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UMD Alternative Breaks New Orleans Experience

In January, I had the honor and pleasure of joining the UMD Alternative Breaks ten day trip to New Orleans as a staff advisor. This student led service-learning experience was focused on environmental justice, specifically the intersections between race, socioeconomic class, and the environment in the aftermath of natural disasters. We served alongside community partners in New Orleans who have long been supporting the community, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

For the Lower 9th Ward, Hurricane Katrina was a storm that became a disaster as a result of engineering failures, discrimination and the slow pace of political action during and after the 2005 hurricane. The disaster put the city underwater more than a decade ago, but, in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, the community has not fully recovered. The social and environmental impact of not one, but two, hurricanes in the Lower 9th Ward are still being felt today. Our Alternative Breaks experience included a great deal of education and reflection on the injustices faced by these neighborhoods.

On the trip, we joined Common Ground Relief in their efforts to rehabilitate wetlands in New Orleans that have been damaged by salt water intrusion, land loss, invasive species and development. Wetland restoration has proven highly beneficial to reduce storm surges with high cost effectiveness, thus lessening a storm’s inland effects. Common Ground Relief does this work as part of their mission “to create resilient Gulf Coast Communities that are environmentally sustainable, financially viable and personally cohesive.” During our time with this organization, we planted over 400 trees to prevent erosion in the Bonnet Carré Spillway and to help restore Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.

The trip’s focus on justice as well as social and environmental sustainability was, not only, a great interest to our group, but is also a priority for the Alternative Breaks program. Alternative Breaks trips include 12 components, including living simply and minimizing our impact. In an effort accomplish this on our experience, we avoided air travel and instead opted for lower-emission van transportation to New Orleans. We ate a primarily vegetarian diet, brought reusable materials to avoid disposables, and made conscious efforts to buy in bulk to avoid excess packaging. This made the experience richer and was a lesson for all of us  to be conscientious citizens.

The New Orleans Alternative Break trip was led by Experience Leaders Alex Oritz and Joseph Thompson and included nine undergraduate student participants. For a more in-depth look at our experience, check out the blog where the students kept day by day accounts of our educational and community service activities. Visit Alternative Breaks for more information on this trip and the many others offered throughout the year.

--Lee-Ellen Myles, Green Housing Associate 

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