While their classmates are relaxing over the winter holidays, 30 Occidental College students are helping New Orleans residents rebuild their community ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
The Dec. 27 - Jan. 14 trip is the community-based learning component of "Disaster Politics: New Orleans in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina," a course taught by associate politics professor Caroline Heldman and assistant politics professor Thalia Gonzalez. The two professors and adjunct assistant professor Meredith Conroy are accompanying the students as they work on projects such as rebuilding homes, planting a garden and volunteering at the Our School at Blair Grocery, help senior citizens complete basic tasks, and help with other community projects in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Students are providing updates and photos of their work throughout the trip on a blog, http://oxyinneworleans.wordpress.com.
"Disaster Politics" is a life-altering course for many students, said Heldman. Almost 60 percent report that the experience prompted a major shift in their life plans. Most expressed a newfound desire to pursue social justice and many also report a significant increase in their confidence to be involved in politics - a feeling that persisted after graduation.
Over the past four years, students have gutted more than 100 homes, helped to rebuild 75 more, built community gardens, and planted 18,000 seedlings to help restore nearby wetlands. Oxy students also played a major role in opening the New Orleans Women's Shelter, tutored children in after-school programs, and picked up over a ton of debris and trash.
In addition to their hands-on work, students are attending lectures and meetings with residents and well-known activists. In the past, they have included historian Douglas Brinkley, the Reverend Al Sharpton, filmmaker Spike Lee, and actor Brad Pitt.