Alongside Cooper Road in Shreveport, Louisiana, eight billboards were set up, each featuring a photo of an African-American male. One of them is Darryl Ware grad, a student who grew up in the neighborhood and currently attends the Master of Public Health program at Cornell.
The billboards, funded by Toni Thibeaux, the public health program coordinator at the College of Veterinary Medicine, aimed to celebrate black males who had come from underserved communities but had found success through hard work and persistence.
Thibeaux said the billboards gave her a chance to share positive messages with students, parents and city leaders from afar.
“I want them to know that regardless of their challenges, their limitations, their single-family home settings, their socioeconomic statuses, that doesn’t define who they are,” Thibeaux told The Sun.
“It’s important for me to present to them a variety of African-American males defining their own success,” she said. “I want individuals who stop by to look at the billboards to find themselves in at least one of those eight individuals.”
Thibeaux, who is writing the dissertation for her doctoral degree at Northcentral University, said that through research she found that black males are the most disadvantaged and underrepresented group when it comes to higher education. Thibeaux wants to send a message to black males that higher education is attainable.
Growing up in an underserved neighborhood with many challenges, insecurities and barriers, Thibeaux said she has come to treasure any opportunities for learning and growth. Now at Cornell, she said she continues to learn from a “wonderful group of faculty members” and leaders who motivate her to climb and achieve.
Thibeaux has also strived to be a role model for her two daughters.
“They begin to modify their life goals based on what I am doing,” she said. “Cornell gave me the opportunity to move outside of being a parent for them to becoming their mentors.”
According to Thibeaux, the project has been very well-received. Since the billboards went up, her Facebook account has been filled with messages and notifications and parents have taken their children to see the billboards. The elderly parents of some of the males who were featured also drove from across the country to view the boards, some from as far as Dallas, according to Thibeaux.
She said she plans to host the project year-round and will select various themes for the billboards. From July to September, there will be a campaign focused on community pride and mentorship. From October to December, the Thibeaux plans to center the theme around holiday giving. Next year during Black History Month, black females will be featured, said Thibeaux.
Prior to this project, she said the promotional information on billboards featured bail bondsman and attorneys, both fixtures in the criminal justice system. The messages they give to people in the poverty-stricken neighborhood are that they are here for them if those people ever get in trouble, Thibeaux said.
“There is a group of people who wake up every day and as they drive through the neighborhood, and that’s what they see, and sometimes people set goals based on the environment where they live,” she said.
“I get kind of teary eye about this, but it’s really sad,” Thibeaux continued. “ I want to make sure some of the negative publicity that is in that area is removed.”