m a better social worker because of it and that’s what I remind my friends of, when they’re uncomfortable about me crying or being sad about something. This is so much a part of who I am, and I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I do without being able to tap into that vulnerability because it’s what connects me to other people.
It helps me to feel compassion; not just for the experiences that the children are going through, but their caretakers, who were exposed to trauma and don’t have the tools to be able to provide their children with what they need. That’s what makes me who I am, and I remind them of that all the time. I’ve had to tell aunts before, ‘Well, I’m sad! I went through a breakup! It’s okay for me to be sad!’ I’m not gonna just dismiss that.
I am working to normalize vulnerability in black women, because it’s tearing us apart that we’re elevated and have this responsibility to take care of the world and heal the world, but we don’t heal ourselves first.
I try and normalize vulnerability in black women through Navigate NOLA programming like Women of Wellness, which seeks to meet the needs of African American millennial women who are leading local corporations. They’re breaking barriers in male-dominated fields and they’re not taking care of themselves, because they’re taught that this is just what life looks like and you have to accept it. We meet once a month for yoga, meditation, and conversations about race, class, and gender and about how these things play out in our work lives. They’re moms, wives, they’re so many things to so many people—but you can’t perform optimally in these roles unless you take care of yourself.