Every year around this time, Randy Novak accompanies a group of high school children from Seattle to New Orleans and watches them transform.
It happens while volunteering in areas still affected by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It happens while listening to civil rights leaders talk about their struggles in the ongoing struggle for racial equality. And it hits them hard as they walk through the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana and see the rooms where enslaved people have been housed, put to work and abused.
“You come home on fire,” said Novak, a former Seattle Supersonics marketing director who helped found the King Holiday Hoopfest and the King Classic, and founded Shirts Across America (SAA) nonprofit in 2006.
SAA began with students from St. Joseph’s School raising funds for New Orleans and has expanded and expanded to include students from all over Seattle traveling to Louisiana to explore the history of racism and help nonprofits that build and build homes repair and feed people in this area. In 14 years more than 4,000 people have made the trip.
“It opened my eyes to what people are struggling with and how they deal with it,” said Brandon O’Brien, 17, a junior at Roosevelt High School who has traveled to Louisiana twice with SAA and is hopeful to return this summer. “It’s not just interesting. It hurts. It opens your eyes to what happened in the past and how much room there is to grow. I feel awakened. “
The students met with Seattle civil rights activists like Patrinell Wright, founder of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, who took its members to New Orleans several times to work, feed and sing for people affected by Hurricane Katrina. and Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor who spoke to groups around the world about the terrible deeds – and thoughts – of that time.
They also met with civil rights icon and educator Bob Zellner, the subject of the 2020 Son of the South based on his book The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerners in the Freedom Movement. The book and film (produced by Spike Lee and directed by Barry Alexander Brown) document his life as the grandson and son of two members of the Ku Klux Klan, the risks he took to fight racism, and his ties to the late US – Reps. John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
But the pandemic made the spring pilgrimage impossible, so SAA organized the Relay to New Orleans – a virtual walk and fundraiser set to take place on March 27th.
SAA hopes 2,500 people will sign up to walk a mile and raise sponsorship funds that students from other parts of the state and country can use to participate in their programs, such as conversations with Zellner, Lewis and the student Has non- connected. Violence Coordination Committee in 1961. He was arrested 17 times over the next five years and fought for the right to vote and equal rights for the black community.
Zellner plans to run a mile in Fairhope, Alabama, as part of the New Orleans season. So also Lukas Till, the actor who plays Zellner in the film, as well as Firestone, who is now 97 years old and lives in Los Angeles.
The impact of their travels and conversations has been strong for O’Brien, who has drawn on his firsthand experience in New Orleans and the Whitney Plantation, in recent heightened conversations about institutional racism.
“This year has been like no other,” said O’Brien of the reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. “I’ve lost friends, I’ve made friends, I’ve talked to pastors from my old youth group.
“With these conversations, however, you can do the best you can to help these situations. And to help others struggling with ideas that should be common knowledge. “
As difficult as last year was, Novak believes it validated Shirts Across America’s work. The Relay to New Orleans will enable people to support this work.
“This is a moment in time when we can make change,” he said. “We teach our school principals that it’s not about breaking culture or hitting people.
“We’re teaching them to listen to where people come from in order to give them that grace,” he said. “Our society is missing things there.
“Our work is about recognizing our past. We have to in order to move forward. “