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This young woman Is going east

To listen to Sharon Litwin interview Jalisa Roberts on WWNO radio, click here.

Jalisa Roberts discovered dance growing up in New Orleans. Now she's returning the favor.

Jalisa Roberts discovered dance growing up in New Orleans. Now she's returning the favor.

It’s coming up on eight years since Hurricane Katrina changed so much about this city. And while the population has grown back to almost 80 percent of its 2005 numbers, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, there are still large areas of town in need of help. While some parts of the city seem to have attracted a cadre of returnees to assist in community rebuilding efforts -- Lower Nine, for an example -- another section, New Orleans East, is still hobbled by a lack of city services and independent businesses.

Jalisa Roberts, a recent graduate of Swarthmore College who grew up in the East, wants that to change. As the winner of the first-ever Swarthmore business plan competition, she brings with her a little grant money and a lot of ideas about how to inject some entrepreneur-type energy into New Orleans East.

“I have always been interested in starting my own businesses” Jalisa says, although she adds she never really thought of herself as an entrepreneur until she went to Swarthmore. “I knew I wanted to start a dance studio, because as a child I was able to access dance because it was so inexpensive, and I wanted to be able to give that to other children.”

Jalisa figured she would have to wait until she was in her 30s or 40s before she could afford to do that. But when she explained her goals to faculty and staff at Swarthmore, they encouraged her to consider implementing her plans as soon as she graduated.

While that encouragement helped her psychologically, even more important, she says, was their help in finding the necessary partnerships and grants to start her on her way. Now Jalisa, working with a couple of New Orleans-born Swarthmore colleagues, has returned and opened an ambitious non-profit business.

“I started Cocoon, which is a dance-based youth empowerment program,” Jalisa explains. “Our goal is to use dance to rebuild community. While we’re dedicated to helping youth in New Orleans East, this year we are operating in an Uptown location.”

That’s because Jalisa was unable to find an appropriate location in the East, one of many challenges facing businesses in that part of town. It's a challenge she says she will overcome by this time next year. So for this summer, she’s operating out of Tiger Rock, a kick-boxing center on Tchoupitoulas Street, because the owners have generously allowed her the use of their space free of charge.

Jalisa has designed her Cocoon program in two distinct parts: one half of the day learning dance and choreography and the other half the day building leadership skills. Now, some may wonder if a young woman right out of college is equipped to take on such a challenge. But Jalisa says her own life experience – growing up in the East in modest circumstances, experiencing the turmoil and difficulties of post-Katrina life, and, yet overcoming all of this to graduate from a prestigious college, makes her uniquely qualified to do just that.

“Our goal is to come back and share our experiences,” she says. “It’s our goal to act as models for what you can do; for me, that means sharing my story.”

Using the lessons learned about how to create a sophisticated and clear business plan and how to craft effective grant requests are just two of the reasons Jalisa Roberts was chosen the winner of Swarthmore’s inaugural entrepreneurial competition. She’s brought those skills home, along with a fierce sense of optimism and excitement and a very clear idea of how to use them for good. She gives full credit to Swarthmore for all its support, as well as the much-needed financial resources to get her going.

For information about Cocoon, contact [email protected].

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email comments to her at [email protected]

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]