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Women’s History Month: A Roundtable with Mayor Cantrell and Black New Orleans Moms Leading the City

As I sat in the room, I was in awe. The women around the table are successful black mothers leading the City of New Orleans. The mayor of our city, a Black New Orleans Mom. Their roadmaps to how they got to this point in their career were all unique yet shared similar themes of support, family, and community. In this three-part series, we’ll explore the unique journeys that led to these women leading city departments and serving alongside the historical first female Mayor of New Orleans. In celebration of Women's History Month, they'll share their triumphs, struggles, and hopes as leaders who are also Black New Orleans Moms.

The Road to Success: When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in public service? What have been some pivotal moments in your career?

As someone who admires the leadership of Mayor Cantrell, I thought I knew much about her professional career leading up to her election as Mayor, but what most, including me, don’t know is her personal story of finding her voice in community organizing and politics.

Mayor Cantrell was primarily raised by her grandmother. Though she has fond memories of her early childhood years, there were also many hardships as well. “Crack cocaine was like an eraser in my family, and what I mean by that, living with my mother and stepdad all is well, happiest in my life," Cantrell shared. "Then crack hits the scene. So it started with whether the car being repossessed; my stepfather who was a Sergeant in the LAPD getting on crack; my mother almost having a nervous breakdown; social services were discontinued in the state of California under Governor Reagan at the time, who became president and all that then happened to the rest of the country. So, it was like an eraser. Then after we pretty much lost everything and my mother almost had a nervous breakdown, we all moved and joined my brother with my grandmother.”

Mayor Cantrell soon began attending chamber meetings with her grandmother. At the young age of 14, she became the secretary of her local chamber of commerce. She remembers finding her voice when she brought up an issue at the chamber meeting as they were discussing young black students going to college, “and I said, well, my guidance counselor hasn't met with me and really doesn't meet with many of my peers. So why did I do that? Well, I was at the table with these movers and shakers, I wasn’t even thinking about that, but it was the right setting. We were talking about these issues. So that then led to many of my peers going to get the guidance that we needed to go to college. This was a black woman, by the way. So, a lot of times I say that story because we always tend to think others. Right, but no. So that was a way of finding my voice,” says Mayor Cantrell.

Mayor Cantrell will celebrate her 51st birthday in April and she’s been immersed in the New Orleans community since she first moved here at the young age of 18 to attend Xavier University of Louisiana.

“I moved on the Parkway, where my husband and I bought our first home. I think that was like in 2000 and looked around and I moved into an area where the needs were the greatest; slum lords, drug trafficking, mediocre library, low-performing school, blight, mostly renters in the black section of my neighborhood. That’s why I said I’m going to move there and I got involved and I did something about it. I formed an organization. . . we organized a clean up and we made the news. Then the mayor at the time created his cleanup plan, working with neighborhood leaders, from our work in the neighborhood.”

Soon after, the Broadmoor Neighborhood Association asked Cantrell to join the larger neighborhood association. After receiving the blessing from her fellow organizers, she decided to join. She served on the board and then was elected as President of the Broadmoor Neighborhood Association in 2004.

When reflecting on rebuilding her neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Cantrell shared, “Katrina hit and I led the community through recovery, which led the city through recovery at the neighborhood grassroots level. It was that work that encouraged me to run for public office. It was a seat that came open because my Councilwoman ran for at-large and so there was a special election and my community encouraged me to run, and I did. The political machine was against me, but it was OK because the people were with me. That just taught me the power of community and who I really wanted to uplift me. Then I was reelected without opposition to the district seat and then ran for mayor at the encouragement of the community.”

Tenisha Stevens, Criminal Justice Commissioner

Tenisha Stevens understood the importance of service from a very early age. Her grandmother was a school secretary for 25 years and also a voter registration advocate and campaign worker for local campaigns. Her desire to serve, spurred by her Christian faith, led her to major in Sociology at Dillard University.

She began her public service career in 1996 with the New Orleans Police Department and subsequently the Attorney General’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office.

“It was a pivotal point for African Americans. Not many of us that were allowed to work in those spaces as it relates to the Attorney General's and the District Attorney's Office. When I went to the District Attorney's Office, there were only two black females that were employed in the Investigations Division. I would always tell people, it's good to have people that look like you in spaces where there is nobody because you need to advocate for those people that are coming through the system. Whether it's good, bad, right, or wrong, they still need a voice and when you're in that setting, you can be that voice and you can help, not just for them but the family as well. So I've been blessed. It's been a lot of hard work, but I feel that I've been in those spaces for a reason and I count my blessings every day that I've been able to help people along the way that may not have been able to get the help that they need and be the voice for the voiceless.”

Donesia Turner, Esq., City Attorney

Donesia Turner, Esq. is the City Attorney for the City of New Orleans. Her road to becoming a successful attorney, with strong values for equality, began at the young age of 10 years old, “my mother wanted me to wash the dishes, and I have two brothers. So, I made the argument that I thought that I was being discriminated against because I was female and had to wash dishes. So, I actually won that argument and I never had to wash dishes again.”

From that experience, she learned a lot about advocacy and the importance of asking questions. After law school, she began working for one of the premiere black law firms in New Orleans and then the Orleans Parish School Board. Later in her career, she began working at a law firm where she was the only black attorney on staff. She quickly moved up the ranks and became the only female named partner at the firm. It was important to her to open the doors for other black attorneys to come work at the firm, “leading, mentoring, hiring, and advocating…got me to where I am today. When you get in a position that you’re in, giving back is so important.”

How has being a mother shaped your leadership?

The beautiful thing about our roundtable discussion was that each woman had entered motherhood at different stages of their career. In many ways, their motherhood has shaped how they show up in leadership and vice versa. As I reflect on all the ways that becoming a mother has impacted my priorities, I felt a deep sense of understanding as each woman shared snippets of their motherhood journey.

Mayor Cantrell remembers being pregnant while rebuilding her community after Hurricane Katrina. Like myself, and many other women, she had abnormal cycles, and thought that she couldn’t have a child. She was four months along when she realized she was pregnant. After eight years of marriage, to her beautiful surprise, she gave birth to RayAnn, “my child has been with me at the grassroots level since birth. At meetings, somebody is holding her, that sort of thing. So, it’s been a village…it keeps me grounded, it keeps me focused, and it keeps me encouraged at the same time.”

Tenisha, remembers being pregnant during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but wasn’t ready to let her employer know yet because she was deeply invested in the work she was doing at the District Attorney’s office as a homicide investigator. I appreciated her honesty at that moment as I reflected back on my pregnancy and remembered the hesitation I felt in deciding when was the best time to let my employer about my pregnancy know and how it might impact my career.

When Tenisha returned to New Orleans in March 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, she returned with her four-month-old in tow, “Madison spent most of her life, and she’ll tell everybody, in the chambers of Judge Hunter for a very long time because that’s just what we did. She grew up in that space, so I think it just makes her the young lady that she is. She understands giving back and taking care of people. As she got older and we began talking about the George Floyds of the world and police brutality, we had to have conversations about what does matter.”

As a mom of a teenager, Tenisha appreciates how her daughter keeps her grounded in the culture of young people and how their relationship has evolved over the years, “I’ve learned their language so I can interpret what they are texting and how they are sharing information with their friends. As they get older they understand all the hard work that we as Black women have done in this community, it’s because we want them to be able to thrive and do the same thing, and be good people.”

Sunae Villavaso, Director of Workforce Development

Sunae identifies as an older mom. Almost 20 years into her career, she had her child at the age of 40, “having {my daughter} for the first time at 40 years old I have to divide my time between my career, getting her dressed, I was breastfeeding, the whole nine yards. So even now till this day when I have people on my team who are having kids, or who have kids, and they are having all of these other issues at home, we talk through it. As a supervisor, I’m like look, I have you. What is it that you need from me so that you can feel like you can manage home because if home is not taken care of, you can’t come to work and give 200%. So, what is it that you need from me so that I can support you in your home life. So, having my daughter and balancing home and work life has enhanced my belief in compassionate leadership.”

Sarah McLaughlin Porteous, Interim Director of Public Works/Chief of Staff for Infrastructure

Sarah has two young boys, 2 years old and 5 years old. She says that having a workplace that embraces families has made all the difference for her, “I appreciate how much I see (Mayor Cantrell’s daughter) RayAnn around because in previous administrations it wasn’t really like that. If it wasn’t for Mayor Cantrell’s leadership, I don’t know how comfortable I would have been having a second child and being in a leadership position here with the city. So, I’m very grateful for that, and the appreciation of family. My boys help me to be a more empathetic leader and a more thoughtful leader. I’m trying to instill values in them - integrity, honesty, responsibility - these are all things that I’m also trying to bring to the Department of Public Works and the entire infrastructure team. So, I feel like being a mom helps me to be a better leader, and being a leader here in the city helps me to be a better mom.”

This month, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s pause to celebrate all the phenomenal women across generations, and even currently, who continue to pave the way for women. Leading our communities and leading in the workplace can sometimes take a toll on us as Black women. In the next article in this series, we will explore how these women prioritize self-care as leaders and as Black New Orleans Moms.


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