The New Orleans Community Action Program began with Jennifer Sonkin. A morning news story about housing strikes in New Orleans and the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina, sends her to work determined to design a project for the tenth grade Capstone program at a DC public charter high school. She enlisted the help of Andrea May, a Native New Orleanian relocated to the DC area by the storm. Both of these teachers have roots in the New Orleans community, and their shared experiences led them to work tirelessly in an effort to find the funding, personnel, and students necessary to complete this project. I was enlisted as a male chaperone in the spring, a few months after planning began.
Throughout the planning, we sought to provide a balanced program for our students. We were able to design a two-week course of study with a healthy balance of work and policy. During the first five sessions, we hosted five guest speakers: a member of the Senate Subcommittee for Disaster Recovery, a representative from Freddie Mac, a staffer from the Urban Institute, and the head of a local community action organization. We provided context for the students before each session, and debriefed them afterwards. We focused our policy discussions as sharply as possible on the current housing conditions in New Orleans. These speakers provided multiple perspectives of the housing situations they would encounter on their travels. Rather than force a conceptual framework onto their experiences, this process allowed students to develop their own understanding of the conditions they would encounter in the next week of our project.
The second week of our project was spent in the field in New Orleans. We made a choice to seek lodgings in a facility that would encourage a group identity, and eventually found a hotel that allowed us to share living and eating space. This choice had a profound impact on our experiences, an impact that became increasingly apparent over the next six days as our house-time reflected and reinforced the work we did out in the community. A simple task such as preparing a meal, took on new significance through productive (and pleasant!) collaboration.
While in New Orleans we devoted three days to fieldwork, one day to engaging with policy actors, and one day to cultural exploration.
In the field we participated in community clean-up projects, and had the pleasure to spend two full days with the families who benefited from our work. Our students took advantage completely of this bit of fortune. We worked, ate, rested, and played with members of the community we sought to understand. Further, the students made progress they could see and feel.
We engaged with a cross-section of community activists, grassroots organizers, local committee members, and legislative lobbyists. These voices came from various racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds, but each of them shared one characteristic: they all live and work in the city of New Orleans.
We devoted our entire Sunday to exploring the community of New Orleans without the demands of work and policy. We allowed the students another opportunity to develop an understanding of this nebulous community at their own pace and through their own design.
By Sunday night, the evening before two demanding days of fieldwork, we began to see a group ethos evolve. What began as the simple camaraderie of students traveling together, quickly developed into a powerful, shared purpose. Our evening reflections became more and more substantive and fluent. Household chores were divided and completed. The morning wake-up was pleasant and swift. Our work was long and arduous, but our days were filled with smiles and laughter. When we returned to the city, these experiences allowed our students to speak intelligently about their work. Their time in New Orleans provided them with the necessary context to make sense of the often-complicated world of policy.
The teachers involved in this project have become believers in the power of work to transform communities and students in one, swift movement. All of the people who helped us along the way, each in their own way, told us that we were in for a life-changing experience. They were right.
Samuel Leonard 17 July 2008