A look at how The Orchid Society, a local organization of young professional women, is using the documentary Navigate Her, community service, mentoring and more to help young African-American girls in New Orleans steer their way to a better future
by Judy Boudreaux
Ariel Wilson, development officer with the United Negro College Fund’s office in New Orleans, was living and working in Houston when she first started thinking about a mentoring program for young girls in her hometown.
“I had an idea to form a mentoring program focusing on etiquette and interpersonal skills for young ladies,” Wilson says. In 2010, Wilson returned to New Orleans and shared her idea with her close friends over dinner. Soon, an invitation to mentor was sent via email to friends and friends of friends.
“As the mission was developed and details of the program were communicated, those who accepted the challenge were of the shared thought that mentoring is not a title but a commitment, Wilson says.
As the members of the group came together, including Wilson, Danielle Wright, Jovan Bell-Walker, Erica Burkhalter and Gabrielle Fernandez, they settled on a name—The Orchid Society
“The orchid is the most feminine flower one can think of. It symbolizes strength, beauty, love and luxury. For a girl who has been confined to her neighborhood, it may be unfathomable for her to think that she can exude those qualities,” Wilson says.
But the goal of The Orchid Society is to show young girls throughout New Orleans that they can. The mission of The Orchid Society is to create and maintain a strong network of professional women that will also serve as positive role models for young girls through community service, mentoring and social awareness programming.
Danielle Wright is the Orchid Society’s director of community affairs and programming. She approached the organization’s board of directors about producing a film that would help bridge intergenerational gaps between younger and older women in the community. A social worker by profession, Wright is also a member of the Crescent City Chapter Links, Inc. and African American Women of Purpose and Purpose. She also reached out to members of those organizations and asked them to reflect on memories of their lives as fourth graders.
Their expressions about their journeys from girlhood to becoming successful women became part of Navigate Her, a documentary that chronicles the intergenerational experiences, challenges, hopes and dreams of African-American females in New Orleans.
“I find that people typically can recall the time in their lives as a fourth grader or around the age of nine,” Wright says. “I wanted the girls we mentor to know what kind of similarities they share with the professional women who were featured. I thought about the impact mentors had in my life and wanted to see the same kind of impact in future generations.”
The film was funded independently with the help of close family and friends, and other professionals who provided some in-kind and discounted services.
“The entire process was challenging,” Wright says. “But it was a labor of love, so it’s all been worth it. In the end, my goal for Navigate Her is to encourage adults to be more caring and dedicated to creating an environment where African-American youth can thrive.”
One of the professionals featured in Navigate Her is Danielle Wright’s mother, Beverly Wright, who is an environmental activist and founder of African American Women of Power and Purpose.
“I wanted to share my struggle and how I was able to get to where I am. It would not have happened without the support of my family and community,” Beverly Wright says. “I was empowered and humbled by the experience. The purpose of the film was to present successful women who could be viewed as models for young Black girls. Because of the mass media’s portrayal of Black women, most young girls aspire to be more like reality television stars as opposed to CEOs of their own companies. African American girls seem to have low self esteem—so many of them now don’t see successful Black women. All of their teachers are White. The film introduced our young girls to older women who are successful and who were willing to share their struggles so that they can understand that we did not all start at the top.”
Jasmine is a student at Sophie B. Wright Charter School, says the film has inspired her. She wants to attend Spellman College and study finance.
“I want to be an investment banker,” she says. “The ladies featured in the film inspired me. Everyone had an impact on me. So many stories from different backgrounds. The experience gave me hope. I think I can be anything I want to be.”
Amanda Aiken, principal at Sophie B. Wright School wishes there were more organizations to serve the needs of girls.
“There are so many organizations for African-American males, which is necessary because Black males are at risk. However, we are not seeing what’s going on with girls,” says Aiken. “Our girls are hurting. They are victims of sexual abuse; they are not feeling loved and supported. Their suffering goes unnoticed because they act out differently than boys. We have a social worker onsite, who is phenomenal. But she’s stretched. Our kids are in serious need. The governor has cut services that are available to children. We need mental help professionals to help with the trauma they experience and the deep-seeded low self-esteem that has turned into depression. If organizations like The Orchid Society could receive more funding to expand programming, it would be very helpful.”
More than a Movie
Navigate Her was screened at the Joy Theatre in early June to an audience of over 400. In addition to the professional women, several girls, who submitted an essay to participate, were also featured in the film.
Danielle Wright says their essays were very compelling, adding that many of the young ladies shared negative ideas about what they think about Black women in New Orleans
“And it’s a reflection of who they think they are as well,” she says. “They wrote about not having family support, and that was heart breaking.”
Reading the letters set off a red flag for Wright who then discussed the need to create regular programming to support young girls.
To that end, Wright is especially excited about Navigate Her Leadership Institute, a project with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice that will focus on leadership training for young girls within the African-American community that will focus on bringing adolescent girls, young women and more mature women together to provide support, guidance and hope for one another.
Major goals of the NHLI will be to promote the positive portrayal of African-American women in New Orleans; to provide African-American girls in New Orleans with positive adult role models; and to facilitate the engagement of African-American women from New Orleans in cultivating leadership attributes in –––African-American adolescent girls.
Other partners include Le Musée de f.p.c., African-American Women of Power and Purpose and Power, the Orchid Society, and The Links, Inc., Crescent City Chapter.
A pilot program is planned for 25 students at Joseph S. Clark School. With success, it will eventually expand throughout the city.
“Supportive, caring adults can certainly make a difference in a young person’s life…and it is our responsibility to do just that. We have to invest in the young people, because they are the future of this fantastic city,” Wright says.
For more information on the Orchid Society or to learn how you can support its efforts, visit www.theorchidsociety.org.
To learn more about the documentary Navigate Her, visit www.navigatenola.com