Dr. Lisa Green Derry Gives Us Confidence in New Orleans
Dr. Lisa Green Derry is a product of the New Orleans education system. She made this known many times at the education advocacy meetings where I first met her. Her passion and loyalty for our schools caught my attention. I recognized a deep sense of connection between her and her high school, McDonogh 35, but even more, her connection to New Orleans. We sat down to talk in a coffee shop, and the sounds of Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians played in the background, a fitting soundtrack to her narrative. Similar to the music, Dr. Lisa in many ways is New Orleans. Her success in life is the story of the city itself. In her life, one can understand the strength of New Orleans is in its culture and connections. In particular, her story teaches us how at one time the New Orleans education system served as a cultural and social hub.
Dr. Lisa grew up a block from the St. Bernard projects in what is now called Columbia Park, where she walked to Phillips Elementary School and excelled academically. Her parents recognized the importance of education. Though they had faced racial and economic barriers, her father had attended Southern University in Baton Rouge for a couple of years and her mother had graduated from high school in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Her mother became the first PTA President at Dr. Lisa’s elementary school and she also sold Avon products in the neighborhood,.
“I was the queen of my elementary school,” Dr. Lisa, told me with a proud smile. “I was also flippant though. It didn’t matter that my teachers knew my parents. If I had stuff on my mind I was going to tell them.”
Teachers were a part of the neighborhood. “They knew the Green children and Lil’ Lisa, the baby. I can remember all of my teacher’s names and I knew something about them outside of their teaching.”
For the next several minutes, Dr. Lisa began to paint a picture of her neighborhood community for me, with all the school administration and teachers that had been a part of it. She told me about the music teacher who was a twin and played music at night at a hotel. Her junior high counselor, Mrs. Brown knew and loved all of the neighborhood kids. Dr. Lisa was friends with the daughter of her 3rd grade teacher, so she used to go to her house, three blocks from St. Bernard, and a couple of blocks from the projects. The teacher later became a principal. Her principal in junior high was a colonel in the army and was also connected to a social club where her parents would attend parties. Her 9th grade Algebra teacher lived “across the lot” from her on St. Bernard Ave.
She remembers that even when she was younger, her first connection to McDonogh 35 was through the conversation and memories her father shared from his time as a student at the high school. He and his sister had graduated from the high school in 1937 and 1938. McDonogh 35 was one of the only public college-preparatory high schools for African American students in the city.
“He spoke of it as a very special time,” she told me.
Yet, when Dr. Lisa was ready to attend high school, she was initially thinking about Rabouin High School. Rabouin offered a nursing program and she was interested in the medical field. But her junior high counselor, Mrs. Brown, urged her to go to McDonogh 35, and urged her mother to send her there. Dr. Lisa remembers this influenced her decision, though her parents never pressured her to attend McDonogh 35.
Knowing this history, it makes sense that Dr. Lisa ended up working in education, but she didn’t exactly expect it. After high school, Dr. Lisa’s career trajectory took her first into the math and science fields. She had been working as a medical technologist at Medical Center of Louisiana (formerly, Charity Hospital of New Orleans and Touro) when she decided to answer a call for more teachers in these fields. At the time, she was already the mother of three children. She continued as a medical technologist while completing a master’s degree from Xavier. She then began working as a teacher in alternative education in 1988.
Reflecting on her time teaching, Dr. Lisa said, “In my time teaching, I was one of a few teachers who was certified who had also developed instructional practices in social justice… a lot of it was intuitive.”
After leaving the classroom, she continued in the education field, moving into specialist positions, including professional development, before ending up in the education non-profit sector. Her connection to education continued to be a theme in her narrative. Even while she was living in Texas for a number of years, she would attend McDonogh 35 alumni meetings while she was back in town. She now continues to be an active alumnus. Her son, the middle child, also graduated with honors from McDonogh 35.
As she told her story, I began to understand the strength of the connections that had weaved through the education system and supported her and the other children in her neighborhood. Her experience was truly an example of how important schools are to a community and vice versa. Her school and its staff were an integral part of the social and cultural networks that supported Dr. Lisa and gave her the self-assurance to succeed. In talking to her and at education meetings, it’s clear she attributes a large part of her success to these connections and supports — and not just her own, but also the success of other friends from her neighborhood. For example, two of her friends from McDonogh 35, Linda and Cherilyn, who were also from the neighborhood, became medical doctors.
Dr. Lisa also fears that children today do not have that sense of community and connection to their schools. In fact, when asked about the difference between the school system she knew, and today’s system, she emphasized one word: confidence.
“One of the things we received when we left out of school…—we were confident. If you told us we didn’t know something, we were going to argue, we were going to say ‘But I know this.’ Our babies don’t get that now.”
I nodded. I understood. It’s not just the connections themselves. It is the sense of pride and rootedness that those connections foster—in a society that makes it difficult to feel proud and rooted. Which is why when Dr. Lisa shows up to an education meeting, she is going to show up with her shoulders back and her head up. She is going to get the microphone and tell us again that she is the product of the New Orleans education system. She is going to remind us, in her demeanor, speech, and advocacy, what New Orleans is really made of.
Lisa Green-Derry is the founder of New Orleans Born Raised and Returned (NOLA BRAR – pronounced “bruh”), an initiative and merchandise line designed to celebrate and support those committed to this city and the education of its children.