Friday, January 8, 2016

I came to New Orleans not knowing exactly what to expect and was met with a city struck by disaster in the middle of a dreadful circumstance. Katrina, as I have learned is still seen in these communities. To the rest of America, we seem to think of Katrina as something that happened, not as something that is happening, because it is. Each and every day her children are running these streets, reminding the people that she is still prevalent and that they are still in so much need. More than a failed government or gentrified city, I see a people with no where to go. Home is where the heart is but so many of their's were washed away, if not by storm winds then the days that followed. And if not by the days that followed, then the years that came and went and passed without change or a dime to spare. In all of that, I admire what keeps them going and what has gotten them this far. I can't even pretend to know what that is. I don't believe I have been here long enough to understand the hearts of the people or even scrape the surface. I'm sure every emotion possible towards this city lies inside of them and each one has every right to be felt. I just pray that they continue to rebuild, whatever that means for New Orleans. 

I, knock on the door, hope isn't home
Fate's not around the lucks all gone
Don't ask me what's wrong ask me what's right
And I'ma tell you what's life, and did you know?
I lost everything, but I ain't the only the one
First came the hurricane, then the morning sun
Excuse me if I'm on one
And don't trip if I light one, I walk a tight one
They try tell me keep my eyes open
My whole city underwater, some people still floatin'
And if you come from under that water then there's fresh air
Just breathe baby God's got a blessing to spare
Yes I know the process is so much stress
But it's the progress that feels the best
- "Tie My Hands", Lil Wayne 

Alexandria Bryant

Talking to People

Today we split into two groups for our last day of service in New Orleans. The first group finished painting the parts of Ms. Debra's porch that were not done earlier in the week. The second group was given the opportunity to do outreach in the community by handing out fliers and collecting signatures for a petition. The petition was about the need for another elementary school in the lower 9th ward. 
As we spoke to the members of the community about this petition, we also found ourselves talking about many other things. Listening to everyday citizens of New Orleans talk about the issues of income inequality, the state of education, misleading media coverage, and political corruption added a much needed perspective to conversations the group has been having all week amongst ourselves and with community organizations such as the Bayou District Foundation. It was a great way to end the service trip. 

Miguel Montoya

Here come the White Vans

When I think of an Alternative Break trip, many thoughts come to mind.  However, the first image that conjures in my head is one of white vans driving over Lake Pontrachain into New Orleans. Thousands of students from schools all across the United States spending their breaks on these trips. So my question to myself is what power do these white vans driving around the country, specifically to New Orleans have?

Alternative Breaks have a huge impact, positive or negative, on communities across the country. Break Away, a national organization committed to promoting quality Alternative Break programs in 2014 had "1,551 trips at 184 Chapter Schools with 21,221 students serving 1,993 Community Partners."  That totals over 1.3 million hours of service ( I honestly question the effectiveness of these trips.  I used to live in Washington DC and you "felt" spring break season of charter buses of kids from schools across the country visiting the nations capital.  I wouldn't like to "feel" the arrival of hundreds of college students who believe they can fix or save my community through 4 days of service in a neighboring community garden.

However, I write this all to say that this trip has shown me the flip side of this argument.  I want to share 3 stories that allowed me to perceive this differently:

Our first day of service brought us to Deborah's house.  I instantly recognized the house, it was where we served last year.  While we chose the same partner, the chance of being placed at the same location was slim.  Deborah remembered me from the year before and we continued our project from the year before.  Today she directly invited us back.  While she has become part of my service journey, we have also become part of her life. We have the responsibility to honor this agreement, in our partnerships.

Today, students spent part of the time canvassing a neighborhood.  My immediate thought was "Oh boy, a bunch of strangers to New Orleans walking around the lower 9th to promote the organization we were working with" -- however the response the students got was one of welcome and comfort.  The community has not only enjoyed having volunteers, but has welcomed this as part of their life. We must always make sure we are welcome.

Lastly, we worked with two different community gardens, both which had little to no staffing.  Our presence did nearly 2 weeks worth of work in each garden.  This is of no criticism of the community who manages these gardens.  Realistically, what community members have enough time to do maintenance on their gardens, or keep the weeds from over-populating.  While managing a garden once, we went 2 weeks during a rainy period and had a situation that made me shudder.  We have the privilege of spending a week of our time, collectively, to accomplish great things in communities.

I'll never feel comfortable with these trips -- students, often of privilege, heading to communities in a form of "poverty tourism" that we attempt to make more educational, reciprocal, and intentional.  But while I continue wrestling with that - refusing to believe that there are not unintended consequences of my involvement, it is comforting to hear positive voices saying "come back and don't forget us." 

Patrick Grayshaw
Staff Advisor

Never a Stranger in New Orleans

My name is Yasmeen Alim. I'm a junior and this is my third Alternative Winter Break to New Orleans. Each time I visit, I am reminded why I always return. The service we do allows me to expand my mind and push myself out of the box. 

Today I "canvassed". Essentially, a fellow CE Scholar and I journeyed through the Lower Ninth Ward, getting signatures for a petition to reopen an elementary school. If you told me last year that I would have courage to go knock on people's doors and talk to them, I would've been doubtful to say the least. Nevertheless, here I was promoting an amazing cause to utter strangers. Ironically, I never felt like a stranger because the community was happy to see us. We told each resident we met that MLK elementary (the only one in the Lower Ninth Ward) had a long waiting list which resulted in children being bused to school before sunrise and returning home after sunset. The dangers of having children travel through darkness, the health issues of such a strenuous schedule, and the shear economic and environmental costs of such as system were enough to convince every last resident we spoke with to sign. 

More astounding was the difference in each resident. We met musicians, artist collectors, hardworking citizens, concerned parents and grandparents, and a few comedians along the way. Oh yeah! Did I mention we met plenty of cats and dogs as well? 

As we neared the end of our journey, I felt elated that I had pushed my self to try something new. Not only did we make a difference by helping with community organizing, but we also helped ourselves to a large piece of culture. With this exposure came a new understanding. 

I am grateful that I returned for a third time to actually meet the people that define the city. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016


As we reach our last service day of this trip, I am trying to come up with a word that summarizes my experience so far. Educational comes to mind, as does emotional, incredible, and multi-faceted, but what I think I'll go with is wholesome. Everything we have done and learned so far has fit into a grand narrative and wholesome understanding of the very complicated situation that is post-Katrina New Orleans.

Yesterday, we had three separate and seemingly disjointed projects or sites that we visited. First, we visited Columbia Parc, the neighborhood that replaced the old St. Bernard Housing Project, and toured the mixed-income housing settlement. Then, we spent a while weeding at an urban community garden in the lower 9th ward that supplied food to communities in the neighborhood, and finally went to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club in assisting with after school activities and homework help for the children there. Today, we volunteered at a garden for Capstone, a different organization that provides food to families in the lower 9th ward, and volunteered again at the Boys and Girls Club. At first glance, these don't seem inherently connected, but the ways in which the underlying themes behind all of these sites intersect is so indicative of both the success of the immersion component of this trip overall and of the intricacy of the social issues that we are grasping at as we serve here. 

Visiting Columbia Parc and viewing the business end of the mixed-income housing model as opposed to a documentary that focused on the displaced community's story was jarring and conflicting. It raised more questions than it answered: what constitutes economic sustainability in a government subsidized housing project and is there a threshold at which point an equitable revenue source for public housing becomes more gentrifying than it should be? In a sharp decline from 100% to 33% public housing availability and with this model taking off across the nation, where do the displaced people living under the poverty line go? How do they survive? Is the sudden anti-felon waiting period of 5 years in what used to be open public housing causing even more inaccessibility for the typically low-income people of color who are victims to a systematically racialized justice system?This situation is so complicated and nuanced that it makes my head spin, but it connects to the other projects that we've worked on.

In attempting to rebuild New Orleans post-Katrina, there are so many spokes on the wheel, and all of them interrelated. In this instance alone, one of the aspects of Columbia Parc, the education center, related back to our work at the Boys and Girls Club. At CP, one of the main points of emphasis was a cradle to college pipeline with a focus on pre-school education. This became so much more significant when I tutored kids at the B&G club and realized how shockingly disproportionate the grade standards and the actual level of education of kids were. Most 1st graders and kindergarteners couldn't read, and were state-mandated to be doing assignments far beyond the skill set that they had. The majority of these children were of low income and racial minority families, the typical victims of a school system that privileges students that can afford to be educated in a way that meets standardized testing goals. What then? Rebuilding the physical infrastructure of NOLA post-Katrina is one thing, but education is just as significant a part of revitalizing a neighborhood and bringing it out of a cycle of poverty. Therefore it is significant and heartening to see that Columbia Parc, though I have my reservations about it, is focusing on early education as a means of aiding a neighborhood and thinking of the future.

Furthermore, the farms that we worked at brought up yet another connection: the availability of fresh produce in the lower 9th is very low, as it is a food desert. This is yet another part of revitalizing the neighborhoods; when low income families need to survive, they don't have the amenities to be eating organic and healthy foods when synthetic foods are so much cheaper and easier to come by. This causes significant malnutrition deficits in children which affects their performance in schools and their growth (one of the teachers at the Boys & Girls Club told me that the reason one of the juniors in high school was so short was due to the malnutrition caused growth stunting) overall. In the lots of houses that were unclaimed when citizens left and didn't return after the storm, nonprofits such as Acorn and Capstone have built farms that provide much needed free and organic produce for the families around the parish. In assisting at the community garden, we helped complete work that takes far longer with the few people that they have and aided in an effort that addresses yet another part of rebuilding communities in New Orleans. 

The list and connections go on, but really, it boils down to this: 

a) While I will never completely understand the situation here, I feel that in this one week, I have gotten a more wholesome understanding than I ever had, as I only ever knew bits and pieces of all this information. Between the aforementioned sites, the levees tour, Whitney plantation, and the Katrina museum, I have a more solid understanding of the continuing struggles of this community and of the different perspectives involved.

b) Everything, all that we did, is interrelated, and every bit of this is inherently related to race and class. Multiple axes of oppression are not only simultaneously experienced, but in conjunction, combine and transform each other, and this specifically is a racialized class issue. The low-income people of color, specifically the black citizens of New Orleans have been dealing with incredible injustice not only in the aftermath of Katrina, but in a series of systematically oppressive maneuvers that stretch back to their roots in slavery and manifest today in the ways that the housing authority, food supply, overall government, education system, etc. fail them in various ways, and yet they persist in awe-inspiring resilience. Every one of these projects and sites deserves conversation
about race and class, and I am glad that the overarching narrative that this trip has set up allowed us to do exactly that. The enormity of the situation is difficult to grasp and can only be attempted by not shying around the harsh realities of it. I am very fortunate to have been able to engage in this dialogue with such a good group. I only hope that we continue to remember that we must continue to talk about race and have these discussions, as there is no progress without that fundamental understanding.

Mounica Kota

Community Garden

This morning we had the opportunity to help out at a community garden, which provides fresh vegetables to the community.  In addition to the vegetables, the garden, which is actually a collection of different plots, also has honey bees and  a fish pond, which help provide money for the community garden project. One of the wonderful things about this project is that it not only provides food by growing it and giving it out, it also has a program to teach members of the community how to grow their own food . They provide the people with the tools that they need to grow their own vegetables.

I thoroughly enjoyed working at the garden because I knew that even though I was doing something that was fairly simple, pulling out weeds, it was a great help to the people of the community because with all of us working together we were able to accomplish a lot of work in just a few hours. By putting in just a little time and effort we were able to do something that was meaningful because with our work we infuenced a whole community, and all it took was a little time and effort.

Sindy Chavez

Zen in Pulling Weeds

There's something strangely therapeutic about pulling weeds. Pulling out the bad life from the dirt like cats tearing at furniture so new, more prosperous pants can's nice. There's also the added benefit that you're actually doing something for someone else that saves them time--the first woman we pulled weeds for told us that we saved her two weeks of hard labor, which was astonishing. It's incredible what all 15 of us can do collectively. What's kind of meta about that is that eventually after all the time spent working and being around each other during this Alternate Break is that we all get on the same wavelength mentally. Whether it be intuition, emotion, or humor, our minds are syncing. To the smallest thing like some person getting inspired over their work, we all get influenced from that energy. If someones's not feeling the work they're doing, we all feel that struggle. Due to the shared mindset of the trip, we all share the weight. It's powerful really what this work does to you--it's a from of group meditation in a way, everybody silently slaving on.

Who knows.

There's definitely work to be done here in New Orleans, that's without a doubt. This city is already so rich with life and culture, however, so many people and organizations are still suffering for the tragedy that happened a decade ago. This is unacceptable. The government may have given up on the city, put we the people have not. We see the potential in it and refuse to let that go to waste. We need bigger change and not abandon the vibrant life I've learned to love in New Orleans. New Orleans has this overwhelming perseverance to survive, and it's infectious. Here, in this swampy city, the test of real American opportunity, integrity, and willpower is put to the test. Hopefully, the rest of the country can see that.

- Jake Van Valkenburg