JEDI Voice: Annie Balart Michaels
Annie Balart Michaels

Getting Close: A Personal Reflection

I know each of our JEDI journeys looks and feels different. I know many of you are leaps and bounds ahead of me and others are just starting out. No matter where you are, I encourage you to look for ways to bring your children with you on this journey.

Annie is mother to Louis (3rd Grade) and Wilson (2nd Grade). She is the Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees and is on the JEDI Task Force and Development Committee.

When I was asked to join the St. George’s Board of Trustees’ JEDI Task Force, the answer was, without any hesitation, YES. Despite already juggling several roles on the board, while also balancing work, kids and the rest of life, there is nothing more important to me than being an active participant and leader in JEDI work. Throughout my life I have sought opportunities to effect change, specifically around justice, equity, diversity,  and inclusion. Before immersing myself in volunteerism with St. George’s, I was active in the New Orleans charter school system and the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. I have always tried to put myself close to things that I want to change and make better. The experiences that closeness created has shaped the way I see the world. It has informed the books I read, fueled my support of specific organizations, inspired the ideals I hold true and fed my hunger to always learn and see more. 

The path has been easy for me because it is one I have defined for myself and one in which I have made deliberate actions at points in my life when I knew I was ready for growth, challenge and change. I am immersed in JEDI work, and I know the steps I need to take to continue this journey-- the questions to ask, the guidance to seek, the ideas I need to challenge. But what does the path look like for my sons, 2nd and 3rd graders at St. George’s? I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last several years thinking about how I set my two sons out on their path of creating a society grounded on the ideals of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. I have thought about how to explain difficult topics to my children that include candid discussions on violence toward black people. I want to protect my boys from the evils of the world until long after I have departed it, but over the past year I have realized how privileged that attitude is. During every moment that I gave more thought to what this conversation might look like, I thought about the black mothers and fathers who had no choice in the matter of when or how to address those difficult conversations since our society and the systems of oppression it supports often dictate the topics and their frequency. Several months ago, a friend-- a woman of color-- shared with me what it felt like when she was pregnant and was told she was having a son. I was so profoundly moved by her experience that I decided it was time for me to bring my boys along with me on my JEDI journey.

This journey began just a few weeks ago over Mardi Gras with another St. George’s family in the form of a road trip through Alabama for a civil rights tour. We began by listening to a memoir of the civil rights movement from one its youngest heroes: Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery. My sons were already familiar with several aspects of the memoir but had never heard the story of Bloody Sunday, particularly that of marchers being tear-gassed and beaten. I sat in the front seat while driving to Montgomery asking myself, “What will they think?” and “Is this too much?” but I held on to my conviction that getting close and understanding is important. And I must admit I was inspired by the friend with whom we were traveling who shared the memoir with me and suggested we listen.

The first stop on our trip was Montgomery and to the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Justice and Peace. If you are not familiar with EJI and the museum and memorial, I encourage you to read about the organization and these incredible landmarks. The museum depicts the history of black people in the United States from slavery, through Jim Crow and segregation and into the era of mass incarceration. The memorial honors victims of lynching and other forms of racial violence. None of these topics are particularly kid friendly, but what struck me as truly profound is how the museum made the experience about storytelling and how to initiate conversations. I’m not prone to let my children roam free through a museum, but, on this occasion, that is exactly what I did. I was amazed by the curiosity of my children as they moved from exhibit to exhibit-- how they looked at the pictures, listened and read the narratives and identified black leaders they had learned about at St. George’s. At that moment, I knew that this experience of closeness would leave an indelible mark on them.

From Montgomery, we drove to Selma along the same highway that the marchers in the memoir we had listened to walked to protest for their right to vote. At each historical marker, we took a moment to talk about what it must have been like for a 15-year-old girl to march from Selma to Montgomery, just weeks after being badly beaten. The kids weren’t sure they could have done it, but I think otherwise. As we walked up the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I felt hopeful and inspired by the fact that my kids had brought me down a new JEDI path-- one in which I am able to see the journey through their eyes.

I know each of our JEDI journeys looks and feels different. I know many of you are leaps and bounds ahead of me and others are just starting out. No matter where you are, I encourage you to look for ways to bring your children with you on this journey. You can start right here in New Orleans by going to St. Roch to show your kids the William Frantz Elementary School, where, at the age of 6, Ruby Bridges went by herself, escorted by her mother and federal marshals, to attend school as its first black student. The year was 1960, and while much has changed, our community still has much to do on our journey to create a just, equitable, diverse and inclusive society for everyone. 

In the coming weeks, we will be launching the JEDI corner of the St. George’s website, and I am eager to share this with our parent community. The website will include resources, a glossary of common JEDI language and terms, blog posts and much more. We will also be announcing the Chair(s) of our JEDI Parents Group and are excited about opportunities and engagements to bring our parent community together around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. 

I leave you with a quote from one of my sources of inspiration and guidance, Bryan Stevenson, from his book, Just Mercy, where he shares something his Grandmother always told him: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close.”

 

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