Serendipity: Merriam-Webster defines this as luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for. This is the word that has stuck with me, having arrived home from our service trip to New Orleans.
A few weeks ago, an active FES (Future of Ethical Societies) member took the lead on organizing this trip down to New Orleans. Christian, in Philadelphia, got in contact with Nat Turner who is the founder of the place with which we did service– Our School at Blair Grocery. I followed his lead, unsure if I’d even be able to attend myself, and began fundraising with a Gofundme account just three weeks before the trip. To my surprise, I raised $1,040 in just under a week and our goal was $1,000, and Christian raised around $300.
So with the funds in place, we got 9 people in total on board to make the trip to New Orleans and do service with Our School at Blair Grocery, an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward which seeks to engage and empower youth through the active and reflective practice of sustainability thinking and food justice. The Lower Ninth Ward is a very poor neighborhood quite clearly neglected by the city and also the most directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina. This is the area right next to where the levee broke, and OSBG is mere blocks from the levee.
Five came from Philadelphia, two from New York, and two from St. Louis, and we all stayed in a small shotgun style home owned by the founder of OSBG (Nat Turner). At the present time, the actual building of Blair Grocery, which normally houses the farm workers and sits on the same property as the farm, is awaiting $100,000 in funding to be renovated in order to fit city standards. So while we were unable to stay in this building, Turner was kind enough to give us his home for a week. We were in extremely close quarters, and there were only two beds so most of us slept on cots each night. We also shared this space with bugs, mice, and a sweetheart of a dog named Bunny. This environment was tough to live in but brought us all very close.
With the funds we raised, we donated $500 to OSBG then each of us individually donated around $120. We ended up giving OSBG a total of $1,276 and we gave the high school kids who worked with us that week a stipend of $400. But we didn’t contribute just money.
Throughout the week, we worked on the farm completing various tasks. Waking up in the morning involved feeding the many goats and chickens (and one pig). Turner has worked out an agreement with the grocery store Whole Foods to receive the food they’re throwing away (which they would normally have to pay $40 to get rid of), so the animals were fed large cardboard boxes full of bread that no longer met the standards for Whole Foods’ shelves. The other foods they give Turner are examined and the stuff that’s still edible is distributed to the people in the neighborhood, and the food that’s gone bad is thrown into the compost pile. One of our tasks during the week was to tend to this compost pile, adding the old food and wood chips on top.
Perhaps the most major task, however, was the harvest of arugula. There are a few fields of arugula, and we were tasked with harvesting, sorting, drying, bagging and weighing the plant so that it could be later distributed to some of the higher end restaurants in New Orleans at $7 per pound. This task could be tedious at times, particularly in the sorting process. But at the end of the week, we had produced about 90 pounds of arugula. I personally took on the job of the drying, bagging and weighing of the arugula after it had been sorted out. Shockingly, all it takes to dry the arugula, as Turner taught me, was three spin cycles in his washing machine. I bet the people eating at the restaurants with our arugula would never guess that it came not only from an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward, but by throwing mesh bags of it in the washing machine like they’re bags of laundry, then weighing them out into trash bags. This aspect really made me appreciate the effort that goes into food production, as well as where my food comes from.
In addition to harvesting arugula, we also spent time harvesting and replanting pea sprouts, which was far less tedious. Then there were the odd jobs like tilling, digging, and watering the fields. All in all, we did some pretty satisfying work on the farm.
During the day when we weren’t working on the farm, we moved across the street to Turner’s home to have conversations. Sometimes we had heated arguments and discussions about social issues such as sexism and racism. Other times we had colloquies (dialogues without responses, just individual expressions of thought within a group about a given topic) where we included the high school kids working with us. Some of our colloquy topics included how where you’re from effects who you are, how relationships shape us, and food justice. Christian provided hip hop music and poems in between dialogue as inspiration in a developing bit he calls “hip hop sanctuary.” In this context, I can really say expression inspires expression.
All these conversations not only brought us closer with the kids we were working with, but also with each other. Some of us expressed a struggle at the beginning of the week in connecting with these kids and finding a common ground. But by the end of the week we were all at a hug status with these kids. That seemed to also reflect from our own bonding throughout the week. In such a crowded and close environment, we were forced to get close with one other. Not to say we didn’t have our clashes from time to time, but how close we all were by the end really brings me back to that word– serendipitous. The other St. Louisian I was traveling with, Carmen, said “If I were here by myself, I think I would’ve really hated this trip. But the group is really what made it all worth it. The group made me feel so much better about everything.” The relationships we all built with each other while we were there in New Orleans impacted each of us greatly, and the open communication environment we fostered inspired us to express this to each other, building connections all over again.
What made this even more special is that some people had never even been on a FES trip before, and this was FES’s first trip, possibly ever, dedicated to service. Two attendees jumped in at the last minute despite having little previous experience with an Ethical Society. They took a risk and this is what happened. In many ways, we all took a big risk, and what happened was so serendipitously beautiful. If you would have told me back in early November that I would be going on a service trip to New Orleans in December and have a transformative experience, I would be very surprised.
I personally made some realizations over the trip simply because of the interactions I had while there. I experienced severe sexual objectification in New Orleans, far more than I normally experience at home in St. Louis. One of the first things Turner said to us when we arrived is that there were certain people in the neighborhood that we wanted to “keep away from our women.” I didn’t fully understand this until during our first day of work on the farm– there were a lot of guys coming around, checking out what we were doing, saying hello. Turner pulled me aside and told me that these guys were not coming around to be friendly, they were coming to ogle me and the other white women. I guess it’s really not everyday you get a few white women staying in the Lower Ninth Ward. Then Turner told me that a neighbor that he had previously pointed out to us as safe and friendly, Big Stanley, had asked if it would be possible for me to come over, and even offered to smoke me out. He explained that in Big Stanley’s mind, if he got me to come over and smoke with him, I’d probably give him a blow job. So, as Turner concluded, I just needed to be aware and vigilant. We were surrounded by sexual predators. That really made me feel uncomfortable outside by myself, so I tried to avoid it as much as possible.
Sidenote: Another thing I noticed in New Orleans was that everyone was far more presumptuous about other people smoking weed. It seemed like the default was almost to assume everyone smoked. I’m so used to people assuming I don’t smoke weed based off the way I look, but it didn’t matter to them down there whether you were black, white, conservative-looking, alternative-looking– you probably smoke weed. I really dig that. That’s not to say there wasn’t any stigma attached, but there was definitely less of one than I’ve experienced in St. Louis or any other cities I’ve visited recently.
A lot of the subtle realizations I had were race related. I consider myself someone very aware of her white privilege, and trying to maintain a constant and present awareness. Some of the deep conversations I had with my black friends reminded me that there are still things outside of my awareness simply because I’m white and have not had the experience of being black. A question that kept arising in my mind was: How does it feel to live in a society (and world) that’s constantly reminding you that you’re different? As a woman, I can answer that question. But as a white person, I cannot. And that’s something I must always keep in mind.
Being stuck in a mind rut before, this trip is just what I needed. During the trip, I figured out more of a direction I want to go this year, found more connections and aspirations. And though I’ve come back to St. Louis to get back on the daily grind and this isn’t really where I want to be, I now have enough inspiration to continue forth (even when I’m reluctant).
I could write pages upon pages about this trip and how it impacted me individually, as well as how I believe it impacted the individuals around me. But I truly think for everyone that it was something serendipitous. No one expected this to be what it ended up being. And we all gained from in it in our own ways. Adventures can do that, but service trips in particular are particularly special. I really look forward to seeing how we can use this experience to build our youth organization within Ethical Culture and the Humanist movement. I think this was a game changer.