“I don’t want people to think the work is done:” Macalester’s Ten Years of Solidarity with New Orleans

August 31, 2015

In 2006, many 15-passenger vans arrived in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Faculty, staff, and student volunteers from campuses around the country, including Macalester College, responded to the disaster by mucking out houses, cutting back overgrowth, and helping people find a way home. Ten years after the storm, Macalester continues to stand in solidarity with it’s New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) partners, and adapted their involvement as the landscapeof community recovery has evolved. These days, when staff leads Ruth Janisch Lake and Sedric McClure ask their NOLA partners “How can we support you?” their partners tell them that the lessons, struggles, and sustaining cultural institutions of New Orleans must not be forgotten.

“We’re here to discover our common humanity.”

Over the last decade Macalester has built a multifaceted connection with NOLA. In 2009 staff and faculty traveled to NOLA for the Imagining America national conference which laid the foundation for longer term partnerships with several community-based organizations. In January 2010 the Macalester Urban Faculty Colloquium was held in several neighborhoods throughout New Orleans exploring issues of community resiliency. In March of 2010 Macalester’s first-year Bonner Scholars started traveling to New Orleans for a week of study and service to dig into the complex stories of community resiliency, cultural survival, and education reform in NOLA, after preparing for the experience with a semester of curricular and experiential education. McClure tells students, “We’re not here primarily to help. We’re here to discover our common humanity.” Over time, Macalester groups have realized that they could have the greatest impact by not only providing direct service but by dissolving the illusion that New Orleans was somehow not also a story of America. Macalester’s community has been touched broadly by this partnership. Over the past ten years, over 160 students, 11 faculty and 12 staff have traveled to the area. Additionally, the local NOLA alumni group has been reinvigorated and a college trustee from NOLA regularly meets with the Mac representatives.

Robert Green (center) sitting among Macalester first year students



“How do we sustain all of these accomplishments?”
Cyndi Nguyen, Executive Director of VIET(Vietnamese Initiatives in Education and Training) is a key partner who has been working with Macalaster for years. She says, “I don’t want people to think that the work is done,” because community members of NOLA have built, healed, and survived. She asks, “How do we sustain all of these accomplishments?” — and, in the cases where not enough has been accomplished, “we need to be reminded of the ones we’ve forgotten.” She sees a role for long-term partners like Macalester  in accomplishing this mission. She hosts Bonners at VIET to learn about the resilience of NOLA’s Vietnamese community and the current challenge of restoring early childhood education in the city. In return, the students help VIET with physical projects, like the construction of a wetland education center on 8 acres of abandoned property that had been used as a dump and would have otherwise been filled in with concrete due to sinking. Nguyen says that what she appreciates about working with the college is her ongoing relationships with the staff: “They’re respectful. They don’t forget about us. We stay in touch and I love that.”  

A “positive direction, as opposed to a blind direction”
Robert Green, a St. Olaf College alum and president of the Historic Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Association, says that when the students come to his home to “talk, eat gumbo, and really ask questions, we develop unity in a more focused way.” Students learn to engage with the city in a “positive direction, as opposed to a blind direction” — too often people come to the city to help without being in relationship with its residents or without getting to know life beyond the French Quarter. When the Bonner students sit and talk with Green, they engage as emerging change-makers themselves. They are drawing connections between NOLA and their ongoing community engagement in Saint Paul, through the Bonner Program. When they leave, they bring home not only stories of struggle, but experiences of deep community. They participate in, rather than watch, second line parades. McClure says students experience being welcomed into deep and inclusive community, and “more of us could stand to know this. There is healing in that.” Students’ relationships to social justice are often shaped by this experience. John Stark ‘16, currently an Art for Social Change program assistant at the college says, “A lot of what I’m about now was highly informed by my experience in NOLA,” where he saw that through acts of daily living, we are “living our personal lives as political.”

The college’s “bridge” to New Orleans
Now, after ten years of Macalester engagement in their city, NOLA partners will  present at Macalester’s  International Roundtable on Education in a Globalized World: Equity, Diversity and Civic Participation. Featuring experts in the lived experience of education reform, there will be conversations led by New Orleans community leaders , organizers and parents. Cyndi Nguyen will bring lessons from the New Orleans Recovery School District, the vast network of charter schools that garners national attention and fuels controversy. Parent Organizers, Ashana Bigard and Damekia Morgan will shed light on the parental experience in what Janisch Lake calls a “system of schools where there is no school system,” or structure through which parents can advocate for their children across schools.

Ngan Nguyen & NOLA Pen Pal, Tammy Young



Macalester has also decided to place New Orleans at the center of its 2015 Common Read. All first-year students will begin their first college conversations through the lens of the book Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children by journalist Sarah Carr. The college’s Bonner Scholars, like Ngan Nguyen ’17 and Tracy Pham ‘18, who have gone through intensive, experiential engagement with the issues in the book, in New Orleans as well as in the St. Paul Public Schools, will lead discussions on the book, drawing on their real-world knowledge and relationships. Nguyen thinks of the Bonners as the college’s “bridge” to New Orleans, where Pham says powerful civil rights issues are at play.

While the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is prompting significant media attention, when yet another anniversary passes, the struggle, the partnerships, and the learning will not stop. The newest class of Bonner leaders is scheduled to arrive at Mr. Green’s house this January. As they share steaming gumbo and stories of their lives, a bond of common humanity and friendship will be strengthened along both ends of the Mississippi River.

by Sinda Nichols, Minnesota Campus Compact