Every year around this time, Randy Novak accompanies a group of Seattle high-school kids to New Orleans and watches them transform.
It happens while they do volunteer work in areas still scarred by the destruction from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It happens while they listen to civil-rights leaders talk about their struggles in the continuing fight for racial equality. And it hits them hard when they walk through the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, and see the rooms where enslaved people were housed, put to work and abused.
“They come home on fire,” said Novak, a former marketing executive for the Seattle Supersonics who helped start the King Holiday Hoopfest and King Classic , and founded the Shirts Across America (SAA) nonprofit in 2006.
SAA started with students from St. Joseph’s School raising donations to be sent to New Orleans, and has grown and expanded to include students from around Seattle traveling to Louisiana to explore the history of racism and lend a hand to nonprofits that are building and repairing homes and feeding people in that area. In 14 years, more than 4,000 people have made the trip.
“It opened my eyes to what people struggle with and how they deal with it,” said Brandon O’Brien, 17, a junior at Roosevelt High School who has twice traveled to Louisiana with SAA and holds out hope to return this summer. “It’s not just interesting. It hurts. It opens one’s eyes to what has happened in the past and how much room there is to grow. I feel awakened.”
The students have met with civil-rights activists like Seattle’s Patrinell Wright, the founder of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, which brought its members to New Orleans several times to work, feed and sing for people impacted by Hurricane Katrina; and Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor who has spoken to groups around the world about the horrific acts — and thinking — of that time.
They have also met with civil-rights icon and educator Bob Zellner, the subject of the 2020 movie, “Son of the South,” based on his book, “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.” The book and film (produced by Spike Lee and directed by Barry Alexander Brown) chronicle his life as the grandson and son of two members of the Ku Klux Klan, the risks he took to fight racism and his connections to the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
But the pandemic has made the spring pilgrimage impossible, so SAA has organized the “Relay to New Orleans” — a virtual walk and fundraiser to be held March 27.
SAA is hoping that 2,500 people will sign up to walk one mile and raise sponsorship money that would allow students from other parts of the state and the country to participate in its programs, such as conversations with Zellner, who joined Lewis and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1961. He was arrested 17 times over the next five years, fighting for voting rights and equal rights for the Black community.
Zellner plans to walk one mile in Fairhope, Alabama, as part of the Relay to New Orleans. So will Lukas Till, the actor who plays Zellner in the film, as will Firestone, now 97 and living in Los Angeles.
The impact of their travels and talks has been strong for O’Brien, who has called upon his firsthand experience in New Orleans, and at the Whitney Plantation, in recent, amplified conversations he has had about institutional racism.
“This year has been like no other,” O’Brien said of the reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. “I’ve lost friends, I’ve gained friends, I’ve talked to pastors from my old youth group.
“But having these conversations makes you able to help those situations as much as you can. And to help others struggling with the ideas that should be common knowledge.”
As difficult as the last year has been, Novak believes it has validated the work that Shirts Across America has done. The Relay to New Orleans will allow people to support that work.
“This is a moment in time in which we can make change,” he said. “We are teaching our high-school leaders that we are not about cancel culture, or pounding on people.
“We’re teaching them to listen to where people are coming from, to give them that grace,” he said. “That’s where our society is missing things.
“Our work is about acknowledging our past. We have to, in order to move forward.”