ExhibitBE: Arts and Social Justice

IMG_6563Although I have been back from New Orleans for nearly two weeks now, I can’t stop thinking about ExhibitBE, the building in the Algiers neighborhood scheduled to be torn down but in the meantime covered with paintings. I had three encounters with the show: one during my exploratory trip with Kaitlin, one with the students where we entered and explored on our own, and one with Brandon Odums, the artist who generated the project. Each made an impact on me in a different way.

IMG_6942Kaitlin and I had heard about the exhibit, and even though it had closed, we chose to drive out to see it. The complex was locked up and we stayed outside the chain link fence, drinking in what we could, feeling inspired and moved, taking pictures and hoping to return. We checked with our connection at Jericho Road, who confirmed it was closed, and they suggested the idea of contacting the artist to see if he might work with our group when we returned.

IMG_6950The second time, an impromptu visit to the exhibit with the group, we pushed through the barriers and explored the venue in more depth. Examining the murals, seeing what was inside the rooms, taking inspiration from the quotes: students came away elated, honored, invigorated, inspired. As it turned out, the folks at Jericho Road were able to get ahold of Brandon Odums, the artist who was the impetus behind the show and he agreed to give us a special guided tour. It was one of the highlights of our entire week.

He talked about what the place was like when it was first built: a beautiful apartment complex for middle and upper middle class mostly black residents of the area, with a pool and fine furnishings. IMG_6943Later, it came into disrepair, was managed by “slumlords” and became a haven for drug deals and other forms of crime. After Hurricane Katrina, it was all but abandoned. During this period,Brandon used to come in and paint there; it was quiet, he had space, and no one bothered him. New owners plan to tear it down and build something new there, but when they met Brandon, they admired his work and together they came up with the idea of inviting other artists, mostly graffiti artists with a social justice mission, to fill the whole place with images and words. The painting went on for a couple of months, and in the final weekend, they opened it to the public for one day and over 2500 people came to see it.

HIMG_6948earing Brandon talk about the impact the project had on him, on other artists, and on those who came out to view it, I couldn’t help thinking about the power of art, of visual images and words to inspire, to make us think and feel, even to change lives. He says art for art’s sake is not for him; he needs it to have a higher purpose, to make a difference. Our New York city students were reminded of a similar project in Queens where artists were able to paint murals on a building before it sold. The new owner painted it yellow and someone spray-painted the words “Art Murderer” over it.

The line between street art and “legitimate” art — what is not allowed and yet needs to be said by the disenfranchised — is a fine one. I admire the artists who created the work, the owners who supported the project, and all those who allowed themselves to be moved by it. I know the students will not easily forget our experience there, and neither will I. May we all be inspired to work together toward a just, humane, sustainable and beautiful world.


If you have a few minutes, watch this youtube video of Brandon talking about ExhibitBE:

A few more of my favorite photos: 








The New Orleans Experience

I just returned home from my trip to New Orleans with a group of 22 seniors and three adults from Trinity School in New York City. My mind is reeling to make sense of all the experiences we had, the people we met, and the issues we engaged with. Kaitlin’s previous post described the process of creating the experience; now I will say more about what it was like to be there.

The goals we created with Trinity School faculty were centered around big picture themes, and we wanted students, by the end of the experience to:

  • Understand the timeline and environmental, political, and cultural effects of Hurricane Katrina (pre, during, and post, including  issues related to wealth vs. poverty, self vs. other, oil industry, and community rebuilding efforts)
  • Explore the range of environmental issues still facing the Gulf Coast
  • Explore the city’s diverse cultural history and how different cultures have shaped the customs and traditions in modern day New Orleans
  • Analyze the city to city comparison between NYC and NOLA
  • Learn the overview of the city’s history (French rule, Spanish Rule, War of 2812, slavery and the slave revolt, Civil War, musical influences, pre- and post-Katrina)
  • Develop personal connections to the New Orleans community and make an impact through their service project(s)

Bayou Cleanup with LPBF

Our project was conceived as a week of environmental service learning with a focus on the Gulf region, pre- and post-hurricane Katrina. Normally, I like to work with one organization the entire length of a project to enable students to dig deeper into the issues, the groups we found were only able to host us a couple of days, so we chose more of a “smorgasbord” approach which had its challenges but also its perks. We learned about a variety of approaches to dealing with environmental issues facing people in the Gulf region, and each project was different enough to appeal to students in different ways. I have picked up my share of trash with groups over the years, but I had never catalogued it before our time spent with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF). LPBF works with the Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans to identify what types of trash is washing up into the newly created marshes at the mouth of the bayou. This helps them figure out where it is coming from and how to stop it. One person with a bag, one picking up trash, and one marking it on a clipboard (“three straws, ten pieces of plastic, six pieces of glass, one beer can, eight candy wrappers, one pencil,” etc.) made for some important teamwork.

Working at the Earth Lab at Groundwork New Orleans

Working at the Earth Lab at Groundwork New Orleans

When we moved into our work with Groundwork New Orleans, students were interested to note that that the two groups work in tandem on a number of projects that raise awareness while ameliorating the effects of disappearing land through sinkage and flooding, and working to stop the harmful human activities. Groundwork has two Earth Labs which they use to educate school groups about environmental issues and help them become stewards of the earth. In these, we helped beautify and call attention to one of the labs by painting a fence and signs to hang on it. We also created mosaics from donated recycled tiles to be used in a walkway. Their other project is on a center city street Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (referred to by locals at “OC Haley”). Once a booming black neighborhood, then left to deteriorate, the area is now coming back as the place for organizations helping change the city through good works. We weeded some rain gardens that help stem flooding, and then had the wonderful opportunity to meet with representatives from Bike Easy and Ride, two organizations working on transportation solutions in NOLA. We also ate at Cafe Reconcile, an organization that helps youth learn food service skills through job and social skill training in a restaurant that serves delicious local food.

Working with Jericho Road

Working on the vacant lot with Jericho Road

Our final service project was with Jericho Road, an organization that fights urban blight by beautifying vacant lots and engaging with communities about how to use them, whether for parks, urban gardens, or new homes. We covered a weedy lot with tarp and mulch to keep down weeds, and then painted and hung tires on a fence around a vacant lot that they hope will become a park one day. One of the best parts was meeting the energetic and committed young people who have chosen to work in the organizations we served. It was inspiring to see their dedication, passion, and hard work in the service of making life better for all.

Exhibit Be

Because our focus was social justice, we tried whenever possible to make our activities align with that overarching goal. Our tour of the French Quarter was with Hidden History Tours led by Mr. Leon Waters, a man intent on teaching the history of New Orleans from the point of view of the oppressed rather than the oppressor, and we learned some fascinating stories from him that changed many of our perspectives on certain events. When we visited a t-shirt shop and allowed each student to buy a shirt, we chose Dirty Coast because all of their messaging is about social causes and they donate a portion of their proceeds to organizations working in the area. We had two chances to visit the inspiring Exhibit Be, in Algiers, and hear the story of its inception from Brandon Odums, the artist who made it happen. We all left moved by the images and by the power of art to change lives.



Of course, a trip to New Orleans would not be complete without time in the French Quarter, listening to live music in the street — one of the students was even able to sit in and play his trumpet with a few of the bands! We attended a Sacred Music Festival, a St. Patrick’s Day parade, the National WWII Museum, the Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, and a concert at Preservation Hall. A Trinity graduate who is now a professor at Tulane gave us a private tour of the Middle American Research Institute, engaging the students with passion for his subject area and stories of his professional journey. Meals at restaurants, Po’Boy stands, and in the HandsOn New Orleans bunkhouse kitchen, games in the evening, and singalongs on the balcony rounded out our time together.

Overall, it was a whirlwind of experiences that I’m sure will take some time to sort out. The city is vibrant, alive, recovering, and thriving in many places. Ten years after Katrina there is much to be proud of, and much still to be done. I’m sure these high school seniors will not soon forget the places they went, people they met, activities they did, and issues they were exposed to. I believe we met our big picture goals, and I look forward to seeing what the post-trip evaluations uncover about their experience, how the time affected them, and what it will mean in the future, both for them and for Trinity School.

One students' personal t-shirt design after visiting Dirty Coast. The choice is yours.

One students’ personal t-shirt design after visiting Dirty Coast. The choice is yours!



Making Connections during an Exploratory Trip to New Orleans

Vicki ringing the Coast Guard bell at Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Vicki ringing the Coast Guard bell at Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Earlier this week, Vicki and I spent a whirlwind 48 hours on an exploratory trip in New Orleans. We met with service providers and scoped out potential excursions (don’t worry, our recon included beignet testing at the famous Cafe Du Monde) for a weeklong service-learning program we’re planning for high school seniors from an independent school in New York City.

We have been working on this program design over the past couple of months – researching the city, contacting various organizations, and gathering information from people who formerly lived or currently live in the Big Easy. We have seemingly endless notes from phone calls, meetings, and email chains with people kind enough to impart their knowledge and share their experiences with us. In theory, we had enough information to plan a meaningful experience for this group of students without actually going to New Orleans.

While successful programs have certainly been designed without visiting the program site – I have been involved in the planning of some such experiences myself – there is an undeniable advantage to doing an exploratory trip. Having the opportunity to experience a place firsthand allows us to establish a sense of place, talk with locals, and vet potential activities to ensure they line up with the program’s goals and learning outcomes.

Exploring the French Quarter -- endless opportunities for scavenger hunts!

Exploring the French Quarter — endless opportunities for scavenger hunts!

During our visit to New Orleans, Vicki and I met with three organizations about service opportunities: Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Groundwork New Orleans, and Jericho Road Housing Initiative. I went into the trip expecting that once we learned more about each organization’s current projects, we would settle on one to work with for duration of the week. What I hadn’t realized before being in New Orleans, though, is how connected members of the larger community are to one another. Everyone we met with knew and had worked with everyone else we met with, and each of them is working toward one common goal: protecting New Orleans as a whole – its residents, its environment, and its line of defense against future natural disasters. In realizing this interconnectedness, our thinking around the service component of this program has shifted. We often plan service-learning around one project, allowing students to really immerse in it. Given the collaborative nature of nonprofits in NOLA,  we’re now working on coordinating projects with all three organizations in order to deepen the students’ understanding of the ongoing challenges and successes in New Orleans post-Katrina.


One of many beautiful murals we saw in NOLA. This one is on the wall of the New Orleans Healing Center.

Without meeting face-to-face with the passionate individuals behind these projects, we would have had no way to distinguish real commitment from lip service; no way to know that one of the most important takeaways for students is to understand how united New Orleans is as a community. After merely two days in New Orleans, I feel the connection to the city. I am thrilled to be able to work with the people I met there because I know they are as excited as we are about using service as a vehicle for learning.

I believe exploratory trips are crucial to designing effective programs. Building connections and developing mutual understanding across cultures are at the core of why I work in global education, and being able to make those connections personally allows me to develop more meaningful experiences for my students.