Andrew Boyce, a third grade teacher at Tubman, was contemplating a service learning opportunity for students that integrated community service and civic responsibility when he heard two scholars talking about the sudden death of one of their favorite rappers. They expressed their sense of helplessness and that there was nothing anybody could do to change things. Mr. Boyce decided that he wanted to show the students that they do have a voice and that they can do things to change their community. From there the servicelearning project, a letter writing campaign to Mayor LaToya Cantrell, began. Students in grades 3-8 wrote letters to the mayor expressing concerns, providing words of encouragement to the first woman mayor of New Orleans, and offering ideas on ways to improve the city. “The project took on a life of its own,” said Mr. Boyce. “The students really had a lot of opinions that they wanted to share. I collected more than 300 letters!” In addition to writing, many classes engaged in deep discussions on race, gender, and the role of government.
“When Mr. Boyce approached me with hundreds of letters from our students to the mayor,” said Tubman Principal, Julie Lause, “I told him that we should be realistic. ‘She’s not going to read all of these letters,’ I said”. Recognizing how demanding the mayor’s job is, Lause advised Mr. Boyce’ to select 20 letters, organize them in a binder, and to lower his expectations about her responsiveness.
In fact, Mayor Cantrell read all the letters, reached out to Lause, and asked to visit Tubman and meet with the students who had so many good ideas about improving the city. The mayor arrived with the binder under her arm, ready to talk to students about what she knew they cared about. “They wrote her with ideas about reducing crime, eliminating police shootings, solving the homelessness in our neighborhood, and managing the water in our city. Our students were full of ideas for improving their city and also full of encouragement for the Mayor,” shared Lause. “Every time a student told her ‘We’re so proud of you for being our first female and first black female mayor,’ Mayor Cantrell would say ‘I’m just like you. I cared about my city and now look, I get to make a change. You, too, get to make a change.’ ”
The mayor’s visit inspired students and staff, and not only did Mayor Cantrell engage with students who had dozens of questions for her, but she also stayed afterwards for hugs with students and selfies with staff. Her words of advice to the scholars, “You have to know who you are, be strong about it, stand tall. You don’t have to look down upon people, but you do look up and know that you are destined to be great. You’re built for it. You’re just like me.”