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)
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.
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.
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.
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.