Cover Story

Influencers of the Year They’ve Only Just Begun

You know some of them personally, others only by name. And you may not have even heard of a number of them. But you will — very soon. The work of the 2016 Influencers of the Year isn’t nearly done, and they all know it.

You know some of them personally, others only by name. And you may not have even heard of a number of them.

But you will — very soon. The work of the 2016 Influencers of the Year isn’t nearly done, and they all know it.

We’re counting on you to embrace their initiatives, join them by helping in any way you can. The Lafayette community is already richer because this conscientious, diverse group calls this place home, but just imagine what more they can accomplish in 2017 with your support.

Photo by Robin May

Leading the 'A' Team

Among his first order of business when Dr. Don Aguillard stepped into the role of superintendent of the Lafayette Parish School System about 18 months ago was a sit-down with his principals — and a mandate. Principals, many of whom had shifted away from instructional leadership to a more managerial approach, were told they had to focus on academics. More specifically, 40 percent of their time had to be spent in the classrooms. “Show them you’re not the manager; you are, in fact, a collaborative leader,” Aguillard in a recent interview recalls telling them.

Then he dropped an even bigger directive — each principal’s goal was to grow his or her respective school’s accountability score by 2.5 points per year.

There were some big-eyed reactions no doubt, but Aguillard says most — if not all — are coming around. “I think they’re embracing the challenge,” he says.

And it shows, as the goal of becoming an A school district sooner rather than later now appears achievable.

“I think his biggest accomplishment has been his focus on truly improving School Performance Scores as well as closing the achievement gap,” says District 8 school board member Erick Knezek. “He has a plan to increase our SPS scores 2 points a year, but this year we’ve seen a remarkable 7.1-point gain [to 96.3]. He has pulled our ranking up from 27th to 19th in the state. ... To put this into perspective, the average score in Louisiana is a C or 83 SPS.”

Perhaps most impressive is the close eye Aguillard has kept on what he prefers to call “emerging schools.” Though it remains a D school, Northside High, for example, has had back-to-back double digit increases. On that front, recruiting turnaround expert Irma Trosclair from Acadia Parish (the U.S. Department of Education lauded her for turning around a low-performing school in Crowley and before that she earned Blue Ribbon status for Eunice Elementary) and giving her the staff and resources to focus on these troubled schools was a big win for the system — and a clear message that Aguillard understands his success is tied to these emerging schools’ success.

Next up on Aguillard’s agenda is the deplorable state of the system’s facilities. Using existing cash flow, LPSS was able to bond out approximately $126 million to build the first high school in Lafayette Parish in nearly five decades, and small improvements are being made elsewhere, but they won’t nearly meet the needs of a system long bursting at the seams. It’s a harsh reality that one in five classrooms in the parish is a temporary building, many of which have been in operation for decades.

“This didn’t happen on our watch and is a result of decades of a tax-averse culture that was willing to accept temporary buildings,” Knezek says. “This is a problem with a solution that will exceed $400-$500 million. We will need Dr. Aguillard’s leadership to bring the community together at all levels, including business, academic and parents to convince the taxpayers that LPSS needs a permanent funding solution to remedy the neglect of the past and build school facilities worthy of our students in the future.”

Says District 6 school board member Justin Centanni, “Dr. Aguillard’s biggest accomplishment has been his ability to take a large school system and get all of his employees working toward a common goal. Getting 4,000-plus employees on the same page and moving in the same direction is no small feat. Doing that while also gaining their buy-in is an impressive achievement.” — Leslie Turk

Photo by Robin May

Connecting the Dots

Time was that the I-49 Connector’s 2003 Record of Decision was untouchable. To consider changing essential project features documented in the ROD, the contract that legally defines the proposed urban interstate’s alignment and features, was to threaten the existential probability of the project itself, an unconscionable outcome for those charged with seeing the 25-year-old project through. Remove an interchange? Kill the project. Shift the alignment? Kill the project. Dig a tunnel? Kill the project.

We are more than a year removed from the project’s renewal, and state planners have at least entertained all of the above. Yet the project seems very much alive. Why? Because corridor constituents, the people who live and work along the 5.5-mile interstate corridor, have refused to lie down and accept the sort of highway project that destroyed countless American neighborhoods throughout the last half of the 20th century. We’re not just picking out wallpaper anymore, as project planners once suggested. The floor plan is now in play.

Of course, “corridor constituent” is perhaps too vague a catch-all term, but the truth is we can’t identify one civic group that is solely responsible for what is nothing short of a civic coup. Credit goes to civilian members of the Community Working Group, the citizen committee convened by the state for the planning process; to individual residents, neighborhood coteries and associations in McComb-Veazey, LaPlace, Freetown/Port Rico and Sterling Grove; to members of the Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team, whose work with Lafayette Consolidated Government’s own planning contractors funded by a federal TIGER grant essentially re-opened the atomic geometry of the project.

Since the Sierra Club-led “Y49?” forum held last December, the state has retreated from its hard-lined and pyrrhic defense of the Record of Decision, ultimately announcing a re-evaluation of the environmental study that supports the ROD. Last fall, it would have been unthinkable that the state’s consultants would not only OK removal of planned interchanges at Johnston Street and Second/Third streets, but come to view those modifications as preferable to the Connector’s preliminary design. In fact, at that forum Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson — then the agency’s chief spokesman, not yet the agency’s chief executive — told this newspaper that the feds would never allow such a dramatic change of plans as codified in the ROD.

The feds have not only allowed such a dramatic change of plans, they’ve allowed the whole enterprise to be essentially cast into doubt. Supplemental environmental studies will, by definition, re-open the ROD, forcing a new contract between state and federal transportation officials. That’s a seismic shift owed, at least in part, to the earth-pounding done by corridor constituents.

A cynical view would hold that so many of these changes are a mere re-arranging of deck chairs. That may prove to be true, pending a finalized design. But in the meantime, active corridor constituents have proven that the Connector’s alignment can bend to the public will. — Christiaan Mader

Supmitted photo

Talk of the Town

For two years running, the people behind TEDxVermilionStreet have needled at Lafayette’s bubble. Through local iterations of the nationally recognized speaker series, the team of six optimistic millennials has fostered its own kernel of cultural openness in town through the TEDx format — an annual forum for provocative honesty with an infectious potential for change.

True to this year’s “Challenges” theme, the TEDx team members — Erik Yando, Nikki Vidos, Greta Gerstner, Adam Foreman, Taylor Sloey and A.J. McGee — laid bare their faith in Lafayette’s capacity for tolerance, curating a lineup of 12 speakers who guided 300 attendees through an often taboo curriculum for a conservative setting. Over three hours on a Saturday afternoon this fall, we chose to gather in a public space and talk openly about the perversion of sex by pornography, about living with the stigma of HIV long after symptoms have subsided, and about the now-prescient scourge that is Islamophobia. We talked about the invisible teens among us, obscured by poverty or ignored by distracted and unengaged parents. We came face to face with how we talk about race, crime and mental illness. We saw first-hand how we neglect those who need our attention and compassion the most.

The value of this conversation is as immeasurable as it is priceless. How TEDx shapes the course of local policy or society may never be obvious, but have no doubt that the discourse sparked at TEDx will bear fruit. Some of that conversation has already hit the streets. Presenter Liam Doyle’s guided video tour of how unnavigable Lafayette is for the disabled inspired Lafayette Consolidated Government Chief Administrative Officer Lowell Duhon to get in a wheelchair and see Doyle’s commute of broken asphalt and sidewalk light posts for himself. At a time when the city has put a premium on accommodating car traffic, that Duhon would make a point to consider how our transportation network impacts the disabled is tremendous progress.
While we spin our social media wheels about being the happiest city in America, we often overlook how much work we have to do. The TEDx team holds a mirror up to our blemishes and keeps that civic ego in check. That’s a healthy dose of humility for a city on the cusp of regional prominence.

Organizing TEDxVermilionStreet is clearly a labor of love for the TEDx team, one fueled by a relentless belief in Lafayette’s potential, not necessarily as an economic hub but as a culturally enlightened one. Clearly they see a basic goodness here that’s worth talking to. — Christiaan Mader

Photo by Robin May

The Rock of Renewable Energy

Simon Mahan killed the LUS “solar tax” on All Saints Day. His weapon of choice was a blog post (one this news organization picked up and ran online). In it, Mahan branded the new Lafayette City-Parish Council-approved net metering rates as an attack on rooftop solar power. The attack resonated with Lafayette’s small but devoted solar power user base and across the technology world. By Nov. 7, LUS Director Terry Huval raised the white flag, saying he would ask the council to rescind the rate hike.

“I hesitated before publishing that post,” Mahan says. “But, dating back to the 2012 decision to reinvest in coal-fired power, I realized that trying to work quietly inside the system was not producing results. I didn’t feel I had any choice. The rates were set to go into effect [in November].”

The solar tax storm was a near perfect match of man and moment. Since 2010 Mahan, 32, has been a wind energy advocate for the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The alliance was formed in 1985 and advocates for responsible energy choices in the face of climate change.

In 2011 Mahan and his wife Danielle moved to Lafayette, where she took a job at Pope John Paul the Great Catholic School. The couple and their two children live on the northside of Lafayette and are LUS customers, including LUS Fiber subscribers.

Mahan’s work allows him to see the broad range of energy innovation that is sweeping the globe, just as the communications innovation did in earlier decades. That perspective fueled his outrage at the net metering rates approved while local attention was focused on recovering from the Great Flood of August.

“There are a number of forward-thinking communities with municipally owned utilities that are doing more innovative things with the same tools that LUS has here, namely power and bandwidth,” Mahan says. He cites Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lincoln, Neb., as examples. Mahan says Lincoln is getting 48 percent of its electric power from renewables today.

“The energy field is changing so fast that it’s difficult to stay ahead, but you have to try,” Mahan says. He adds that LUS’s staid approach to energy when contrasted to its innovative approach to bandwidth “is like using an iPhone without any apps.”

Mahan’s outrage over LUS’s commitment to coal power is an article of faith. The Missouri native points out that the Vatican was the first nation-state to go carbon neutral under Pope Benedict XVI. He co-hosted (with Father Harold Trahan) a six-part discussion of Pope Francis’ 2015 climate change encyclical, Laudato Si, on Christ Our King Radio (90.5 FM and 1230 AM).

Mahan intends to grow Lafayette’s renewable energy congregation.

“Pope Francis is calling for us to live simpler lives — lives that can be greener, less use of chemicals, but also more self-reliant, more resilient and more reliant on local resources,” Mahan says. “Burning coal from Wyoming to get our power shows that we really don’t respect God’s creation as we should.” — Mike Stagg

Photo by Robin May

Life in the Bike Lane

Phoenix was the catalyst for Acadiana native Mark DeClouet’s vision for Lafayette. He and his wife lived in the Arizona capital while she attended graduate school, quickly growing accustomed to the philosophy of public access on which the city is built: Major amenities and leisure activities are only a walk or bike ride away.

When DeClouet returned home in February 2014, he saw potential in Lafayette to mirror the progressive orientation of cities like Phoenix. A full-time nurse practitioner, he began to attend city council meetings in his free time, at one time witnessing residents railing against the planned “road diet,” or lane reduction and striping of bike lanes, on Moss Street.

Having seen the benefits of increased public access firsthand, DeClouet left the meeting feeling pretty certain about what would be the first volley in the effort to modernize Lafayette.

It wasn’t long afterwards that he attended a serendipitous meeting with Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, aiming to open a dialogue about civic involvement in government activities, with emphasis on bike lanes and community improvement projects like the recent “Better Block” events in Lafayette neighborhoods.

In this meeting, Robideaux informed DeClouet that he’d just received a petition carrying 300 signatures from residents opposed to the recently completed restriping on West Bayou Parkway. DeClouet knew that he wasn’t alone in his support for the changes.

“We knew that beyond collecting signatures, we needed to give people the chance to submit comments,” explains DeClouet. “We needed to hear opinions on how Forward Lafayette [the newly formed bike-lane advocacy group] could continue to be a voice for what the community wants.”

The eventual 2,500-signature-strong counter petition evolved into a similarly well-attended community bike ride bearing the “Forward Lafayette” stamp. The high-visibility event attracted attention from local news media (this one included) as people from several generations turned out in a show of support for public access.

DeClouet stresses that he’s not a one-man band — effusively crediting a network of friends and planners who helped make the initial event possible.

“We conducted this event with a positive tone, and we respected the voice of the opposition. But our voice is grounded in what we feel is best for the public good,” DeClouet says. “We are now in the process of pivoting Forward Lafayette toward a more formal organization, with upcoming events slated to be announced early next year through our website and Facebook page.”

At this point, there are some plans on paper, but Forward Lafayette isn’t ready to disclose its next big move. But future endeavors will follow themes of civic engagement, development of public spaces, increased transportation options and equitable public education.

Notes DeClouet, “We want to encourage a proactive relationship with government, to increase civic awareness and protect the furthering of public good from an often more vocal minority.” — Nick Mouledous

From left, Istvan Berkeley, Gregorie Mouton, Walter West, Margaret Oelkers West, Kirk Alexander, Sally O. Donlon, Lyle Mouton, Fred Prejean, Ian Beamish, Morgan Pierce (wearing cap) and Frank Crocco
Photo by Robin May

A Monumental Task

At this writing, a jury is being selected to preside over the federal capital murder trial of the South Carolina white supremacist who gunned down nine black parishioners in a Charleston church in the summer of 2015 — an act of racial outrage that unleashed a paroxysm self-examination across the Deep South. Questions about the meaning and context of Confederate iconography scattered across the South — the flapping battle flags and unflappable marble and granite “heroes” — were raised in Lafayette, too, in the months after the Charleston shootings, surfacing in public debate before the City-Parish Council in February.

It began as a grassroots coming-together of like-minded folks, black and white, questioning the message our community sends by celebrating a cultural heritage built on slavery — expressed, in Lafayette’s case, by a monument to Gen. Alfred Mouton, a slave-owning Confederate standing high atop a pedestal in Downtown Lafayette. In February they spoke before the council in support of moving the Gen. Alfred Mouton monument to a more appropriate, context-sensitive location nearby. They were countered by an all-white wall of resistance built on a false foundation: that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, that such monuments celebrate “heritage, not hate.”

But those like-minded folk are smart, patient and committed, and they understand division of labor and how to form committees, and that grassroots campaign became Move the Mindset. They meet twice a month in a conference room at City Hall. They’re planning big for 2017.

“We aim to increase awareness about the consequences of Jim Crow, the Lost Cause Movement and other racial historical events, misconceptions and attitudes that create distrust and division in our city,” says Fred Prejean, a Lafayette retiree who serves as the group’s chairman.

The ultimate aim, Prejean says, is to move the Mouton monument to a more appropriate location — not to destroy it or put it on mothballs in a warehouse. But along the way the group hopes to change hearts and minds about the lingering effects of Jim Crow in Lafayette. That includes a documentary series featuring black residents old enough to remember “colored” water fountains and being segregated to the balcony in movie theaters. _— Walter Pierce_Save