Mary Mikell is a lifelong member of University Presbyterian Church. Growing up during the Civil Rights era, she saw her home church divided over the issue of integration. While many members left the church, most remained. Led by then-pastor Arch Tolbert, the congregation worked for issues of social justice. Grateful for her upbringing in an institution that stood for justice no matter the consequences, Ms. Mikell would go on to devote much of her adult life to equity work. Her volunteer involvements and career in social work have seen her serve in various capacities—as a listening ear to the suicidal, an emotional support to Leprosy patients, and a counselor to students in under-resourced public schools. Together Baton Rouge has helped Ms. Mikell become a more effective agent of change by working among a diverse community of fellow civic leaders. In addition to supervising an LSU social work intern for the past two academic years, she serves on the Criminal Justice Action Team and remains engaged in ongoing legislative work.
I remember my mom would always say, "Use your best judgment." And I thought, "Ooh, that's a hell of a thing to strap on me. How do I rebel against that?" [..] She wouldn't tell you; it was up to you to decide. Which was great practice.
I grew up in University Presbyterian Church (UPC). My parents met in grad school at LSU but they're not from here. My parents came, met, and then my dad worked at LSU. So, growing up in the fifties, my family was odd. Everybody else had cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents for the holidays and we didn't. We basically just had this church which became our local family. UPC was very formative in my growing up. Even though it was the '50s and the '60s, I grew up very socially aware and very socially conscious and because of that was a little bit odd with my friends. They were used to kind of the Southern ways. Southern parents, Southern attitudes, Southern styles, and mine just weren't like that. Those of us who were odd—there were a couple of us families at the church—we gravitated together.
I grew up during the Civil Rights Era. This church was different. My parents were different. They were very pro-integration and pro-Civil Rights and talked to us openly about the way you treat people and the way you don't treat people. What you say and what you don't say and that a person's worth is not contingent on where they come from, what they look like, or what they do.
My dad worked at LSU in the Agriculture Experiment station. He was an administrator. My mom was a homemaker until my dad died at 55. My mom needed a job and LSU hired her. She enjoyed her work at the International Student office.
My mom was very honest, very forthright. Both my parents enjoyed discussions at the supper table. Anything was fair game, you just couldn't hit anybody (with two brothers, that was hard). You could get mad, but you couldn't stay mad. I remember my mom would always say, "Use your best judgment." I thought, "Ooh, that's a hell of a thing to strap on me. How do I rebel against that?" She wouldn't tell you; it was up to you to decide. Which was great practice. My mom also had a very good sense of humor. And she enjoyed being with people.
My dad was also very sociable. He was from South Carolina, so he was a nice Southern Gentleman. He was very kind, very dependable. Did the right thing *laughs* He was law-abiding. I remember one time he was driving me at 3 o'clock in the morning to the train station to get on the train with my Girl Scout troop to go to New Orleans. We were going through LSU, 3 o'clock in the morning, the light is red, and he stops. I remember thinking, "There's nobody around, are you stopped because it's red or are you stopped because you're teaching me a lesson? That you always do the right thing.”
At church, I had a youth group of friends my age. I'm still in contact with many of them. I remember when I was in youth group, it would've been in the mid-to-late '60s, there was an African-American orphanage, Blunden Home, maybe a mile and a half away. Someone at the church decided to invite the Blunden Home kids to come and sing in our youth choir. It definitely made our choir better. We also had a Big Buddy type program. My little buddy was a very energetic child named Faye Samuels. We would go to the park, have a picnic, and play. That was something my other friends in other churches did not do. They did not have that exposure and that experience and that richness. The adults made a decision to do these things with these kids and we did it.
Maybe the difference then was they were trying to decide, at the time, what to do. How do you formulate your stance in a world that you are basically going against the tide? To make that decision, to be that kind of church.
During the Civil Rights Era I remember there was a big discussion at church. Some people did not want the church to take certain stands, and didn’t want the pastor to say certain things. There were discussions among the adults, "Well, if we do this, we're gonna lose some members and we're gonna lose the money they bring to the church. Which means our programming, and our staffing, all that's affected." And the decision was, I remember, that you do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may. And I remember some of my friends left. And my Sunday School teacher left. And the youth group advisor left. So, you think, "Golly, y’all are leaving?" But again, that was the lesson. You do what you think is right. It’s sad to have people who’ve sat together in the pews disagree on basic Christian principles. I think that was the most disappointing thing, that the church couldn't figure it out.
Growing up, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonnhoeffer were discussed in the adult classes and preached from the pulpit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist theologian, plotted to assassinate Hitler and was killed for his efforts. So the messages were around standing up against evil, and what that cost may be. It fit with Civil Rights. How do you formulate your stance in a world where you are basically going against the tide? To make that decision, to be that kind of church
It's not rocket science; it's just listening to people. And everybody wants to get out of pain. Everybody wants to be heard.
For college, I went to LSU and Central Missouri State and then back to LSU. I lived in Nashville for a while and loved it. I traveled by myself overseas for 15 months, and that was life changing.
My first job as a social worker was at the Crisis Intervention Center, the suicide prevention hotline in Baton Rouge. I learned so much about talking with people in crisis and I trained volunteers to answer the phone lines. I would take a shift all night and then read the paper in two mornings to see if anyone had died that I talked to. Of course, you don't often know their real names. I remember there was a caller, calling to say he was gonna kill himself, and at one point I said, "What's the response of your family going to be if you're no longer here?" And he said, "They will be better off." I thought right then, "Alright, so logic right now is not in your purview." Because there's no way they're gonna be better off. And nothing will prepare them for this for the rest of their life. I'm a very logical person, in many ways, and it's just not that step. You can't go down that step. So, what you do is you go back to the, "What is the pain right now that you feel, that you want to escape from?”
When I trained people to be a phone volunteer, they would think, "Oh my gosh, you said it so well. It just rolls off your tongue." Well, that's because you really have to get it and then when you get it you too can say it this well. It's not rocket science; it's just listening to people. And everybody wants to get out of pain. Everybody wants to be heard.
Then I worked at the Hansen’s Disease Hospital in Carville, LA. During grad school, I had spent one summer at the Leprosy Hospital. So, they recruited me to go back there and be a social worker there and I did that for five years. It was a privilege to work with the people there. Their stories were incredible and their lives an inspiration.
My last social work job was at the Health Care Centers in Schools, at Istrouma High School and Westdale Middle School. I tell people my three main jobs have been suicide hotline, leprosy patients, and teenagers. My jobs went from hard to harder. Particularly when working with black teenagers who grow up in poverty. Those kids have a life that is both full of hope and promise but yet our society placed on them restrictions and barriers and living situations that were unconscionable. And try being a minor and learning to navigate that. It is hard to do and it was hard for me to help them learn how to do it when it just seemed so unfair in so many ways. Since I was from Baton Rouge, I wasn't surprised by how challenging the environment was for kids in public schools. What was shocking was that they hadn't gotten any better. I just assumed—because I was in other fields—that neighborhoods, the violence, other school systems had progressed. And they hadn’t. That was very shocking.
All teens have things that really tear at them. I had all colors of kids that had issues with parents, and suicide, child abuse, boredom in class, teacher fussin at em, wearin the wrong-colored uniform shirt to school and stuff like that. I did that for twelve years and then I quit working for pay.
Doing good work, I guess, would be a theme of my life. Both with church, and my family. I enjoy it. One person said to me, "Do have just a need to serve?" And I thought, "They said it kinda snarky, but I think I do." I mean it gives me great pleasure.
TBR pushes me out of my 'I can do this good work comfortably' zone. I'm used to doing this, I'm used to doing that, and these all are things that are important to do. But TBR goes, "Well, you're on the slow track. Move over to the fast track." I go, "Whoa!"
I first got involved in TBR after I read an article in the newspaper. I think I had actually just told my husband, "I'm tired of being a do-gooder white person trying to go around finding places to do good." I said, "I want someone who is of the community, African-American, and I want to follow." I have a tendency to be bossy, so I often lead in certain things. I wanted to follow somebody. So I started going to the meetings. Maybe at my fifth meeting the discussion was what to call ourselves. True TBR fashion, at the time I thought, "Oh my gosh, how long will we discuss choosing a name?" And then they came up with Together Baton Rouge and I thought, "Oh, my suggestion was so much better."
Brod, our first organizer, was good. People would get up there and try to explain something for 5-7 minutes, and Brod would say, "Let me give it a stab." And in two minutes we'd go, "Oh, that's what they were trying to say." He could distill very complex things into an easy-to-understand way. He was excellent with that.
I had an early one-on-one with Brod. And I wasn't too interested in the meeting, but he called me up and we met at Community Coffee on Perkins Road. I said to him, "This sounds a lot like—two things—the Interfaith Federation, which UPC is already a member of." He said, "No, it's not that." And the other one was an organization called PICOU, which matched UPC up with a Baptist church around the corner from us in South Baton Rouge. We tried very vigorously to build that relationship and we were kind of met with ‘we're not interested’. And that lack of response was very deflating. So, when Brod said, "I'm gonna do this", it's like, "Well, UPC has been there, done that. I don't think we can do it again.” And he said, "I don't want to be in an organization that is gone in ten years." And I thought, "You think it's gonna last ten years? Not gonna happen!"
TBR, it's a fast-moving train in many ways. It offers me an opportunity to do things that I wouldn’t do with any other group I’m in. The church does stuff but it's not a fast-moving train. I have a drive to do good work, but TBR pushes me out of my 'I can do this good work comfortably' zone. I'm used to doing this, I'm used to doing that, and these all are things that are important to do. But TBR goes, "Well, you're on the slow track. Move over to the fast track." I go, "Whoa!" I'm involved in certain things and not in others but there's a gazillion things you could be involved in. One thing I like is that I can do what I can do, and then other people are doing what they can do, and sometimes we're in the same group and sometimes we're not but there's always somebody on the TBR track. So, if I have to step aside and let a car pass me, I'll get back on later.
When we first started, I remember a lot of the meetings were big. The energy in a TBR meeting was just incredible.
In the beginning, I was in a bible study with TBR. I think I did two of those. I did one in Ingleside and one at a downtown church, if I remember correctly. Those brought people together from all across the city. And, you know, I think ITEP has interrupted that, because ITEP has taken so much energy and it's been divisive and it's been an issue that, for most of us, while it's very important, is kinda abstract and hard to gather around. As opposed to a Bible study, "You got a bible, I got a bible. Let’s talk.” We need more reasons to get together. To get to know each other again. I mean, I can study the bible with people at my church, but the fact that there were people from different churches, different religions. That's why I went. For a diverse group and the new perspectives that brings. Getting to meet new people. And I knew we weren't gonna agree on things, but that didn't matter. We just talked about it, you know? And I think offering those opportunities just to practice sitting down and talking about anything. That's what TBR used to do and can do. And that's when you build the relationships.
Organizing the galas for TBR drove me crazy. But that's when I met Dorothy Thomas, Loyace Gant, Hermoneze Lang, Vicki Brook and Vicki Dauterive—all of those relationships were made in the gala meetings. And I remember thinking, "Okay, I have a different idea, but you know what, I'm not gonna even say it." And that was good practice for me. But that's when I felt close to those women. Cause we had this project. After the first one I swore I'd never do it again. And I did it again. Just because I wanted to be with them. And I would do it again now. If they were on the committee, I would join. But now when I see Vicki, or Vicki, or any of the other ladies out and about at something else, it's like *snaps* that's my person.
I remember one time we were at St. Mary Baptist Church for a night meeting. Leaving the meeting, we saw we had a flat tire and, because I'm always one of the last people to leave a meeting, there were no other cars around to jump our battery. My husband called AAA. Ms. Dorothy Thomas and Ms. Hermoneze Lang were still there and they pulled out four folding chairs and we sat together as evening came. I said, "Y'all don't need to stay--" They replied, “It's not a good neighborhood but it's our neighborhood and we're just gonna sit with you.” We just sat there, waited, and passed the time. What they were saying was, "We have no place else we need to be except with you."
I’ve always had a lot of respect for Dianne and Edgar and all the people who just seem to have the energy to be in so many different groups. I'm in the criminal justice group. I also send out emails to my church for people to contact the legislators on different topics. I supervise a social work intern each semester because Khalid asked me to, because I appreciate Khalid, I think he's doing an excellent job, and I wanted him to be able to do what he wanted to do, and he needed a social worker. I think that's part of the relationships we talk about. I respect the people in TBR and what they're able to do. I believe in the cause and I believe in the people.
The way the city works and the way the state works, I want to have a part of that. And I couldn't do that with any other group I'm in. TBR gives me that sense of, "Okay, I'm on that level now, too." So, I feel kind of balanced in my attempt to be effective.
I’m on the Criminal Justice team. It’s encouraging because the people are dedicated. There seems to be a confluence right now. You’ve got other groups—nationally , locally—that are pushing for the same things. Like the Bail Project, the Parish Prison Reform Committee, the McArthur Foundation. So you think, “Okay, this may actually go somewhere.” Cause pushing that boulder up that hill on every issue is just too much.
It was initially very frustrating to figure out how to get involved with Criminal Justice. I must’ve gone to four meetings over a period of maybe a year and they were just trying to form up. This was maybe two, three years ago. All over town. And my husband went because he’s really interested in criminal justice. And we signed up for the different committees, put our phone numbers down. Never got contacted. Never got contacted. My husband said, “I ain’t got it in me to do this anymore.” Finally, I started being involved in November or December 2020. And they’d already met with the public defender’s office, they’d already met with the DA, they’d already had a webinar with some group in Houston. And it’s like, “How do I get in this exclusive group?”
So that’s one thing I’ve kind of taken on with Criminal Justice is the minutes, and I just send them out to everybody. That’s kind of how I’ve compensated for my frustration - making sure people know. And as soon as I get a name, I put them on the list. It’s one thing I can do to make that little part of TBR work. It may well be that every group needs a secretary. And maybe just for a year. It’s not that hard, and it helps me organize, so I don’t mind doing it. Cause these things happen quickly. I mean the next step, sometimes, may be not for a month, but then all the sudden you have a lot of things come up.
Now on our Bail Reform group, within the Criminal Justice team, nobody comes in without knowing what’s in front of em. No one says, “Oh, I missed the last meeting so can someone catch me up?” Everyone in the group brings insight and experience.
If you look at your life on the micro and the macro levels—which I've only done recently because the social work interns have to do that—on the micro level, I have a lot of interactions with people. And the next level up I have church groups and other groups that I'm a part of. But in terms of the highest level—I mean I'm not gonna go national—but the way the city works and the way the state works, I want to have a part of that. TBR gives me that sense of, "Okay, I'm on that level now, too." So, I feel kind of balanced in my attempt to be effective.
What's the famous saying? "You can't be a leader unless someone's following you." I lead in some places and I follow in others. It's because I can't stand for things not to get going if they're supposed to get going. Being both a nag and bossy helps. Being a leader means that when you talk, people will pay attention to what you say. And TBR is filled with leaders, people who work hard for justice and equity. We respect each other, we can trust one another. Because of past experience with a person or someone’s ability to express an idea clearly, folks will follow. They trust you, they respect you. Being a leader means you have some responsibilities. Being a leader is fun, but then it means people will also then give you other things to do.