New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell Delivered Keynote Address at Bard College’s 159th Commencement
Text (unedited) of commencement address by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell
Good afternoon. Thank you. And Congratulations!
My heart is so full to be here with you at this time. It is truly an honor and a privilege. I want to begin by thanking, of course, our president, Leon Botstein. To our first lady, Miss Barbara, I cannot miss you or leave you out. The board of trustees. Very important. Faculty, staff, parents, but most importantly, each and everyone of you who are graduates on this afternoon. Thank you so much. We’re proud of you.
First, I would like to begin by describing how my path truly reflects the kind of unconventional leadership that Bard instills and the values of this institution that each and everyone one of you have embraced. To its fullest, you have. Now, as mentioned, I came to New Orleans as an undergraduate student to attend Xavier University of Louisiana. Even at that time with applying to colleges, I did tell a little lie, and I told my people I was applying to schools all over. I only applied to Xavier University. I felt it in my heart an in my soul. Thank God, I was accepted.
You know when I started Xavier, it was on the back of Mother Katharine Drexel. But today, Katharine Drexel is a saint. So, she was looking out for me then. I began working in the Broadmoor community, really in the community as a whole. Because while attending Xavier, I saw the stark differences, the disparities that exist in my city, and the love and the culture of her people. It got me grounded and rooted in the community, but in the City of New Orleans. What I say is that my soul found its home in the city. So, I began to work at the grassroots level. My husband and I bought a home in Broadmoor. Settled there, and you know what, one day woke up and my community was devastated. Eighty percent of the city was under water. The community of Broadmoor has 10 to 12 feet water that sat in our community for over a three-week period. 2,400 homes, all of our civic institutions and facilities, our schools, our library, our churches, you name it, our people, our families. Working on the ground and working with community and the power of community, which led the City of New Orleans to recovery. It did happen. But this led me to become a council member of the city and then later mayor. Non-traditional all the way.
A couple of reasons for things that are associated with being a non-traditional leader. First, as mentioned, being the first female elected as mayor in New Orleans’ 300-year history. And the most gratifying thing about that is knowing that I will not be the last. Considered an outsider, non-native New Orleanian with roots in California. This had not been done, and, quite frankly, the powers that be felt that it just could not even happen. I didn’t come with a background into politics through that legal profession route. It was that grass roots route. But, like many of my peers, that was that path, right, to elected office. But my style was more on the side of civil disobedience, not so much upholding the law, not trying to tear it down, but when you see government telling you “no” every step of the way, you have to find that non-traditional path.
And so like in Broadmoor and me and my residents, like Hal Rourke, who was with me this afternoon, and Lily Rourke and Laurie, who are here. We had a green dot over our community. Our community was being recommended to government not to be rebuilt, not to return. Government was telling us, “no, your public school isn’t coming back; no, your public library isn’t coming back; quite frankly, you’re not coming back.” We did not accept that at all. And, not accepting that as an answer. And, so what you have to do in those situations, you have to create partnerships with non-traditional thinkers like Bard. You change government and the status quo in that process. Bard is an institution that seeks to grow that same non-traditional leader. This is exemplified through a college president who was the youngest ever to serve in this role right here. Through civic engagement programming that empowers young leaders like yourselves who have truly big, big ideas. Also, out of the array of private liberal arts colleges, Bard has been able to advance because of its credibility it has built in the community and not its connections to wealth and privilege and prestige.
This is a parallel truly to my own story of coming into leadership through hard work, through values and tapping into people around me, as opposed to political connections. Also, unconventional leadership means being committed to doing what is right even if it may be politically unpopular. It’s a big deal. Or, even aligned with profit, right? That’s not who we are, it’s not who Bard represents, and it’s certainly not you. Bard established education programs in prisons and set up the first dual-degree program with a Palestinian university. Bard has received criticism and political blowback for these actions, but this hasn’t stopped the College from stepping out and doing what’s right when it’s the right thing to do and the right time to do it, in spite of the naysayers. These parallels really do reflect my own story and something that I’ve accomplished as mayor as relates to, I call it, #fairshare. Now as being mayor over the past year, I had to face not only infrastructure challenges, but again with the powers that be to say, no, no we will not rededicate revenue generated from hospitality in the State of Louisiana, but truly the revenue based off of the backs of the hard-working people in the City of New Orleans that drives the economy of the State of Louisiana. But I was faced with our governor even at the time saying, no way that cannot happen. But, the reality has been that although the City of New Orleans absolutely is a world class city, and is a destination city, and drives the economy of the State of Louisiana, the City of New Orleans had no received her fair share based off of that revenue that she’s been generations. So pushing the envelope a little bit further and saying, you know what, it’s time. If we have these issues in the city relative to infrastructure, basic city services, an economy that drives over $200 million and even into the billions into the economy, but only the City of New Orleans receiving less than ten cents on every single dollar that it generates. Educating the public, saying that, you know what, when we do have these big Super Bowls and we have all these great events, the City of New Orleans doesn’t benefit in ways that she deserves.
But, taking on that spirit of Bard, ensuring and not accepting no for an answer. Today, I have to tell you that we claimed a real victory in the City of New Orleans, because, today, it has been passed at the state legislature where the City of New Orleans will now receive a little bit more of what she generates, and that’s because we, collectively, won’t take no for an answer. We can accomplish great things by pushing that envelope and pushing back on government at times even when they’re telling you no. That’s a big deal for the City of New Orleans. It’s a big deal. She will now receive over $50 million up front and some recurring revenue off of the industry of an upward of $28 million a year. Folk said it could not be done, but we did it. You can do it too.
There are so many stories of Bard students who have come down to New Orleans and how they reflect this unconventional leadership. Whether that’s Stephen Tremaine ’07. Absolutely. I met Stephen as an undergraduate student. He was volunteering at First Presbyterian Church in Broadmoor, post-Katrina. He stood up at one of our neighborhood meetings and told Hal and I. He said, “you know, I have students who would love to volunteer. Do you think they can come down for spring break?” And, we were like, “of course!” He organized hundreds of Bard students who came down year after year after year. Stephen is now leading the (Bard) network of early colleges in cities across the U.S. Thank you, Stephen, and thank you to the class of 2007.
Milo Daemgen ’10. He’s another example of non-traditional leadership. We found that Milo was able to tell stories through film. So, he told our community stories, the stories of our recovery that would really lead us to green pastures, meaning, as a community being able to implement the redevelopment plan that we created. But Milo helped us tell our stories. And, then Milo went on to work on my campaign for mayor, and he was able to tell stories, not of my leadership, but it was a real reflection of the people that I was stepping up to lead. And, the stories of the residents and the people of the City of New Orleans were always front and center, but Milo continued to shine and shine New Orleans light forward. And, I want to say thank you, Milo, and thank you to the class of 2010.
Emily Wolff ’10. I remember Emily as a 19-year-old woman when she first came to Broadmoor. She was young and inexperienced, but she was so eager to put her education to work and help us when we needed it most. She organized volunteers after Stephen graduated. Later, she became invaluable as she transitioned into a neighborhood leader as the executive director of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. Really, she stepped in my role once I became a councilwoman. She began to lead the Broadmoor Improvement Association. A neighborhood that prides itself in recognizing but also asking for leadership from unconventional sources. Today, this woman, Emily, she serves the City of New Orleans and is now the head of the city’s first office of youth and families, under my leadership. Thank you, Emily, again and the class of 2010.
And I know that Charlie Barnes ’09 is out there somewhere. He was my counterpart as we had to gut our public school, Wilson Public School in Broadmoor. But, that didn’t stop Charlie B. He came on back. A year ago he was teaching our young people coding. And he continues to thrive, and we love you, Charlie, wherever you are. I know you’re here.
But, these stories reflect that building back my community better than before meant turning to places you haven’t turned to before. And, one of the of the places was a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York. Bard. I’ve also learned some unconventional things from Bard, I have to say, like using organic deodorant. Now, I have to say, I tried this out. Couldn’t stick with it. I had to go back pH balance and Secret. But, I did try y’all. I used Tom’s. It didn’t work for me. But, regardless, these stories reflect paths that are completely unconventional. But, it was also innovative, and it was necessary.
I want you all to hear three things I want to leave with you. Number one, you will not get there one your own. It just won’t happen. You don’t get there by yourself. You didn’t get this far by yourself. You won’t move forward without the people you surround yourself with. And, you need to ensure that you keep surrounding yourself with people who share your values, who build you up, who don’t tear you down. So, you’re about to take another leap forward into this world. Sometimes it’s kind, and sometimes it’s not. But, if you stay close to people who support you, you will get there. It’s not about an individual accrual of power or going it alone. It’s about the power of many voices, many people rowing in that same direction. This is a healthier and more sustainable way of thinking about leadership versus the idea that any person, any one person, a single president, a mayor, can accomplish great things all alone. It doesn’t happen that way. Bard pushes you. It pushes you to get outside of your own bubble, understanding the experiences of others. It’s very important. It allows you to think differently and understand why people do what they do or think the way that they think. It allows you to be more inclusive, more intentional about everybody and understanding that we truly all matter. This is important.
Bard pushes you again. Getting outside of that bubble, and that spirit of diversity always seems to shine through with the spirit of Bard. This is a bold way of thinking about leadership in this American moment. As college graduates, embarking on your next chapters, continue to be bold. I’m encouraging you to do that.
Number two, be impatient with injustice. As graduates of this prestigious college, I hope that you will be impatient about combatting the injustices that we know exist, and we see them every single day. There are examples of the College being impatient with injustice, like the Trustee Leader Scholar Program, the (Bard) Prison Initiative, and the Early College programs across the country. Eager to lean in in, lean forward and find solutions, but also understand that it’s a marathon, it’s not a spring. You will come up against seemingly insurmountable challenges. It’s just inevitable. And, you will need to find a way to go in, around, under, or straight through every single challenge that’s before you. You will inevitably get into a situation where you are like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But, I’m going to tell you about that, my approach to it. I always seem to find myself of damned if I do because I’m going to do, and for Bard students, that’s what you’re all about, and I know it. I know it from experience, from encountering these great relationships that I’ve been able to build with this wonderful, wonderful institution. Bard has shaped you to be doers. Keep doing, despite what the naysayers will say because they will, but who cares. We will always look to solutions, and, literally, who cares. We don’t care. Like I tell my people, “bring it on!” But, understand again, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Perseverance is the key.
Which leads me to the last and, maybe, the most important piece of my advice. Really figure out a way and truly understand what it is that you draw your strength from, and every single time you kind of have to go back to it. Now, for me, and this is me personally, it’s my faith. It really is. I have a little altar in my office, I buy my candles, I light ‘em, sometimes I let those suckers burn all night long. But, it gives me the faith in the power that I need to continue to stand. But, whatever that is for you, whatever that is for you, you continue to lean on it every single day because it will not disappoint, but you have to determine what that is for you, that strength, because it’s there.
So, in closing, when you step out, you will be looking for those future Broadmoors, I’m hoping. Whatever, wherever they may be, I know for a fact that you truly can make a difference. I want you to make a difference. I want you to take advantage of those opportunities that you create, that you find. We have a changing world, and we need dynamic, unconventional leadership every step of the way. You’ve been equipped with all the tools that you need in your toolbox. Now, it’s simply time to use each and every one of them. But, you have been built to last. You are a tough piece of leather that’s well put together, and it’s because of all the support that’s around you this afternoon. So, you keep on standing, and you stand tall, and you be unconventional because that’s what we’re called to do. So, God bless you, each and every one of you. God bless Bard College. God Bless the United States of America, and, more importantly, this entire world that we live in. And, this world needs you. We need you. We need your unconventional leadership that I know you possess. So, thank you so much for what you mean to me, what you mean to the City of New Orleans, and what you mean to this world. God bless you.
ABOUT THE COMMENCEMENT SPEAKERNew Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s life has been steeped in community service. As a young girl, her grandmother would bring her to neighborhood meetings, and by the age of 13, she was serving as secretary for her local chamber of commerce.
“My soul found its home in New Orleans,” is how Mayor Cantrell describes her arrival in 1990 as a student at Xavier University. After graduation, she and her husband, Jason, bought a home in the Broadmoor neighborhood, and Cantrell became an active member of her new community.
As the President of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, Cantrell led the neighborhood’s redevelopment following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Flooding decimated Broadmoor, but through citizen engagement and Cantrell’s leadership, Broadmoor is now considered an international model for disaster recovery.
Elected to the City Council in 2012, Cantrell has prioritized improving people’s lives.
On May 7, 2018, Mayor Cantrell was sworn in as the first female Mayor of New Orleans, just in time to celebrate the city’s tricentennial, or 300th anniversary.
She is a dedicated wife to her husband, Jason, proud mother of her daughter, RayAnn, and a parishioner at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church.
Mayor Cantrell pledges to produce results that will create a more equitable and safe New Orleans for all residents.
Post Date: 05-26-2019