COLUMBIA — Carroll ZuBolton sits serenely behind her worn wooden desk and looks out to the crowd awaiting her help. One small boy is eager to show her his newest crayon drawing. A little girl needs a stapler for her math homework. A young pregnant woman seeks a word of advice. ZuBolton grins, ready to tackle the series of small crises.
ZuBolton is director of Columbia Housing Authority's Moving Ahead, an after-school K-12 program for children who live in Columbia’s public housing. As director, she plans the week’s activities and tracks each student’s academic progress.
Despite the ordinary nature of her job, ZuBolton is not your average person. She’s been a job coach, the program facilitator of Columbia’s Teen Outreach Program, and for seven years ran her own after-school tutoring program in her hometown of New Orleans. Involved in service for more than a decade, ZuBolton is a crusader for the underserved. Her personal motto is: Don’t pass the blame. Do something.
“I’ve always been interested in helping to enhance the quality of people’s lives,” she said. “I always believe in giving back. Somebody has to do it. It’s all of our responsibilities to make sure that our community improves and gets better.”
When ZuBolton speaks, the passion she has for the children, her community and social responsibility is evident. Her eyes light up and her voice rises when she talks about the injustices that many Americans, especially children, face merely because they are poor. She believes strongly in social justice, and some might label her liberal stances on such issues revolutionary.
ZuBolton is a walking, talking example of nontraditional. At 52, she has been married three times. She was a vegetarian for 12 years. She has grown out her dreadlocks for the past two decades, and now they are so long she can sit on them. In a show of independence, she took the hyphen out of her deceased husband’s last name so that Zu-Bolton became ZuBolton.
ZuBolton’s first taste of community activism occurred in 1994 when she opened the Diaspora Academy, an after-school program she operated out of her home in New Orleans. The academy provided neighborhood children with tutoring, field trips and healthy snacks. She created it in part to counter the unfriendly social and educational atmosphere the children faced in the city.
ZuBolton and her husband, Ahmos Zu-Bolton, funded the academy out of their pockets. It was free to any child who wanted to participate. Even before she created the academy, children in the neighborhood would meet at her house for informal tutoring. This prompted Ahmos to christen ZuBolton “Ywenboui,” or “Mother Wit.”
ZuBolton’s commitment to her community runs so deep that she seems incapable of separating herself from her work. Like the worker bee that would sacrifice its life for the hive, ZuBolton labors relentlessly to better her community.
She works more than 70 hours per week, clocking in 40 hours at Moving Ahead and another 30 with a paid research position at the MU School of Veterinary Medicine. Hours that would normally tire the most dedicated worker fail to faze the seasoned activist.
“My work is my life,” she says. “It’s what I do. I come here, I go home.”
With two full-time jobs, ZuBolton has little time to herself. During the bit of leisure time she has, she works on a biography of her father, Robert Shavers.
Shavers has the atypical rags-to-riches story of a black man who left home at 12 in 1920s Louisiana and became a successful business owner in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. ZuBolton remembers driving her own car to school at 16 and being overindulged by a father who refused to deny his children the luxuries he lacked in his own childhood. No matter how prosperous he became, he continued to instill in his family the value of social responsibility.
ZuBolton remembers her childhood home as a sanctuary for those in the neighborhood who had no place else to go. Without any expectation of repayment, her father would take in people who needed a safe place to stay. Her father’s generosity planted the seeds of community that ZuBolton continues to nurture today.
“She’s changing people’s lives,” says Penny Brown, a 19-year-old tutor at Moving Ahead who is also ZuBolton’s niece. “She’s always helping somebody with their problems. If somebody is applying for college, she’ll take time to help them with their application. If somebody needs a job, she’ll help them with the paperwork.”
Another tutor, 16-year-old Latosha Howze, testifies that “Ms. Z.” helped to finance and plan her older sister’s baby shower when Latosha’s mother could not do it alone. ZuBolton acknowledges that throughout each month she “constantly spends money on other people.” She does not mind that she gives away so much even though she has so little of her own. Instead, she believes it is the responsibility of human beings to take care of one another, especially those who have the means to do it.
ZuBolton is not only an activist but also an artist. She has written six plays, three of which have been produced. Her current project is “Babylon is Fallin’,” a play she wrote one evening in 1988. Based on the realities of life in the ghetto, “Babylon” addresses issues such as drug abuse, teen pregnancy and unemployment. It has been presented twice already in Columbia and will be performed later this year at the Missouri Theatre. ZuBolton also plans to perform the play and do community service in New Orleans over spring break.
“‘Babylon is Fallin’’ is a community service project. It’s art imitating life, and it’s based on life in the black community,” ZuBolton explains. “These young people come in, and they volunteer to be in this production ... to give back something and also to demonstrate to the community, ‘Hey, this is what we see. We don’t want to see this in our community anymore.’”
ZuBolton credits her late husband for expanding her academic and creative life. Ahmos Zu-Bolton was a notable figure in the 1960s Black Arts Movement who published the early works of Terry McMillan, Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez before they were famous. He was the University of Missouri’s Writer in Residence from 2000 to 2004, and his works have been featured in more than 100 publications.
Thanks to her husband, ZuBolton has rubbed elbows with the likes of Ruby Dee, Patti LaBelle and Amiri Baraka. She believes that learning from him elevated her art to a different level and made her more comfortable with her down-home writing, which has evolved to a more folkloric style.
ZuBolton is dyslexic, which may seem a detriment to a literary artist. To the contrary, she says it adds an authenticity to her writing that would not otherwise be present. The dyslexia makes it easier for her to write in the familiar vernacular of her New Orleans upbringing rather than the standard language of more traditional writers.
Barbara James, an international attorney and friend of ZuBolton’s for more than a decade, says she admires how ZuBolton finds time to work on her creative side, despite her daily obligations and overwhelming work hours. She respects ZuBolton’s dedication to the numerous projects she juggles. James describes her as a “kindred soul” whose passion for those around her is unequaled.
“Once you have her in your corner, you have a good thing,” she says. “She’s the kind of person you count on. Her word is gold.”
In the future, ZuBolton hopes to go back to MU and earn a master’s degree in African-American History. She also wants to open an authentic New Orleans-style restaurant in Columbia, complete with gumbo, crab cakes and jambalaya “made right.”
But first there are some more personal tasks and challenges to tend to. ZuBolton has resumed her vegetarian ways, though she still indulges in fish occasionally. She’s having dental work done on her smile, and she plans to have half her dreadlocks cut off in April, when she will have had them for 20 years. Finally, she plans to legally change her name from Carroll to Ywenboui, the nickname her husband gave her more than a decade ago.
What many may see as a drastic transformation, ZuBolton discusses with a shrug.
“I don’t mind change,” she says.
No, ZuBolton does not mind change. In fact, she fights for it.