Southerners of the Year 2017
The One, Inc.
North Little Rock, AR
A self-described “crazy guerrilla homeless advocate,” Aaron Reddin almost chose a stable job in construction management after he left the Marines, but instead he returned home with an urge to help others battling the same substance-abuse issues he once had. After watching people struggle to come up with even the nominal fees required for an extended stay in a shelter, where the atmosphere is often chaotic, Reddin decided to take resources directly to them via a 1992 Chevy Astro. It became known as The Van, and soon after, donations of more vans and supplies flooded in, enough that Reddin started a nonprofit, The One, Inc. Now Reddin has vans in other cities; runs The Field, an urban farm to provide food to the homeless (TV host P. Allen Smith donated many of the materials); and has created Kathryn’s House, a home for vulnerable women. Now, Reddin’s hope is to expand to every state.
Gangstas to Growers
Although Abiodun Henderson’s program puts newly released prisoners to work pulling weeds and harvesting produce, her goal isn’t to create a new generation of farmers. Instead, she’s trying to help reduce the city’s recidivism rate by giving participants an opportunity to grow new lives and find job opportunities. In Gangstas to Growers’ six-month training program, they spend half their day working with the South West Atlanta Growers Cooperative and the other half taking classes and finding employment—even practicing yoga. Gangstas to Growers’ new hot sauce, Sweet Sol, available at the Fresh MARTA Market and soon to be sold online, gives Atlanta residents a taste of the program’s impact while providing a living wage and purpose for trainees who make and sell it.
As the institutional development director for Appalshop, Kentucky native Ada Smith carries on the legacy of an arts-and-education cooperative founded in 1969 to preserve and share the folkways and current concerns of Appalachia. Appalshop spearheads everything from documentaries on rocking chair makers to innovative initiatives like Mining the Meaning, which received a $450,000 grant to infuse a former coal mining town with arts- and technology-driven programs and businesses.
Adrianna Christmas and Jeff Kollath
Once home to artists like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, Stax Records in Memphis was a musical refuge for African-American artists recording during the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1980s, the studio was demolished after it fell into bankruptcy, leaving a hole in what was known as the Soulsville neighborhood, but the record label would later be revived and is now celebrating its 60th anniversary. The Soulsville complex is now home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music wjere executive director Jeff Kollath shares the label’s legacy and impact on American culture. It is attached to the Stax Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School, a music-focused curriculum for grades 6 through 12. The academy’s executive director, Adrianna Christmas, led a group of students who performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—a full circle moment for students realizing the dreams of Stax artists in the long-awaited museum.
Alison Fensterstock, Randy Fertel, and David Freedman
A Closer Walk
New Orleans, LA
From the birthplace of jazz in Congo Square to Fats Domino’s house in the Ninth Ward, perhaps no city in America offers tourists as many historic musical landmarks as New Orleans. In fact, the abundance can be overwhelming, especially for a first-time visitor. In connection with New Orleans radio station WWOZ, A Closer Walk provides an easy-to-use online guide and app cataloging the stories behind important sites and aggregating them into themed tours around neighborhoods like the French Quarter or genres like Brass Bands. A Closer Walk also helps users find lost landmarks such as The Clothes Spin, a coin laundry that was once the studio where Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti.” Fueled by music aficionado Randy Fertel (distantly related to the man who sold Louis Armstrong his first cornet), critic Alison Fensterstock, and former WWOZ general manager David Freedman, the collaborative project plans to grow with more sites, tours, and archival videos.
New Orleans, LA
“I’ve got peaches and bananas. I’ve got eatin’ pears and apples. I’ve got watermelon.” It’s a familiar call to New Orleans residents who buy produce from Arthur Robinson. Known as Mr. Okra, he drives his hand-painted Ford F-150 through the city’s neighborhoods, carrying boxes full of fruits and vegetables for sale in his custom, shelved truck bed. He announces the day’s offerings over a PA system rigged on his roof. Mr. Okra has been bringing fresh produce to the city since he was 15 years old, originally going out with his father, who traveled by horse and buggy. Now 75, Mr. Okra has experienced health issues over the past year, but his loyal customers rallied to pay his bills and repair his truck. A GoFundMe page raised over $12,000 in two months to keep this New Orleans personality rolling.
When 11-year-old Bishop Curry saw a local news report about a 6-month-old girl who died after she was accidentally left in a hot car, he channeled his sadness to create a solution. Curry invented Oasis, a device that clips to a car seat or seat belt and alerts a parent and the authorities if a child is still in the car, while blowing cold air to help prevent overheating. With the help of his father, Curry raised over $48,000 on a GoFundMe page and has already obtained a provisional patent. He hopes the device will be available in 2018.
Bivian “Sonny” Lee III
Son of a Saint
New Orleans, LA
When Bivian “Sonny” Lee III was just 3-years-old, his father, Bivian Lee, Jr., (a New Orleans Saints cornerback) passed away after suffering a heart attack. Growing up, Sonny heard about his father's immense generosity, which matched his 6’3” frame. But without a paternal presence in his life, Sonny felt lost and frustrated, taking out his anger in fights at school. Now he uses his own experience to fill that void for 80 other boys who lack father figures. His organization, Son of a Saint, selects 10 boys ages 10 to 13 each year for mentorship, counseling, and extracurricular opportunities, which they’ll receive through high school. Activities include everything from football games and concerts to instruction on managing money and applying for part-time jobs. Son of a Saint’s first two graduates both went to college on scholarships this year.
Houston Food Bank
He didn’t know it, but Brian Greene was prepared for Hurricane Harvey before it was on track to hit Houston. The president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank had already expanded the nonprofit’s reach and manpower dramatically since he took the helm in 2005, moving it to a 308,000-square-foot facility added in 2011 and building a network of 600 hunger relief programs across Southeast Texas. When the waters rose, even in his own living room, he was ready to direct food and supplies to stranded Houstonians. Within the first month following Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, the Houston Food Bank distributed 14 million pounds of aid while coordinating a legion of over 16,000 volunteers who fueled the city’s initial recovery effort.
IX Art Park
Charlottesville filmmaker Brian Wimer cocreated IX Art Park in 2014 as a place for residents from different backgrounds to interact and engage in discussion. The mural-covered, statue-dotted, multicolored space became just that the day of the Charlottesville marches this past summer, with people gathering at a potluck hosted by the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights. But by the end of the day, the city witnessed a different scene downtown. In the aftermath, the park and the neighboring Studio IX have become a nexus where residents can discuss the future of Charlottesville, spur action against hatred, and help console one another.
Foundation for Shackleford Horses
Carteret County, NC
Visitors to the barrier islands of North Carolina’s Cape Lookout National Seashore have one woman to thank when they catch a sighting of the island’s shaggy wild horses drinking from a freshwater pool: Carolyn Mason. When she learned that the National Park Service (NPS) was rounding up and removing Shackleford Horses, considered feral, and was concerned that population levels would not be sustainable on the island, she formed a foundation to work with the NPS to keep the horses’ numbers stable. Their efforts eventually led to legislation that protects the horses today. With thriving numbers and a genetically diverse population, the Shackleford herds are some of the healthiest wild horses in the world.
Gallery of Salons Rescue Team
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey this past summer, thousands of Houstonians found themselves at makeshift shelters with only the clothes they were wearing and the possessions they could carry. Everyday things like diapers and cell phone signals, otherwise taken for granted, became urgent necessities. Houston hairdresser Christal Mercier wanted to restore one more facet of normalcy for the victims. With her Gallery of Salons Rescue Team, Mercier traveled from shelter to shelter styling hair, often only with cans of dry shampoo and conditioning spray where sinks weren’t available. Together they smoothed and combed the thinning, gray bob of a 94-year-old and rebraided the cornrows of a bewildered mother. “You might have gone through the storm, but you don’t have to look like you went through the storm,” Mercier told a news reporter at the shelter.
Big Cypress Gallery
As the “Ansel Adams of the Everglades,” Clyde Butcher has spent decades lugging a large-format camera into the Spanish moss-draped swamps. Butcher suffered a stroke in May 2017, but it hasn’t stopped his work. With the help of a walker, a smaller camera, and his wife, he continues to capture the radiating leaves of palms and water-lapped cypress roots in vivid detail. From his gallery space in Big Cypress National Preserve, he also takes tourists, locals, and school groups out into the landscape that has long served as his muse, hoping they find similar inspiration.
Courtenay Rogers, Courtney Seiter, and Knight Stivender
Girls to the Moon
From computer programming to career planning, with yoga sessions and poetry discussions in between, the third annual Girls to the Moon “Campference” in Nashville continued the organization’s mission: “Launching Confident Girls.” The Campference connected female leaders including a NASA physicist, tech start-up founders, software developers, and a sports team owner with students ages 10 to 14, introducing these girls to real-life role models on professional paths not typically followed by women. Founded by Knight Stivender, Courtenay Rogers, and Courtney Seiter, who all work in the male-dominated technology industry, Girls to the Moon not only provides the encouraging community young women need to pursue careers in areas like science and technology but also gives them newsletters, in-school events, and other support to promote body acceptance and confidence. In March 2017, they announced a new membership initiative that will take Girls to the Moon programming beyond Nashville and into rural areas of Tennessee.
David Shields and Brian Ward
Like blues enthusiasts searching for lost recordings or antiques collectors hunting for rare period pieces, David Shields and Brian Ward find and revive the South’s oldest heirloom crops, even those considered extinct. That’s what many thought of the Bradford watermelon, once so prized for its tender rind and deeply sweet flesh that armed farmers stood guard over their fields. After receiving an e-mail from a man who believed his family still had a Bradford vine growing, Shields was able to cultivate enough melons to make it viable again. Ward and Shields are also responsible for bringing back the Carolina African runner peanut from 40 seeds kept in storage. Now it’s a commercially available crop used by chefs across the country.
Mayor Edward Terry
Known as the “Ellis Island of the South,” Clarkston, Georgia, is the most ethnically diverse square mile in America and has become home to 40,000 new Southerners over the past 25 years. They’ve come here from countries as far away as Vietnam and Ethiopia. Elected mayor of Clarkston at just 31 years old in 2013, Edward Terry (known to residents as “Mayor Ted”) has helped the immigrant population become the main driver of the city’s economy, with plans to turn Clarkston’s Market Street into an international shopping and dining district. Terry is also a regular at the Refuge Coffee Truck, which has become a bright red, rolling mascot for the city’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Emmylou Harris and Lisa Stetar
Emmylou Harris’ living room is where many of her songs begin, but it’s also where the Grammy winner and her friend, Lisa Stetar, created an innovative program for Music City. Looking for a way to combine their passions for helping rescue animals and at-risk youth, Harris and Stetar started Crossroads Campus in Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood. Crossroads shelters young people, many who are homeless or have aged out of the foster system, and employs them to take care of rescue animals on site. They also run a retail pet shop and receive job training. Stetar believes these young people and the animals they care for offer each other emotional support to heal from their difficult pasts.
Gigi Amateau and Meg Medina
Girls of Summer
The reading list for Girls of Summer includes a diverse range of authors and perspectives— from a biography of African-American ballerina Misty Copeland to a picture book about an aspiring engineer named Rosie Revere. But all of these books have one thing in common: strong and relatable girls and women. Young adult authors Meg Medina, a Cuban-American, and Gigi Amateau, born in Mississippi, want their summer reading program to keep girls inspired and connected when school isn’t in session. Each year they pick 18 to 20 titles, arranged by reading level, to do just that. They also organize author events so students can meet and talk with the writers behind the stories.
Givonna Joseph and Aria Mason
New Orleans, LA
The first opera in New Orleans was performed in 1796, and since then opera houses were scattered about the French Quarter. Even so, New Orleans’ history with this musical genre has been all but forgotten. Inside the intimate Marigny Opera House, Givonna Joseph is bringing opera to a new audience and also bringing the works by people of color, nearly erased from history, back into the spotlight. Along with her daughter, cofounder and singer Aria Mason, Joseph has produced operas like La Flamenca by the Creole composer Lucien-Léon Guillaume Lambert, which hasn’t been performed since 1903. Joseph wants students not only to learn about the contributions of Creole and African-American artists behind these works but also to see more representation of themselves onstage—something she wishes she could have seen as a young opera singer.
J.T. & Friends
Playing basketball at a Boys & Girls Club in Jackson helped launch professional player Jaborri Thomas’ career, but it also gave him a place to feel safe and stay out of trouble when his family couldn’t afford to send him to summer camps. After earning a business degree and playing for teams in Hawaii, Germany, and Alabama, Thomas wanted to give disadvantaged kids in his hometown that same outlet but with an extra layer of education. His nonprofit J.T. & Friends teaches students ages 5 to 13 the fundamentals of basketball and provides resources to improve their schoolwork. With the city’s support, he has been able to grow the camp from a weekend to full week, still free of charge. Next year, Thomas hopes to make the camp a summerlong retreat
Delta Bike Project
When he’s not leading a Nature Conservancy team restoring ecosystems in the Gulf (his day job), Jeff DeQuattro works to make Mobile residents mobile by increasing bicycle access and infrastructure, especially for the city’s underserved residents who need a more affordable option for their work commutes. The Delta Bike Project’s Time Is Money program also lets volunteers work in its repair shop or perform community service in exchange for their own wheels. It’s become so popular that a line often forms at the door before the shop even opens.
Forecastle Festival and Foundation
Fifteen years ago, JK McKnight put together a small neighborhood party with a handful of musicians. This summer, his Forecastle Festival drew over 60,000 fans from across the country to Louisville’s Waterfront Park. They came to see acts like Sturgill Simpson and Spoon (not to mention a tent devoted to the region’s bourbon makers). The festival contributed $20 million to the city’s local economy, but McKnight, a passionate environmentalist, also wanted the event to promote sustainability, with solar- and wind-powered stage lights and T-shirts made from recycled plastic bottles. Now, with an independent foundation attached to the festival, McKnight’s mission is to protect some of the most ecologically diverse landscapes—from the Green River watershed in Kentucky, to Marrecas, Brazil—for future generations, including his baby daughter, Maple.
Chef Joron “Joe” Smith
New Orleans, LA
The corner where New Orleans’ Café Reconcile stands used to be known for something else. Before it became home to a full-service restaurant employing and training at-risk youth, it was a hot spot for drug dealers. Joron Smith knew all about it as he struggled for years with addictions of his own. Placed at Café Reconcile after he completed a rehabilitation program, he initially wasn’t enthused—hard to believe when you see him today. Now Smith, known affectionately as “Chef Joe,” is the Cafe’s sous chef and biggest cheerleader. Over the past 15 years, Smith has mentored hundreds of young people and helped them find jobs at some of the city’s top restaurants. To make himself an even better example for them, the father of four recently graduated from Delgado Community College’s Culinary Arts Program with an associate’s degree in culinary management—and he did it while working full-time.
Quapaw Canoe Company
Like a modern-day Mark Twain, with the bushy gray hair to match, John Ruskey is an environmental evangelist for the wonders of the Mississippi River. After he moved to Clarksdale, initially to study the blues, he started Quapaw Canoe Company, which shows visitors, school groups, city slickers, Girl Scouts, and nature enthusiasts alike the river’s backwaters, bayous, oxbows, and floodplains between the levees, along with the fragile ecosystems that rely on it. Besides teaching students how to build their own canoes, Ruskey has created rivergator.org, the definitive online guide to paddling the river’s lower half from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico, giving seasoned paddlers and newcomers the tools to continue exploring the mighty Mississippi.
John T. Edge
Southern Foodways Alliance
The more important Southern food has become to the national food conversation, the more important it has become to have someone like John T. Edge as a spokesperson. Since cofounding the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi in 1999—long before shrimp and grits or pimiento cheese appeared on upscale menus in New York City and San Francisco—Edge has been one of the region’s most conscientious cheerleaders, quick to celebrate Southern food’s now-mainstream popularity but even quicker to share the stories behind it, oftentimes dismantling stereotypes in the process. His new book, The Potlikker Papers, offers the most honest, brutal, beautiful, and insightful discussion to date on the country’s most complicated cuisine—from the food that fueled the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Mexican, Vietnamese, and other international dishes that feed the New South.
Dr. Jonathan Palant
Dallas Street Choir
Not many people can say they debuted at Carnegie Hall, but for members of The Dallas Street Choir, their recent performance at the hallowed concert venue was particularly special because the singers were all homeless. Founded in 2014 by University of Texas at Dallas vocal instructor Dr. Jonathan Palant as an innovative outlet for city's homeless population under the motto "Homeless, but not voiceless." The choir has also performed at the Washington National Cathedral and several Dallas venues, such as the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, the Moody Performance Hall, and the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
Kellie Alcorn-Karavias, Terrence Gallivan, and Seth Siegel-Gardner
The Cultivated Classroom
Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan are known to Houstonians as the chefs behind “two restaurants under one roof,” The Pass and Provisions, but for students at the Gregory-Lincoln Education Center these chefs have transformed into teachers. The school’s first culinary arts teacher, Kellie Alcorn-Karavias, recruited the duo to join her Cultivated Classroom program, which offers cooking and nutrition education to the students, 86% of whom are considered economically disadvantaged and almost all food insecure. Once a month, 7th-grade students visit Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan at their restaurant to create dishes from what they’ve grown in their school garden. Together, chefs and students prepare and enjoy a lunch that breaks down barriers and helps these young people feel capable in the kitchen at home.
Since founding his radio show (Mountain Stage) over 30 years ago, Larry Groce has made Charleston, West Virginia, a must-stop destination for artists on tour like Jason Isbell, Wilco, Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, and other musicians from as far away as Mali and Australia. Recorded in front of a live audience and broadcast to over 150 public radio stations, Mountain Stage combines performances with Groce’s insightful interviews, giving listeners the chance to hear the stories behind their favorite songs while also introducing them to up-and-coming artists.
Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan
While the idea of Southern music might cue banjos and slide guitars in the minds of many, the South has been home to one of the country’s more important powerhouses of independent music for nearly 30 years. Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance founded Merge Records as a label for their own band, Superchunk, and their friends’ bands too. With three major college radio stations and a slew of venues nearby, the label grew to become home to popular groups like Arcade Fire and Spoon. When they bought their current building in 2001, there wasn’t even a coffee shop in downtown Durham. Now the city is booming, with Merge as one of its early catalysts. Today McCaughan and Ballance sustain their community stewardship by regularly organizing company volunteer events and matching their employees’ charitable contributions.
A fourth-generation beekeeper, Leigh-Kathryn Bonner is revolutionizing the family “beesness” as she says. While a student at North Carolina State University, her landlord wouldn’t allow beehives at her apartment building so Bonner put two of them on the roof of Durham’s American Underground, a North Carolina-based business incubator. Bee Downtown was born. Soon, other companies started asking her to install hives at their buildings, and now Bee Downtown is operating as a for-profit. Bonner has helped start colonies at locations like Burt’s Bees, the Research Triangle Park Headquarters, and Bull Durham Beer Company. Clients purchase the hives and pay for annual maintenance; in exchange, they keep the honey, and the urban bee population thrives.
Osbourn Park High School
Lillian Orlich has been part of Manassas’ Osbourn Park High School for so long that she sees the grandchildren of her original students in the hallway. Some of her former students even teach alongside her. Now, after 64 years of counseling and teaching here, “Miss O” is reluctantly retiring. For the 89-year-old, who has outlived her relatives and has no children of her own, the faculty and students of Osbourn Park became her family as she not only guided them through academic and career challenges but also helped them navigate personal dilemmas. Although Orlich won’t be in her office every day, she plans on visiting the school as much as her health allows and issuing The Money Tree, her weekly newsletter, which helps students find scholarships.