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New Branch Out alternative breaks blog

29 Aug

New Branch Out alternative breaks blog

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The Kenya Sustainability Project 2013

30 Apr

KSVP team member Ryan Boles created this Prezi to share more information about their work with COGRI.  Visit it for a glimpse into their work with Nyumbani Village and the things they learned there!

Poverty, unemployment, and labor rights in Philadelphia, PA

23 Apr

Homelessness, poverty, and unemployment are substantial and persistent issues in most of the large cities, with big population and a limited number of jobs available, the job security is very low, workers rights are limited, and wages are under the minimum living level. Such situation creates significant inequality, unstable political situation with a number of riots and society/government clashes, increased levels of crime, and racial discrimination. On the individual level poverty is felt more acutely. In addition to the lack of stable income, or in many cases any sort of income, to provide the primary necessities, such as food and housing, poverty has a great effect on health, both physical and mental, life expectancy, and the access to education.

Philadelphia has one of the largest economies in the United States and simultaneously the largest population that live under the level of poverty. The economy of the city is primarily based on medical research, education, and tourism. Most of the jobs in these sectors require a higher education and the number of available jobs is limited. In addition, the access to primary and secondary education in the city is inadequate and becoming scarcer with years as the schools are closing in order to cut the government’s spending. Thirty percent of the city population live below the poverty level while twelve percent live below half of the poverty level. To look at these proportions in perspective, 400,000 out of 1.5 million Philadelphians live under the level of poverty and 180,000 people live on less than 50% of the poverty level income.

In Philadelphia we arrived on Friday evening. Our home for the week was a church that is located across the street from the Philadelphia City Hall. The main goal of our trip was to explore the labor issues in the area, look into the workings of labor unions, and discover the root causes of poverty. Incidentally, after we had our first dinner at the church we found out that a few volunteers were needed in the homeless shelter that was held downstairs in the basement. Three of us stayed to help. We met two girls from a medical school who volunteer in this shelter once a week. They showed us around the kitchen and introduced us to their usual routine. While the main course of rice and chicken was in the oven, we washed the dishes, cleaned the tables, and opened canned vegetables. When the dinner was prepared we served it in the main hall and after serving stayed in the shelter and talked to the people. Some of them were restrained and not talkative, they ate on their beds and went to sleep, others were happy to learn about the purpose of our trip and share their opinions on the subject. The first evening in the shelter has brought us a step closer to understanding the issues that we were set to explore and made us encounter the problem on a more personal level.

This experience continued a few days later when the church has opened its doors to the hungry and held a big dinner that they call a Grace Café. We were joined by another college group and a great number of volunteers who were preparing and serving food; the children were handing out cups of water at the tables. The large hall that previously held a shelter was packed. There was a line of people that was getting longer with every minute. We spread out to different tables and talked to people about their lives and experiences. Once again many were willing to share their stories, their struggles, and their wishes; others preferred to have more neutral conversations, asked us about our week in Philly, and gave us advice on the interesting locations to visit in our free time. Everyone had great time and made new friends.

In order to generate some income many homeless or unemployed engage in selling the street newspaper One Step Away. It is written by the residents of a Philadelphia shelter, and is meant to raise awareness about homelessness in the city and give an opportunity for the writers to develop a set of skills that can be valuable for their future employment. Each paper is sold for one dollar, the distributors are allowed to keep 75% of the sales. During one of the days of our trip we went outside in snow and rain trying to sell the paper to passersby. Despite the bad weather and the hurrying crowd, some people stopped, bought the paper, or donated a few dollars, while others marched on by without acknowledging our presence. The day’s experience was both tough and rewarding. We learned a great deal about the struggles of those who have to strand on the streets for hours, and in any weather, in order to provide themselves with the few dollars that they receive from the sales but that are sometimes so essential for someone’s survival.

In addition to proving shelter and food for the homeless on the daily basis the church was in the process of working on the Serenity House, a building in one of the poorest areas of Philadelphia that provides people with longer term housing and holds men and women support groups. Even though the renovation and reorganization of the house is sponsored by the church, the house itself remains non-religious and focuses on spirituality in general terms in order welcome people of different religious background. When we arrived to the house, only the first floor was fully renovated, the second floor was partially finished, and the third floor required critical renovation and was full of old furniture. Our work consisted primarily of clearing out the third floor, demolishing the old floor and the old ceiling, painting the walls, and raking the garden. While working on the house we got a chance to think about the effort and the dedication that people put into helping other who are in need, realizing the significance of our participation in the issues of the community, and the necessity of our contribution to the social causes.

Another perspective on the matter was introduced to us during the meeting with the directors of a coalition organization of labor unions and civil groups that strive to impact the legislature on the city and facilitate the change that would benefit the workers. She led us through the process of organizing and carrying out a campaign. She assigned each one of as a role in the system and introduces issues for us to solve and the obstacles that we would face. The agenda on the table was the creation of sick and personal days for the workers of Philadelphia. The first step in the process is collection of the signatures for the petition; once a sufficient number of signatures are collected and the claim of extensive public support of the issue can be made, it has to gain the necessary attention in the media and the city council; for that purpose the street rallies are organized at the City Hall. If despite of the acquired media attention and public support the council member are unresponsive, individual approaches have to be made in order to give them an incentive to support the cause.  In order to bring the issue to the table in the council, a supporter must be found among the council members who can present this issue to the others and convince them of its validity and importance. In order for the legislature to be voted through, it must gain the support of the majority; to ensure this the interested group must divide the members of the council into three groups: yes, no, and maybe. Those members who hesitate on their decision are first incentivized peacefully, if that strategy does not work than, as the last resort, a series of attacks is made on each person individually, such as dumping campaign fliers on the member’s front yard in order to coerce him or her to vote positive. Such actions, when taken to the extreme, entail great risks for the campaign and for the organizers, and oftentimes lead to imprisonment.

Working with another group, a congregation of religious organizations, introduced us closer to this process. We were given clipboards and pens and sent out onto the streets to gather signatures for support of the creation of new jobs for Philadelphians. For the planned construction of a new terminal of Philadelphia International Airport thousands of jobs have to be created, the petition required these jobs to remain in the city and provide the workers with living wages and the necessary benefits. Most of the people who we asked on the street recognized the issue of unemployment and were willing to sign the petition. We collected many signatures but it was too small of a number to come anywhere near to solving the issue or even progressing in the process; and even though the people are willing to support the cause, a great amount of effort must be put into raising a broader awareness about the issue, educating people about the possible ways to support it, and encouraging them to act.

Our work in Philadelphia gave me an entirely new perspective on the issues of poverty and unemployment. As student who is majoring in International Relations in Economic I spend a great amount of time learning about the issues of development. In Philadelphia I could encounter the problem in practice. Academically, it gave me a greater insight into the problem and allowed to look at the issue of development in greater complexity. Personally, I gained a unique experience that made me appreciate life and people a bit more and allowed me to meet many great individuals with different backgrounds, different position, different opinions, but all fighting for the same causes: human rights, equality, and social justice.

- Elena Gillis

Why I Would Work in a KIPP School in Rural NC

17 Apr

By Mary Grech

         I’ve know that I wanted to be I teacher since I was in the second grade. Now I am almost ready to start looking for my first teaching job. I will be graduating next May with a BA in Anthropology, a minor in History, and a strong interest in education inequality issues and reform. My experience working with children will include tutoring and mentoring at an after-school program, and a summer experience teaching English in Vietnam. I will be looking for a school where I will be able to challenge myself, my students, and the status quo of the US education system, while simultaneously giving and receiving support and constructive criticism.

         So as a future teacher about to make the leap to the classroom, here are some of the great reasons why I would consider applying for employment at KIPP-style school in this area:

The Area

         From what I could glean from my week-long Branch Out experience, rural North Carolina is a very small but interesting place. While they have various indicators of development such as a Food Lion, a Wal-Mart, and a Chinese restaurant, they are also encompassed by great nature scenery. With Lake Gaston and many fields nearby, the rural scene offers natural relaxation. However, it is easy to see the limits of the area, ranging from a lack of weekend activities to a slow job market, high poverty, and underlying social justice issues that have lasted since slavery. The rural NC area presents the opportunity for me to tackle education inequality in a smaller community that is in a more natural setting than the larger, inner-city public schools I would also consider applying to.

The School Culture

         One of the issues commonly talked about while discussing education reform is how to incorporate school culture and how to change it. The KIPP model tackles this issue head-on by establishing a school culture from the beginning. From the day students enroll in the school, both kids and their parents sign commitments that agree to fulfill set responsibilities in order to remain within the realms of the model. They are required to wear dress clothes, a college T-shirt, or a KIPP shirt in order to advocate group unity and focus. Students are taught to actively participate in the classroom without using their voices through various hand signals (raising hands when they know an answer, touching fingers when they connect with a comment or subject material, and sending love to encourage a fellow member of the pride through “spirit fingers”). Volume vocab (ranging from zero to outside voices) and CATS (Close your mouth, Ask and answer questions, Track the speaker, Sit and stay still) guide student behavior during class as well as during class meetings and lunches.

         A controversial aspect of the KIPP model, “benching”, is also put into action to set the standard of expected behavior. When students have been mean or dishonest, they are confronted by a teacher, must own their action, call home, and flip their shirt inside out. For the next three days, they sit on the periphery of the classroom and lunchroom and are only allowed to talk with teachers. After three days of completing all of their homework, paying attention in classes, and reflecting on their “Bench Action Plan”, students appear of the entire Pride, own their actions, and share their reflections. While many are hesitant about the severity of this system, I appreciated “benching” as a tool for teachers to immediately discipline students without removing them from the classroom learning environment.


         One of my favorite aspects of the school we were in was its curriculum. Teachers did not lower expectations or grade work easier in order to boost achievement scores. Students are given tough work that requires attention to detail as well as critical thinking. However, what made the curriculum at this KIPP school extraordinary was its focus on critical thinking towards society. Courses help students acknowledge the reality, so that they have a concrete understanding of the status quo they are set out to change. For example, the fact that the school was built on a peanut field worked on by slaves is a part of open conversation which serves as motivation as to what has been overcome and what is yet to be. In addition, the special course on the achievement gap taught to 8th graders also explains and provides motivation for doing the extra work KIPP requires. It instills onto students how to succeed in the current status of society and then reform the status quo by infusing tolerance, civic responsibility, and equality into society.

Work Environment

         The work environment there was very supportive and energizing. Teachers had the liberty to personalize their classrooms (painting the walls, buying posters, placing furniture) and express themselves through bulletin boards. I also loved how the teachers gathered in the staff room in the mornings and weekends by playing music in a casual, but passionate atmosphere. By following the structure of a class and using all of the KIPP culture techniques, teachers excitedly talked about the personal successes and struggles experiences by staff during the week and how to upload lesson plans to the KIPP website. They were then sent off to different rooms where they found a bag of gifts and a project to work on as a department. The energy in the meeting was high; encouragement and collaboration were sought out and rewarded; and the sense of community between employees was apparent and strong. It was clear that staff members were able to joke together while still staying serious about working hard and teaching kids.


         As with any place, the heart of this school’s community was its people. The students were ready to learn and inspired by their teachers, which made their goals not only reachable, but inspiring. The teachers worked like crazy, but still had fun because of their passion for education and education inequality issues. The office staff was also remarkable. As I sat grading papers in a nearby room, I heard the women in the office serve as nurses, disciplinarians, bank tellers, liaisons to parents, and intern supervisors. Their jack-of-all-trades and do-what-it-takes perspective on their role at the school epitomizes the general spirit of all the people at this KIPP school in NC.

         In short, this trip exposed me to the beautiful area, means of setting school culture, challenging curriculum that promotes social change, a supportive and passionate work environment, and people who are ready to work hard for both themselves and others. Rural North Carolina will definitely be on my radar next fall as I start the job application process.

BON in Rural Virginia

17 Apr

By Alex May

          This spring break, I spent time in rural Virginia.  You probably haven’t heard of the town.  I know that I hadn’t, but I was looking forward to going on my first major service trip, and I didn’t mind that I hadn’t heard of it before.  I didn’t even have a complete understanding as to what we would we doing in rural Virginia for a whole week, but that didn’t bother me, either.  All I knew was we would be working with a non-profit organization, so I waited until we got there to learn more about what we were doing.

            The non-profit organization we worked with is a statewide grassroots organization that aims to make positive change in all communities across the state.  They spread awareness to the people of Virginia about pertinent issues, by which they might not even be aware that they’re being afflicted with, and have a political presence that is slowly, but steadily, growing.

            A grassroots group like the one we worked with is powered by the people that it tries to reach.  Volunteers are absolutely essential, and without them, the organization would fall apart.  Therefore, recruitment is a large part of the day-to-day work.  That’s where we came in.  The organization finds potential new members by canvassing, which is a glamorous word for knocking on strangers’ doors, handing them an informative flyer, and trying to sell their cause in the precious few seconds of time they are given.

            Like many other American children, I was raised never to talk to strangers, let alone ring their doorbells and have political conversations with them.  I’ll admit that I was more than I little nervous as I approached my first house, because I was armed with nothing but a clipboard and a stack of flyers.  Before I knew it, though, I had the pitch down cold, with a few of my own unique twists.  Not long after I was recruiting new members left and right and generating a lot of interest for issues such as protecting social security and voter rights, the winterization of homes, among others.  After that, I went door to door in a housing project and had great conversations with some of the nicest people I’d ever met in my life.  To be honest, I’d never set foot in public housing before, and by that point in the week, it never even occurred to me to think twice about doing it. I was amazed at the hospitality that I received from people of all social classes and all races. I was invited into huge mansions and tiny apartments because people genuinely cared about what I had to say.  It was eye-opening to say the least, because in this day and age, it’s easy to forget to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best in everybody.

            Never again will I be suspicious of strangers just because I’m passing through a “bad area” in town.  Citizens in rural Virginia showed me that the majority of people are friendly, curious, and always looking for a good conversation.

Early Childhood Education in DC

17 Apr

By Dwight Weingarten

           Over my spring break, ten other William & Mary students and I went to Washington, D.C. to volunteer in two schools with different education systems. One school followed the KIPP model, while the other followed the STEM model. The focus of the trip was early childhood education and bridging the achievement gap. I was assigned to help out in a preschool classroom for two days at the KIPP school and in a pre-K classroom at the STEM school for another two days.  I will never forget the relationships that I formed with these children in just two short days. I was accepted immediately by classes, showing me how are so tractable and welcoming children are.

           As one who is studying to be a secondary school teacher, I may have had the notion that early childhood education was not as important as middle and high school education. But through this trip I realized that every stage in a child’s development is so crucial. If the students do not begin to recognize letters in pre-K, then reading in kindergarten becomes more difficult and as a result their first grade teacher then has to try to help a student catch up when he or she is only six years old. The same can be said of social development. If kids do not learn to interact with each other in pre-K then they might not fit in as they advance to the higher grades. These early stages cannot be dismissed as trivial. Through the trip I saw that this how this culture is beginning to change: both preschools had regimented learning activities that were much more difficult than I remember having at that age socially and academically.

           Another thing that I learned is that we are privileged as college students. We have received education. It is our responsibility and duty to use what we have learned to give back. Going on this trip made me think about how I think about my own education. A particular moment in the trip helped me crystallize this idea. While working in some pre-K classrooms, I met I befriended a child that I met as I walked into the classroom. This child was not familiar with letters yet and could not read. He was only three years old. I tried to teach this child the letter “S”. He must have said, “I can’t do it” a half dozen times, because it seemed that at three years old he had already gotten in his mind that he could not learn. We persisted and he learned the letter, which he pointed out throughout the rest of the school day. No one can take that knowledge away from this child now. When I returned to W&M, I was back to reading hundreds of pages for my history classes. The question came to me: “What is the main purpose of my education? Reading this?” The answer came to me. The main purpose is to share what we have learned and give back to others. This constructive exchange of ideas is what colleges continually need to strive for.

         This trip confirmed my sentiment that millions of kids need help. They not only need help in DC, but also in Williamsburg, my hometown of Baltimore, and all across the nation. On my trip, I was not the “teacher” but I did manage to teach. I taught kids something they did not know, such as the letter “S,” for example. I have taken these experiences back to the middle school tutoring that I do in Williamsburg in hopes of trying to teach to give back to others. When something real and meaningful is taught, it is never forgotten. In the transmission of information, relationships are formed, smiles are seen, and a positive impact is felt.

My Heart Lies in North Carolina

15 Apr

By Abby Bowman

          I went in to this trip a little skeptical of the KIPP education system but very excited to work in a school for a week. My expectations were completely blown away by the amazingly hard-working teachers and learning-conducive, inspiring atmosphere of the school that led to one of the best weeks I have experienced. Being someone who wants to dedicate their life to education by becoming a teacher, this week was a huge learning experience that provided me with hope and passion to keep pursuing that.

        Rural North Carolina is an area where many residents are unemployed do not have many options for jobs. In the district we visited, there are about three secondary schools, aside from the KIPP school. Therefore, in an area like this, a school that focuses heavily on academics and dedicates itself to its students is an incredible godsend. The KIPP school we visited sends almost all of its graduates to 4-year-colleges, many of which are first generation students. More importantly, however, they care for the kids, help them prepare for the future, and help break the opportunity and achievement gaps prevalent in the American school system. With a longer school year, longer school days, more rigorous coursework, methods that promote community and learning, and discipline that is more strict than the standard, the school operates very differently than most. Sometimes this is exactly what an area like this needs. It provides individualized help and dedicated people to those who need it most.

        Working in the school, the first thing I noticed was just how energetic the teachers were and how much they work. Working from at least 7:30am to 5pm every day can take a toll on most people. However, these teachers showed continuous passion for the job and care for the children, and never stopped being great teachers. On top of that, the students seem to have picked up on the community aspect promoted by the school, where they care about one another and participate in the little things like wiggling their fingers at someone to “send them love” when they are struggling with a question. I was also very impressed by the fact that some of the students in middle school were taking high school level classes, and the kindergarteners could not only speak some Spanish but could read and write very well. While there were some things that seemed abrasive, like the “bench” system of discipline (which seemed to isolated students who misbehaved for minor things), the school overall seemed like a place that was doing very well for the community and resources it had.

        It is very rare that one finds a school, especially in a low-income area, where every teacher and administrator is extremely dedicated to their students, or where almost all of the students go off to 4-year colleges and seem to be on the same level academic playing field. In rural NC, I believe they have that. For me, that was one of the most amazing things to see, because with all the things I hear about the horrible state of the U.S. education system and how many suffer because of it, this was a reminder that I should not give up and that it is possible to make a huge difference and help fix these problems. I was so glad and grateful to be a part of this in all the small ways I could. The teachers definitely needed our help and to be able to help such a fantastic program, even for a short time, is wonderful.

Education Systems and Social Justice in DC

15 Apr

 By Emily Lopynski

“The reality in Washington D.C. is if you live in Tenleytown versus if you live in Anacostia, you get two wildly different educational experiences. It’s the biggest social injustice imaginable. What we are allowing to happen in this day and age, we are still allowing the color of a child’s skin and the Zip code they live in to dictate their educational outcome, and therefore their life outcome. … We are robbing them every single day of their futures. And everybody in this country should be infuriated by that.”  — Michelle Rhee in a speech at a D.C. restaurant, May 2008

          Social justice is something that counters the forces of power inequality, privilege, and oppression that have negative effects on individuals and communities. The ideas of power, privilege, and equality are very relevant to my trip to DC.

Power: someone’s relative status in society (often political, can be social). The more power you have the more likely you can use your actions to achieve desired outcomes.   

            With this definition of power in mind, we can say Washington DC is considered one of the most powerful cities in the world. The Supreme Court, the World Bank, Congress, the White House, the IMF building all represent the power of the city. There are lawyers, congressman, businessman, and politicians who all possess a share of the power of DC They belong to the elite and powerful class of American society. There is another group of people in DC: District residents, 30,500 of which are children that live below the poverty threshold as defined by the Census Bureau (Power and Policy). These residents, and many others who are struggling to make ends meet, do not experience the benefits of power from the city they live in. In truth, they experience the negative effects of it. The ideas of power and lack thereof directly affected my host community. But what was encouraging to me was that the teachers I interacted with did not tell the children that they are not in a position to inherit power. In my pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms, I could see how the teachers empowered the children though encouragement. New skills and knowledge were a source of empowerment for the students. The teachers at the KIPP school would also read stories about successful African-American inventors, athletes, and other famous African-Americans. It seems that the school intentionally used African-American role models and leaders in a school of a 100% African-American student body to empower the students. The KIPP model also stressed the importance of being a leader and making the right choices. The KIPP school curriculum incorporated a strategy called Tool of the Mind that encouraged self-development and personal responsibility. Both schools were empowering their students any way they could.

Oppression: unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power. Oppression keeps an individual or group of people form accessing basic necessities, public goods, or achieving their full potential.

          As I move forward, the faces of the children that I spent time with give meaning to the injustice of oppression, power inequality, and privilege disparity. I hope to find the niche where I can make the most impact on the children who face such oppression and inequality on a daily basis.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people” –Martin Luther King Jr.

          In the Fall I was in the Sharpe Seminar “The Opportunity Gap in U.S. Schools”. My Branch Out experience supported what I learned about the U.S. education system and education inequality. This trip allowed me to see what I learned about KIPP schools in action. I was able to compare DC public schools with a DC charter schools. The Branch Out trip also reminded me how unjust the education system is and that the opportunity gap needs to be dealt with. I am now considering majors related education policy and inequality.

          I plan to stay connected to this social issue for a long time. I have recently joined the Students for Education Reform chapter at William and Mary. I hope to be involved with this issue in some capacity beyond college. This might be through afterschool program volunteering, working at a non-profit, or being involved in education policy. My Branch Out trip has confirmed my understanding of the issues in the education system. What I learned on my trip has encouraged me to find a way to serve the children who suffer from the effects of poverty.


“Poverty and Policy”

Merriam-Websters Online Dictionary

Comparing Education Systems in DC

15 Apr

By Chantelle Tait

            This trip was eye-opening, exhilarating, and heartbreaking, all at the same time. My group of 11 stayed in a hostel in North West DC and drove another neighborhood in another part of DC every morning. The neighborhood we were in is one of the most dangerous in America, and driving through it was a sobering experience for me.

            During the first few days of the week we worked in a KIPP-style charter preschool. I worked in two classrooms: one kindergarten classroom and a prekindergarten classroom. The time I spent in both classrooms was radically different from what my elementary school days were like. Every room had a teacher to lead the class and an aide to help the teacher. All teachers shared a very specific vocabulary such as “catch a bubble” for “be quiet,” “friend” for “classmate/kid/sweetie,” “spoons in our bowls” for “hands in our laps,” “capiche” for “okay,” among others. The teachers told us that this was to foster a sense of continuity for the kids as they went through the grades. However, classes in this school were highly regimented and kids were much disciplined. Kids could be “off the team” (their names were taken off a certain display) for bad behavior and any slight disrespect or failure to obey the teacher was dealt with briskly. Teachers’ days started at 7:30am and ended at 4:30pm, which made these variables tough to deal with for such a long time.

            As you can imagine, this routine was quite new to everyone in our group. At first we questioned the developmental appropriateness of these techniques (after all, aren’t 3 to 5 year-olds too young to adhere to such a regimented system?).  However, I personally came to the conclusion that for many of these kids the extreme discipline was necessary.

            This structured system was contrasted sharply by what we found in the other school we visited: a public STEM-style school that no longer has funds for its STEM programming. Each room had two teachers, but their roles were more clearly differentiated than those in the KIPP school. In KIPP, the point had been to have both teachers be able to carry half the weight by the end of the year. By comparison, the teacher carried most of the weight in the STEM school, and in some classrooms it seemed like the aide did anything at all. In my classroom, which was a mixed preschool and prekindergarten class, the aide was not very helpful. It was frustrating to watch. The atmosphere at the second school was much less regimented. Students were still reprimanded for doing something that was blatantly wrong, but days were shorter and the rules seemed more flexible. Some teachers incorporated vocabulary such as the one we heard in the KIPP school, but it wasn’t used as universally between them. This setting seemed more relaxed and more refreshing after the KIPP school’s strict structure. But, our group wondered if this system set up these kids to fail later on, even though it seemed more appropriate.

Nevertheless, both education systems implemented in each of the schools did have similarities. Both schools tried to teach the children through play and activities. The STEM school incorporated a Tools of the Mind curriculum, which revolved around imaginative play and learning situations by recreating them. The KIPP school involved centers where children performed different activities, like writing letters or playing with Play-Doh. In this way, both systems took advantage of children’s inquisitive natures. Both schools also required students to take standardized tests starting in kindergarten. I couldn’t believe that they start that young now!

            Overall, this trip was a fantastic experience. I was able to see things in action that I had previously only read about in my Sharpe freshman seminar. I was able to gain new perspectives and ideas on education reform. I made some great friends and had a blast navigating DC with fellow college students! This trip was a highlight of my freshman year.

Spinach and Social Justice: BON in Lynchburg

11 Apr

By C. Michael Steiner

I am writing from a place deep down inside of me where I once harbored doubts and worries about whether the countless projects, pledges, and causes I’ve supported would ever amount to any real change in this world. I tried to be an optimist, but I often became fatigued with the ailments of society. I settled my lack of ease by pretending that someone somewhere would sweat and shout on my behalf because I was too busy to be an active component of change in this world. But, I finally had these doubts put to rest after witnessing what can happen when inspiration is backed up by dedication in a small, post-industrial town in Virginia. Befitting such wonderful analogy, the urban farm we worked with in Lynchburg has blossomed from a tiny operation in a few dilapidated greenhouses to a fully functional non-profit that supplies fresh food to many neighbors, a local school, and a food bank. The organization has become a community center, which connects students and retirees, volunteers and staff, people with a wide range of incomes and disabilities, all the while working to alter how we think about food and sustainable agriculture.

What We Did:

The organization depends almost exclusively on the efforts of volunteers to maintain their operation. The William and Mary team provided much needed physical labor to update, expand, and maintain the farm operation. We dug ditches, hauled gravel, planted spinach, and weeded alongside some wonderful local volunteers. We learned about the problems present in our food systems, such as hunger and food insecurity while also exploring the logistics of running a small farm. I was able to inquire about the financial sustainability of the operations and learned that the farm was slowly becoming less dependent upon federal grants. However this would fuel future questions about the economic sustainability and costs associated with starting these types of community building farm operations.

Why We Did It:

Food systems in the United States don’t work. Our industrialized agricultural system causes extreme environmental damage.  People with lower-incomes can’t afford to eat, allowing wealth to define hunger and geographic access to the food supply. This creates what is called a food desert in low income areas. Further, communities are falling apart because of a disconnect that grows larger between produce on the farm and the dining table. Many families lack the knowledge necessary to prepare fresh foods and thus our health continues to decline.

Picture This:

There is a convenience store on a street corner in an isolated neighborhood that serves as the main source of food for its residents. The closest grocery store is an hour’s bus ride away. There is almost no fresh produce and most food is heavily processed with enormously high levels of sugar, sodium, and fat. The people who rely on this convenience store work long hours in low-end jobs in far-away neighborhood for a wage that falls below the standard, requiring a long, expensive commute. When these individuals get back home they barely have time to accomplish basic household tasks, before sleeping for less than eight hours and waking up to do it again. Time would be even more pressed with the added responsibility of preparing fresh produce for dinner. This is an example of a food desert. We commonly think of “hunger” as a physical state of being, but hunger incorporates food security as a term with regard to poverty, malnutrition, and access to quality calories. American food systems and the process of feeding its communities are closely tied to issues of fair wages, city planning, environmental degradation, and the American industrial complex. Much of the food available in grocery stores come from large, industrialized farms. These farms themselves cause massive environmental degradation. When the produce needs to find its way to a dinner plate, it must be trucked hundreds of miles, contributing to environmental degradation. We hope that there will be more small community-building farms that can work to complement the supply of the industrial complex while cutting down on pollution, pesticides, and CO2 emissions.

Bonding and Meditation:

When shoveling gravel we would play “the question game”: whoever was managing the wheelbarrow between stations would answer simple questions of preference, dreams, wants, etc., and convey the answers to the other team. We learned more about each other than I can fit in a blog post. Through these questions we gained the opportunity to delve deeper into each other’s stories and get a glimpse of the life that each team member led beyond this experience. We also played this game with the farm staff and volunteers from a local college. One of the founders of the farm was so eager to engage in conversation that he enthusiastically explained the medical condition he lives and works in daily. We received so much training before coming to the farm about how to engage in conversation with people who have disabilities, but once I came to the farm I realized how simple it really is. Everyone wants to be treated equally. After meeting people in the farm who have a disability and spending time with them, I came to dislike the term “disability,” because any given individual from the farm would be able to dig a trench faster and better than me, while our resident TV expert could easily beat me in TV Trivia. But, because disabilities are physically manifested, we assume that these individuals lack the ability to contribute to their communities, which is just not true. Our daily reflection periods allowed us to carefully consider the lessons learned during the day.

Lessons Learned:

1. The Importance of Maintaining Long-Term Vision to Accomplish Short-Term Goals

I signed up for manual labor, and boy did this trip come through in supplying it. The largest group project that spanned the week was the trench for the new strawberry greenhouse. This trench, dug with shared sweat, would become the physical and symbolic manifestation of our labors and serve as a vital component in the farm’s irrigation system. The knowledge that our work would translate into an important part in the long-term story of the farm allowed us to have a sense of purpose and pride in the hours spent with a pick ax.

2. The Power of Privilege

Most people who buy produce from local, organic venues are upper middle class folks who have the time and money to spend. This is a problem that the farm is actively addressing. They have purchased a van that they intend to outfit with refrigeration in order to bring fresh, healthy produce into the food deserts of Lynchburg. It is so important that we work to combat the stereotypes that tag along with ethical food practices. Ethical food does not have to be an elitist luxury. It can be the lifeblood of communities around the country.

Going Forward, Continuing the Mission

I contacted my high school environmental science teacher to tell her about our trip and I’m hoping that one day my high school will sponsor a service group of their own. This trip really allowed me the chance to understand how food issues can be addressed in holistic ways to approach larger problems. I am very interested in post-conflict development in the Middle East and Africa. I would love to combine post-conflict development with community building, city planning, and food security in holistic state-building projects such as Iraq and Palestine. Is the economic sustainability of community-supported agriculture a fair-weather phenomenon? With a huge leg up in lowered labor and transport costs, why do small farm operations have a hard time competing? How can small farms serve as community building apparatuses in post-conflict regions? I have a lot to think about, now.


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