One student’s Alternative Break in New Orleans

UC Berkeley student Alicia Hernandez spent her spring break in New Orleans as part of an ongoing Alternative Breaks effort. As soon as she got back, she reflected on the experience.

By Alicia Hernandez

It’s was about 8 p.m. as we arrived to the Lower 9th Ward Village where we were welcomed with warm regards by Mack, a community organizer, leader, and visionary for his home, the Lower 9th Ward. The area has become a community united by a mutual struggle in the quest for recovery after Hurricane Katrina, where the bonds of family and the shared feeling of love resonate and prevail amidst broken roads, houses and hearts.

Alternative Breaks in New Orleans

Alternative Break students from UC Berkeley clear tar paper from a school garden in the Lower 9th Ward.

We settled in, beds side by side to one another, with excitement about the week that awaited us in New Orleans. Little did we know how close we would become after experiencing first-hand the inequities and injustices that plague the Lower 9th Ward community through our service with local community partners. Having the opportunity to listen to the stories of the local people of New Orleans allowed us to have a different outlook on the situation. It was not long before we had fallen in love with the city and its people and joined in their fight for equality and justice as we resolved that in some way, their struggles are bound up with ours.

We began our week working with an organization called Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, whose vision is to provide educational opportunities for children who have been displaced since Hurricane Katrina, regardless of the color of their skin our their economic situation. We spent the day doing gardening work in the school garden, pulling weeds, creating a fertilizer, picking up trash and clearing a walking path — in the process, learning the importance of providing children a community garden that has the potential of allowing for a safe place to express creativity through learning.

The following day we went to a village in New Orleans called Versailles, which is the home of a strong community base of Vietnamese Americans. We worked alongside members of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation and helped take water samples that will aid in assessing the contamination of the local water supply in New Orleans. We also learned about the new initiative that is being embraced by the Versailles community that focuses on the sustainable production of vegetation through the installation of filtration tanks that contain fish whose waste is implanted in the soil as a fertilizer, thus generating a continuous stream of food supply and production.

What was remarkable about New Orleans as we experienced it was the sense of unity and support that trespassed boundaries of racial division. This became apparent when speaking to our community partners who expressed their solidarity with the different ethnic communities within New Orleans, particularly the African American and Vietnamese American communities.

The next day we were exposed to issues faced by the New Orleans population regarding food security and health while volunteering at Just the Right Attitude, which is Louisiana’s largest food bank. This community center exposed us to the web of forces that contribute to socioeconomic inequities in vulnerable communities within New Orleans like the Lower 9th Ward. Accessibility to resources and services is disproportionally skewed in such a way that disadvantaged neighborhoods get less help from the government. There is so much bureaucracy in the allocation of aid to help rebuild New Orleans that most of the time the money never gets to the people and their communities and instead ends up in the wrong hands.

When visiting the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, we reflected on these issues of socioeconomic injustice and delved into a discussion about the prevalence of crime in New Orleans. We learned that the crime and incarceration rate in Louisiana is the highest in the entire world. These statistics should anger us, but how can we act surprised when we know that there are no manifest efforts being made to challenge an environment that is being forced to resort to crime and violence to survive. Poor neighborhoods within New Orleans are not being supported by the government to foster safe communities.

One fact that perplexed us during our stay in New Orleans was hearing from the community about the lack of investment in education, as evidenced by their only being one school in the community of the Lower 9th Ward. We learned that over 500 students are on the wait list to enroll, aside from other obstacles that hinder the prospects of children attaining an education, like issues with displacement after Katrina and transportation.

Our week long service-learning trip challenged our perceptions about the reality that is New Orleans post-Katrina. We found ourselves questioning the systems in place that perpetuate patterns of inequality and injustice within the communities we had the privilege to visit and learn from.

Despite the challenges and the fact that New Orleans has been unfairly dealt with, there exists an unbroken spirit carried by the Crescent City’s people that holds much power, resilience, and hope. We left our hearts in New Orleans and now we consider it to be a home to us. From a distance we remain connected to New Orleans through our memories, experiences, and the knowledge we gained along the way. We will carry that knowledge everywhere we go in our quest for social justice. The hospitality and humility of everyone we met, the delicious shrimp and crawfish Mack surprised us with, and the sheer friendliness everyone carries themselves with was enough to make everyone one of us want to return to the Crescent City!