She had just taken off her hazmat suit. After several days spent gutting Broadmoor’s Andrew H. Wilson School with neighbors and student volunteers, LaToya faced a group of reporters.
It was early 2007, more than a year and half following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, and LaToya, president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, implored the state to present a plan to fix New Orleans’ damaged schools.
Broadmoor had written its own neighborhood recovery plan, but the plan hinged upon state support. LaToya argued that only through collaboration between community groups and government could New Orleans move forward. LaToya was speaking truth to power, but doing it in a way that united people. Behind her at the press conference stood state representative Cheryl Gray, nodding her head in agreement. Six months later, the state announced a “Quick Start” plan, which would rebuild five schools, one in each Council district. Andrew H. Wilson School was part of that number.
A childhood steeped in service
Growing up in Los Angeles, LaToya absorbed her single mom’s work ethic and passion for service, watching as she went from welfare to a career as a social worker, devoted to her clients. Through her maternal grandmother, LaToya learned the importance of community involvement and grassroots organizing. By 8th grade she was secretary of her neighborhood chamber of commerce.
Meanwhile, she spent her summers in Birmingham, AL with her paternal grandparents. They instilled her with a sense of self—“Stand up tall because you matter,” they told her—and a love for education. College would be a priority and her grandfather provided financial assistance to her.
My Soul Found its Home in New Orleans
LaToya’s grandfather wanted her to attend college in Alabama, but she convinced him to let her go to Xavier University, based on a single visit to New Orleans years before. She spent just one afternoon here, but she had never seen a more beautiful city and had never met warmer people. She arrived at Xavier in 1990, and knew she would never leave.
“My soul found its home in New Orleans,” she says.
Even with her grandparents’ help, LaToya needed a part-time job. She found one at a hotel, working in the laundry room and at the front desk. She got to know hospitality workers, the backbone of the New Orleans tourism economy. The experience would underpin her push for a smoking ban as City Councilwoman.
But it was her daily bus ride to Xavier that opened her eyes to the two truths of New Orleans.
Living in an apartment at Third Street and St. Charles Avenue in Central City, LaToya would take the streetcar every day to transfer to a bus that took her down Louisiana Avenue to Washington Avenue to Xavier. She noted the stark change in the mannerisms and mentality between the passengers on the streetcar and the bus, and the contrast in environment from the mansions and stores of St. Charles to the devastating poverty of the Magnolia housing project.
The experience has stuck with her, giving her a resolve that she carries to this day.
“That’s what drew me in and kept me in the City of New Orleans,” LaToya says. “Those disparities that made me care about people, wanting to make life better for everyone in every neighborhood of this city.”
LaToya became an education advocate in a local nonprofit to improve public education following graduation. She married Jason Cantrell in 1999 and the young couple moved into a house on Louisiana Avenue Parkway.
Almost immediately, she started to work with those in her Broadmoor neighborhood to launch a beautification program and other efforts. By the time Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures occurred in August 2005, she had become the president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association.
The federal flood devastated Broadmoor and a plan was floated to turn the historic, working class neighborhood into a drainage park. However, that plan ironically served as Broadmoor’s rallying cry to rebuild under the banner “Broadmoor Lives
LaToya employed her organizing skills, tireless work ethic and compassion to unite Broadmoor, which is a microcosm of the New Orleans’ racial demographics and stark economic disparities. As she later related to a reporter, “our wealthier residents realized they needed the poorer residents to recover and the poor realized they needed the wealthier residents too.”
Today, Broadmoor stands as a national and international model for disaster recovery.
Leadership in District B
Elected to the City Council in 2012, LaToya has developed a reputation as being “for the people.” She has improved people’s lives and collaborated to advance the New Orleans economy.
Among her most important achievements, she spearheaded the “Smoke-Free” ordinance, which protects those in the service industry from secondhand smoke.
As chair of the Council’s Community Development Committee, she discovered a school improvement account funded by Harrah’s, which under City Council’s control had accumulated $10 million dollars unspent by the school board. She developed goals and a process with the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District and made the monies available on annual basis.
As part of her committee work, LaToya exposed the problems occurring in the state’s Road Home program recovery fund. This work with the Office of Community Development ultimately secured $1 million to pay for local case managers to assist homeowners in fairly resolving their cases.
She sponsored the “Welcoming Cities” resolution that aids our historically marginalized residents.
She has also worked with housing advocates and developers to address the city’s affordable housing crisis; and partnered with the business and entrepreneurial communities on projects that produce jobs and help businesses flourish.
A Vision for the Future of New Orleans
New Orleans is an extraordinary place, a city that has made a rich and unique contribution to American culture and history. When New Orleanians come together – neighbors helping neighbors – there is no challenge we cannot overcome.
But New Orleans is also a city of two truths. The first truth is that of a rapidly growing city where the average income is rising and new businesses are flourishing. New construction is filling the CBD and many of our public schools, recreation centers and libraries have been beautifully rebuilt. This is a truth LaToya has nurtured and helped advance in Broadmoor and across New Orleans as a City Councilwoman.
But there’s another truth. It’s the one LaToya encountered on her college bus rides from Uptown to Xavier. This truth is about crime and illegal guns, pockets of blight, flooded streets that are covered in potholes. It’s a place where many opportunities are out of reach for too many people who do not earn enough to support their families despite all their hard work.
The path forward for New Orleans and her goal as Mayor will be, as she puts it, “to build on our strengths to make the first truth a reality for all New Orleanians.”