Operation Hope 4 NOLA Sets a New Narrative
Frederick A. Douglass High School team is one of three winning Aspen Challenge Teams
“There is violence within the city,” says Frederick A. Douglass High School senior Kayla Frey, “but that’s not the whole story.”
She wants to change the narrative. Frey is one of eight Douglass students who participated in the Aspen Challenge, a program that calls upon high school students to find solutions for some of the biggest issues facing our nation and our world.
Last year, with the support of NSNO, the Aspen Challenge came to New Orleans. Eighteen NOLA-PS high schools participated. The New Orleans teams could pick one of five challenges to address–about kindness and mental health, the environment, mobility and transportation, health and nutrition, and countering narratives of violence in the city.
The teams were given $500 each to fuel their solutions–and in a few months, they’d come together with all the other schools to report on how it all went. Three winning teams would get to travel, all expenses paid, to the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, where they would present their project to audiences from all over the world.
The Douglass team picked the challenge posed by “writervist” Marlon Peterson, “to design a community campaign and program that amplifies the existing strengths and beauty of New Orleans’ neighborhoods as a counternarrative to the historical spring and summer upticks of community violence.”
The teammates–Mia Darby, Terry Franklin, Kayla Frey, Jahzara Mason, Emily Osorio, Trenton Vincent, Chelsea Watson, and Nicolas Williams–were well aware of the violence in New Orleans. But that’s not what they wanted their city or generation to be known for.
“There are people out there, like us, who want to see positivity,” explains Frey.
The team members started meeting whenever they could–during lunch breaks and study halls, after-school moments and quick hallway meet-ups. They also spent an hour each week with their staff sponsors, teachers Stephanie Hinton and Emily Bisso. Together, they came up with Operation Hope 4 NOLA. They’d counter the narrative of violence through joyful events for youth and the community, kicking off a ripple effect of change.
“Those community outreach events promote positivity, and that positivity can be spread throughout the city,” explains Williams, a senior.
The team’s first event was a pop-up shop for teen entrepreneurs. Operation Hope 4 NOLA helped classmates with small businesses set up booths in the field behind the school. They invited the community to attend, and were happy to see classmates and families join them. Members of the school’s alumni association – NDR (Nichols, Douglass, Renaissance) – showed up, too. Students sold clothing, jewelry, food, and more.
“We had this amazing afternoon and got to meet so many incredible people,” says Osorio, a junior.
Operation Hope 4 NOLA hosted a benefit dinner, too. They invited friends, family, community members, and Douglass alumni to join them for food and live music. They painted a banner with all their hand-prints on it to hang up as a mural.
Frey described these as “opportunities to just have a safe space, where you don’t have to worry about outside factors.”
At the end of April, the day of the competition arrived–Operation Hope 4 NOLA would present their ideas alongside other schools, vying for one of three spots to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival. The team was ready; they had practiced their presentation over and over again. They each wore shirts that NDR had made for them, personalized with their names and the Operation Hope 4 NOLA logo. But they were anxious.
“Let me tell you, the stress levels were through the roof,” says Williams.
One by one, each team went to the stage and explained their project to a group of judges–New Orleanian leaders from business, nonprofit, academics and the arts. Behind them, the room was filled with students, educators, and community members. After all the groups had presented, the judges deliberated, and the teams waited for the results.
“I’ve been nervous for stuff, but that was a different level. We were just sitting there holding hands and waiting,” explains Frey.
“And then they called the first school, and I think they barely got out the beginning of the name and it was ‘Frederick–’ and then we all went ‘AHHHH!’ at the same time. Ms. Hinton and Ms. Bisso jumped up and were congratulating us. It was a surreal moment. After you work for something so hard, to finally see it pay off? It was like, we did it.”
The team celebrated their win on Instagram
When the team arrived back at Douglass on Monday, everyone was congratulating them. Staff members cheered for them in the halls.
“Some of them even watched the live stream,” says Williams, “so they were really excited about it.”
Bolstered by this energy, the team kept up with events even after the school year ended. They hosted a movie night in June and thought ahead to an event for elementary students when school started up again. In July, the team headed to Aspen for the Ideas Festival. They gave their presentation once again and handed out business cards to people from all over the world.
“We felt like such a big deal over there,” says Osorio, a junior on the team.
Between their work in New Orleans and their trip to Aspen, Operation Hope 4 NOLA has transformed its team members as well as their community.
Osorio, for instance, has known she wanted to be a lawyer since she was a child. “I want to advocate for the people in my community,” she explains.
The Aspen Challenge allowed her to try that advocacy out. “It just takes that one action or idea to get you outside of your comfort zone and get you ready for what you want to do when you grow up,” she says.
And before the Aspen Challenge, Frey says she was “usually the type of person who works behind the scenes and gets stuff done.”
She was quiet, keeping her opinions to herself or sharing them with family and friends. But her teammates had called on her to be the leader of the group. It was a fit.
“My peers were the catalyst for me starting to express myself and coming into the power of using my voice,” she explains.
Now, she’s thinking about running for the House of Representatives someday. For educators like Hinton, these moments are what make the Aspen Challenge so special.
“It’s been really transformational–it’s not been me as a teacher saying, ‘I see something in you,’ she explains. “The Aspen Challenge has lent itself to having these wonderful, empathetic kids all in the same room, looking at each other and saying, ‘I see it in you.’”
She believes the events they host are precursors for the events they’ll lead later on.
“These are very literally the leaders of our city and these are practice runs, because they are going to be in charge. I have no doubt,” she says.
The team members aren’t stopping now. Osorio imagines Operation Hope 4 NOLA expanding to schools across New Orleans and eventually the world.
“I hope we aren’t only at Douglass. I hope that we go to the East Coast or West Coast and start going internationally,” she explains. “For me, that’s the mission, and I guess you could say the dream–that we started here at this school in a little room up on the second floor, but we can go to bigger places–places where we haven’t even gone to yet.”