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11th Graders Experience Solidarity in New Orleans

The BFS Class of 2015 traveled together to New Orleans, Louisiana from June 2nd to June 6th to learn about the impact of Hurricane Katrina, build relationships with community partners, and expand their understanding of service and solidarity.

Brooklyn Friends School 11th Grade Service Learning trip to New Orleans
Brooklyn Friends School 11th Grade Service experience in New Orleans
Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal

DAY ONE: After an early morning departure, we landed in NOLA on Monday and arrived at Annunciation Mission, where we would be staying for the next several nights. Mister James, the Assistant House Manager, offered us an orientation before lunch and we then participated in a contextual dialogue about race and institutional racism in New Orleans with organizers from the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. Students reflected on the experience:

“I thought that the racism talk on the first day was really, really interesting. We talk about it so much in school but it is a subject that is always relevant and I always feel like I learned something new.” –E

“Talking about race and privilege gets me upset but I liked how at the end I felt open-minded and a lot more aware and unified.” –C 

“It’s really baffling to think about how much of a problem racism is in our country. It’s a problem that exists everywhere, and is found in places that you would least expect. It looms in the air, bringing cities down. With the heaviness of its hate, preventing any sort of social progress for people suffering in communities plagued by racism. The segregation in New Orleans was evident even from when we first drove through the city. The racial dynamics of the city itself are strange. I see a city known for its food, culture, and tourist attractions, but the culture never seems to include the people who inhabit the largest portion of the city. I see so many problems that still haven’t been addressed nine years after the storm. I’m feeling a swarm of emotions, the most pervasive being frustration. I know for certain that very little has been done to help the poor, black communities in New Orleans, and that they suffer as a result. They have suffered for years from discrimination and racism, and hopes of progress and reform are shattered by events like Katrina.”–O

Laura Plantation, a Creole plantation midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge

The discussion with the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal was followed by an optional tour of Laura Plantation, a Creole plantation midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, located on the Great River Road. All students chose to participate, and the experience brought up a range of challenging feelings. 

“It’s hard to hear the voices of thirty teenage girls like me, holed up in a breeding pen like cattle, over the sound of how intelligent Laura was and how many good business women were in her family tree.” –B
“The heat is as oppressive as the history.
The sugar as sweet as the blood on the cane.
The weather as changeable as the bias.
The river as deep as the words.
The insects as big as the shame.”

“After thinking about all I did today I began to understand more about how everything today was related and how it has improved how I will approach service throughout the week and in the future. When we started in the afternoon, we broke off into groups and we began to talk about racism, solidarity, and why were doing service. Then we went to Laura Plantation and we took a tour of the facility and learned about how the white people and enslaved people lived and interacted with each other. At first I was not sure of the reason for the talk about racism and our society and why we went to the plantation. I later realized their connectedness at the end of the day. One correlation is they were both intended to inform us about a problem and understand why it came about. It is impossible to solve a problem without first understanding where it stems from…The quote “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” inspired me to look at this trip in a brand new light.” – E

DAY TWO: We partnered with several community based organizations during our time in New Orleans. Students selected their preferences in advance and were placed in one of five groups:
1) Green Light New Orleans enables low and fixed income households to switch from incandescent light bulbs to energy efficient compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) which reduce carbon emissions and utility costs. Their strategy is to actually go to the homes of New Orleans residents and install the CFLs with their help. The mission of the program is to have a positive environmental impact by increasing the use of CFLs, helping low income residents reduce their utility bills and creating a connection between the volunteers and recipients of the service. Students visited several homes and worked with individual residents – building gardens and installing light bulbs.

Green Light New Orleans enables low and fixed income households to switch from incandescent light bulbs to energy efficient compact fluorescent lights (CFLs)

“It was interesting to go into peoples’ homes and hear their stories. It felt natural and like what I was doing made a difference. Being able to work together with my classmates and then see the results and the excitement on the owner’s faces when they realized how much they saved made my day.” –E

“I never thought I would be changing lightbulbs! But I wasn’t just changing lightbulbs, I was meeting new people, helping the earth, and getting closer to my classmates.” –S

2) International High School of New Orleans is Louisiana’s only open enrollment public school to offer French and Spanish immersion programs and a full college preparatory curriculum. Open free-of-charge to all Louisiana students, IHA helps prepare children for success in college, their future careers and the world. Our students participated in creating a green space to honor the school’s principal who passed away last year. Students also did touch-up painting at the school.

“I’ve really enjoyed working at the International High School of New Orleans. We’ve been working with a man named Louis. We painted a bunch of picnic tables while because the students at the school are going to use them for a project and paint them with different designs/colors. We also cut up wood to build planters for the school and cleaned paint off of windows and the interiors of some classrooms. At first I thought some of the work was just busy work but Louis and one teacher named Ms. Godo were telling us about how they don’t get aid or much funding so they have to do cleaning and a lot of building and repairs on their own…I felt like I was actually helping.” –E

“Dear Leaders of International High School of New Orleans, Thank you for the incredible opportunity to help your community through service. Our school is a Quaker school that highly values service, however we have not has as much of an opportunity to help any other communities aside from New York. The experience of coming to New Orleans was eye-opening as I grew to understand how much people care for each other here. Being educated about the storm and how vital volunteers are for recovery made the work my school did feel worthwhile. The fact that the International High School of New Orleans also has the IB program made me feel a personal connection to the experience.” –B

 Welfare Rights Organization 3) Welfare Rights Organization seeks to link locally disrupted and internally displaced persons who are survivors of Katrina and Rita with needed services and resources to help them return home and/or improve their situations. Recent volunteers have been preparing a double shotgun house to be used as transitional housing by families seeking to rebuild, but that are unable to stay in their homes while they are being rebuilt. BFS students participated in setting up a thrift store, putting up shelves, and painting.

“Overall, this service trip to New Orleans was very enlightening! It was a whirlwind of emotion for me as well. It was amazing to come and help people. Knowing that my work was helping people in need is a feeling like no other. Not only are you proud and happy with yourself, but you are also so humbled by the people you helped and their appreciation for all that you have done…working with the Welfare Rights Organization made me think outside of myself and my problems and make me think of all the people who have problems so much bigger than mine.” –K

Common Ground
4) The Common Ground Relief Wetlands Restoration program was created to
proactively address the dangers faced by New Orleans and the Gulf Coast
Region. Working to bring immediate attention to the ecological and
political causes and effects of hurricanes and off-shore drilling, the
goal is to shed light on where wetlands restoration needs to happen,
determine who should be responsible for doing it and then do it
ourselves wherever possible.
Common Ground is also dedicated to educating as many people as possible and
engaging the community in the restoration effort. The wetlands play a
critical role in protecting the coast from storm surge and their goal is
to continue to work in solidarity with the people of the Gulf Coast. Students planted sea grasses and worked in the Common Ground Nursery in the Lower 9th Ward.
“We worked in the Bayou. We planted a large amount of grass that will absorb energy from waves when they become too large. I had fun engaging with the environment around me. It was such a privilege to work in this group. I felt like something I planted could actually be a barrier to a storm that could hurt someone else. I also really enjoyed getting down and dirty with the mud. I have learned so much.” –A

St. Bernard Project5) St. Bernard Project is a rebuilding, nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that disaster-impacted communities recover in a prompt, efficient, and predictable way. With clients throughout the Greater New Orleans area, SBP reaches the communities most in need. SBP operates four direct service programs: Rebuilding Program, Opportunity Housing, Good Work Good Pay and Disaster Recovery Lab. Each is designed to restore the hard-working, family-oriented communities in New Orleans and St. Bernard and to reach the following goals: create humane, safe, secure and affordable housing, ensure that individuals, families and the community are able to recover from disaster promptly and efficiently, create living wage jobs for veterans in the community. Students participated in painting a home with the Rebuilding Program.

“I forgot how rewarding hard, manual work is. I forgot how it feels to actually sweat and be responsible for something as important as another person’s home.”-M
“Volunteering in New Orleans was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my entire life. This week we worked on a house in the lower ninth ward. Seeing the amount that was accomplished over the course of the week we painted virtually the entire house.”–B

Mister James share his story of surviving Hurricane Katrina and the flood
At the end of day two, we all had the opportunity to hear Mister James share his story of surviving Hurricane Katrina and the flood. Students were particularly struck by this opportunity to bear witness.

“This story of survival was amazing. James made really tough decisions in terms of survival. He saw many people die and he had to not save some people because he wanted to survive… James is full of life and focused on making others happy. He makes me want to have that for myself. I want to make others happy. I want to make sure that the people around me are happy. I thank James’ story for allowing me to realize that.” –O

“When James was talking about his experience through the hurricane it made me realize how much I had in my life and I should be grateful for.” –G

“While listening to James’ story, I was finally able to personally connect to Hurricane Katrina survivors. James’ story made me wonder what my reaction to the storm would have been. It also made me wonder why the city has yet to fully recover.” -J
DAY THREE: After our second day working with community partners, we all went on a tour of Tulane University. One student reflected:

“Today we went to visit Tulane University. The school was closer than I expected, only about a 15 minute drive. The neighborhood that Tulane is in is shockingly different from where we’ve been staying. The streets are lined with giant houses with perfectly manicured backyards, with multiple cars parked in each driveway. It is crazy to think that we’re staying in a neighborhood that is hurting, and still suffering from Katrina damage, but that just 15 minutes away is a neighborhood that has a palpable aura of wealth and privilege. The inequality of wealth in this city is shocking, and it reflects the larger income disparity that affects our nation as a whole. Most of the large cities in the U.S. face utterly terrible neighborhood segregation. Even in New York City, neighborhoods are separated by wealth and race, and gentrification is occurring throughout the boroughs. Somehow, maybe because I live in New York, I didn’t notice the neighborhood divides as much as I did in New Orleans. But here, it stuck out, and was very obvious to me. I don’t understand how people can have so much, way more than they need, while other people live in poverty and suffer.” –O

Following the tour of Tulane, we had an opportunity to enjoy a beautiful evening and sunset at The Fly.

An already wonderful evening was made even better with one last stop. It’s a New Orleans tradition to have a snoball stand on just about every neighborhood block. In Uptown New Orleans on the block of Plum Street and Burdette Street is Plum Street Snoballs, one of the oldest in the city, established in 1945. The Class of 2015 was happy to experience what this New Orleans tradition is all about!

DAY FOUR: After our last day with our community partners, we went to the Louisiana State Museum – Presbytere exhibit “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond,” which provided an excellent overview of the history and science of these storms – and their profound impact on communities. Eyewitness accounts, multimedia displays and iconic objects collected in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, provide an unforgettable experience of loss and devastation. Addressing issues of race, class and inequality, fear and chaos, FEMA and the government, evacuation, the threat of cultural loss, and coming home, this exhibition is ultimately a celebration of the spirit of service and resilience in the face of catastrophe.

Katrina museum
“I loved the Katrina museum. It showed me and reminded me of the struggle people went through, but it made me feel good that I made a difference in their recovery.” -C

“The devastation is so hard to watch even now. Going through that makes my Sandy experience seem easy. The scale that Katrina ruined lives is incredible.” –L

“I think I can appreciate the work we’re doing more because I understand the full tragedy of Katrina.” –L

Following the Louisiana State Museum exhibit, everyone explored the French Quarter for a couple of hours, and then we met for our last dinner together at Huck Finn’s Cafe. We then returned to Annunciation Mission as we prepared for an early return home on Friday morning.

Students expressed their gratitude to Miss Jean and Mister James at Annunciation, wrote notes of thanks to each of our community partners, and then shared their final reflections on the week:

“Overall, I am really glad that we had this trip. It is something I will never forget.” -K
“My trip to NOLA was very rewarding… I saw how much help was needed and how dear the city was to our community partners. The storm changed the city so much and brought the flaws and problems of the city to attention. Sometimes it takes bad things to happen to improve other things…The whole experience made me very inspired to participate as a volunteer. I really enjoyed my week!” –A
“Visiting New Orleans has given me yet another perspective on the U.S. It’s a beautiful place, but the history of the hurricane (as well as the reaction to it) still remains like residue along the buildings. It was difficult to discover how terrible the conditions were after the hurricane. Response was so incredibly slow and being faced with the stories of survivors who dealt with those conditions was an extremely poignant experience. Above all the sense of community, not only between the residents but also the volunteers makes me feel proud to be a part of this trip.” –B