September 20, 2010 by Melody Porter
Last Friday, I was in Washington, DC, for a meeting to learn more about a fair-trade coffee growing cooperative in Haiti. This meeting arose out of the Haiti Compact, a new collective of alternative breaks professionals from five universities around the US and the national alternative breaks nonprofit, Break Away. We came together for an exploratory trip to Haiti in June, looking to discover if – and how – students and universities in the US can productively contribute to rebuilding in Haiti, post-earthquake.
As we were learning about creative projects in Haiti that focus on empowering Haitians and their communities, I learned about Just Haiti. Through phone conversations with their US contact, Kim Lamberty, we arranged to visit La Borde, a small town in the Southern department of Haiti. There, we met with some farmers from the co-operative, learning about their work, their community and how they plan to move forward.
Baraderes, where they live, has long been a center for coffee growing but a price collapse in the 1980’s left the farms bankrupt. Just Haiti works with the farmers to build power among them and develop outlets to sell their fair-trade coffee, paying a respectable wage to the farmers for the intensely difficult work that growing coffee is. As a result, these farmers have access to fair markets as they had not before, and are empowered to make decisions and have agency in their economic lives – unlike most people in Haiti these days.
On Friday, two of my colleagues from the Compact and I met with Kim to learn more about their background, and how we can get other universities in the US connected to support their work. Kim explained the importance of our work with Haiti – as inquisitive scholars and active citizens – with sharp clarity. She said that if you understand what’s happened in Haiti, historically and economically, you have a window into understanding how the Western Hemisphere has developed into its current state. Haiti offers insight into how racism, colonialism and economic oppression affect people and political dynamics, so as we learn more about Haiti’s history, we come to understand the broader dynamics of the past several centuries in the West.
Those are big ideas, and ones that our team will be researching and sharing information about as we develop an alternative break to Haiti this January. But for now, we can all begin advocating for positive change in Haiti – by calling our congress people and advocating for continued US economic support in Haiti. Just Haiti also offers a tangible – and delicious – way to advocate for Haitian economic empowerment: buy their coffee. I’m anxiously awaiting my first shipment of 12 ounces of regular roast, and 12 ounces of Haitian roast. I am excited to know that my little warm cup each morning can now not only be a great way to get centered, but a bold statement of support for people working hard in the fields of Baraderes, Haiti.
August 9, 2010 by Melody Porter
When we began dreaming about offering the 7 Generations pre-orientation program here in the OCES, we had pretty big expectations: that students would learn in-depth about critical social issues, find ways to address them productively through service and long-term advocacy, and create a community with other incoming students who are working for social justice. Guess what? Our expectations were met – and in many ways, exceeded! The idea of “7 Generations,” inspired by an Iriquois proverb, is that incoming students would begin their time as members of the Tribe Family by looking back at those who have created social movements that brought us to where we are, and then looking forward to the effects of their actions far into the future – to the seventh generation beyond them.
Yesterday, 18 incoming students left campus after spending several days working with community organizations, sleeping on floors or in large loud rooms full of bunk beds, and engaging in three different social issues: Hunger in Our Communities, Sustainable Food Systems and People with Disabilities. Those addressing hunger worked here in Williamsburg and Richmond with many different food insecurity agencies; those learning about sustainable food systems partnered with Lynchburg Grows in Lynchburg, VA; and the third group stayed at Camp Baker, a program of the ARC of Greater Richmond, volunteering in a summer camp for people with disabilities.
They started the week with training on two major themes of our work: active citizenship, and the many faces and kinds of poverty. Then they piled their work gloves and sleeping bags into vans, and headed off for several days of sweat, laughter and deep thinking and critical reflection.
Each of the three groups came back to campus this past Saturday for what we called the “Now What?,” or reorientation, portion of 7 Generations. We had a cookout and their site leaders and I told stories about our work for social justice in a Story Telling event at the Crim Dell Amphitheater. (Then they cut loose and got a little spooked on a ghost tour led by W&M alumnus and grad student, Adam Stackhouse.)
Sunday morning, we gathered to hear what the 7G participants learned about hunger, food systems and people with disabilities. The groups presented skits, lists of lessons learned, monologues and cheers – each of which shed light on a different aspect of their social issue for the week. They pointed out how sustainable food systems are hard to access for people with low incomes, and how people with disabilities are often the first ones to be affected by state budget cuts. They told stories that showed how the issues they addressed overlapped: a mom in Williamsburg who was affected by a disability had trouble getting a job to support her children, while people with disabilities have the opportunity to volunteer, maybe for the first time, at Lynchburg Grows. We were moved by the stories we heard, and saw how the issues of food security, food systems and health are so interconnected for people living in poverty.
Finally, our 7Generations participants came up with plans for what they’ll do next to stay engaged with their issue and their new community of Williamsburg. What those plans look like: they’ll be shopping at the Williamsburg Farmers Market and cooking together, volunteering at Campus Kitchens at William and Mary to provide healthy meals for residents of public housing, and signing up to do a day of service together in October.
And of course, they’ll continue building up their own generation of the Tribe Family. Since we said our goodbyes twelve hours ago, Facebook has been lighting up with photos, wall posts and shared contact info for the two weeks until we all see each other again.
March 1, 2010 by Melody Porter
All around us, we hear news of the economic downturn. Jobs are lost, businesses close, governments struggle with whether to cut programs for children, people with disabilities, or senior adults. The news is grim and pervasive.
Although I hear these stories daily in my habitual wake-up with NPR’s Morning Edition, the testimonies became more real to me when we began to receive requests for financial aid to attend Branch Out alternative break trips. Students told of layoffs that affected their parents, medical situations that have resulted in debt and lost work, and a lagging economy that has affected sales-based income. Each story was unique, but each was heartfelt – many students spoke of their determination to continue with their education, and not put additional burdens on their families. Some students are working two jobs, taking out loans, and finding every creative way they can to finance their own education.
What’s remarkable is that even under this stress, students are still looking to face the world with generosity. They want to spend their winter, spring and summer breaks in communities around the country and the world to fight poverty, hunger, advocate for better jobs, build affordable housing, and administer needed medication. I suspect that they know one of the greatest lessons we learn in giving to others: when you offer what you have to others, they offer what they have right back to you. And you end up being richer for the exchange.
I believe that every student who wants to spend their time engaging with the community should be able to do so, regardless of financial need. Because of the generosity of donors, we have been doing this for a long time for students working in community engagement over the summer. By reprioritizing our spending, we are happy to be extending these opportunities to students participating in alternative breaks, too. We as a campus and global community are richer for it.
February 5, 2010 by Melody Porter
Seven days: two continents, five cities, one international trip, two weekend trips. This sums up my mid-January, which was spent in a delightful whirlwind bouncing from El Progreso Honduras (with Students Helping Honduras), home in Richmond, MLK Weekend in Petersburg, work on campus, and a weekend retreat at Camp Baker in Chesterfield, VA with the Greater Richmond Arc.
The retreat at Camp Baker – a final step in training for Branch Out National Site Leaders – was a delightful end to the whirlwind. Our 22 Site Leaders, led by their fearless Student Directors and accompanied by a few staff folks, participated in a respite weekend at Camp Baker, working with people with disabilities. It was a way for us to explore more fully how to lead alternative breaks – complete with issue education, orientation, training, reflection and reorientation – but also to learn from our new friends at Camp Baker and to contribute to the good work they do.
It was Disney Weekend at Camp Baker, and we were split into groups to prepare the retreat guests for a fabulous Disney-themed parade. Some of us worked with music, teaching Disney songs to the guests. Some made arts and crafts, and Bisquick creations shaped like Mickey Mouse. My group and I developed original prototypes for Peter Pan, Lion King and Donald Duck costumes, and along with our new friends, crafted them carefully out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners. When the time came, we all grabbed the hand or took the arm of a new friend, singing our hearts out and being as silly as possible along the parade route.
After the weekend came to a close, the Site Leaders gathered for reflection and final thoughts. I asked them to create a kind of poem together by naming one word, popcorn-style, that touched on a meaningful part of the weekend for them. I share it with you here as a way of sharing the weekend with you. It was an entry into a new world for many of us, and taught us all more about how to share our common humanity (and love of goofy icebreakers).
individual – brave – new – energizing – gift – bold – rejuvenated – understanding – taking initiative – sacrifice – dedication – learn – patience – passion – love – gentleness – intrigue – connect – community – flexibility – curiosity – honesty – flexibility (again!) – skydiving!!
January 21, 2010 by Melody Porter
About six years ago, I was sitting in a church parlor, meeting with people who had committed to supporting the community of Fondwa in Haiti. In my previous life as a United Methodist minister, I worked with a congregation that is deeply committed to social justice. Partnering with this Haitian community was part of that dedication.
We were discussing what we could do to raise funds for the University of Fondwa and a sister micro-credit program, Fonkoze, especially in the face of continuing economic and political distress there. At one point, the meeting changed tone – from businessy brainstorming to heartfelt connection – when one of the committee members said, “We have to figure this out – it’s so important. These people are family.”
And even those of us who had not visited Fondwa knew that it was true. There are sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles that we had not met before, and had to do all we could to work with them.
Last night, dozens of students gathered at William and Mary to coordinate a response to the January 12 earthquake in Haiti. Various students took the podium, explaining their ideas and motivations in coordinating a plan that would lead to a more sustainable effect than “drop in the bucket” contributions to relief efforts. They talked about the need to work with grassroots organizations, allowing for Haitian self-determination, and the unique opportunity they had found to partner with a university.
That evening held two particularly resonant echoes for me of the hours I spent in the church parlor six years earlier. William and Mary students who had done research at the University of Fondwa described the need to support that university, as a way of recognizing the connections between students and building long-term change. And, when another student stood to articulate how we want to support people in Haiti, his words were familiar: “these people are family to us.”
It can be so easy to get stuck in our tiny, tunnel-visioned lives. Assignments, exams, groceries, laundry, career planning, anxiety about relationships…all these things can crowd out what we know to be a greater truth. While the many items on our checklist are important, they are not the sum-total of our lives. And the people we spend holidays with, call home to or share space with in our residence halls are not our only family. It’s a big world, and our family – our common humanity – is huge. Our task is to figure out what it means to really be family to each other. I think the work of William and Mary Supports Haiti is a beautiful example of how we can start.
January 19, 2010 by Melody Porter
I spent last week in El Progreso, Honduras, with 30 W&M students. We were working with Students Helping Honduras (SHH) to lay the foundation of a learning center in a colonia of Progreso, and to bolster children’s education during school break in an afternoon Kids Camp.
Our construction efforts were based in Villa Soleada, the colonia created by the joint efforts of its residents and SHH. Residents of Villa had been living in a squatter community vulnerable to flooding and landslides and lacking any infrastructure. After two years of weekly meetings, networking, thousands of students’ fundraising efforts and lots of sweat and shoveling, they moved into their newly constructed homes just before Christmas.
One of the most striking scenes on our trip was our first arrival to Villa Soleada. Our brightly painted Blue Bird school bus, bouncing on the rutted roads to the tempo of the Honduran hit “Mi Nina Bonita,” deposited us squarely into about four inches of mud at the entrance of the community. As we made our way down the road to a community gathering spot, we could see dozens of people awaiting us.
They broke into applause and cheering as we got closer. Children came up to each of us, hugging us and saying their tiny “hola!s”, giving each of us several construction paper cards. One of mine reads (in my basic Spanish translation), “We are very happy because you have come here to Honduras.”
This scene was illustrative of the sense of human connection we felt throughout the trip – rather than going to serve a community, it was as if we had gone to join a community. Throughout the trip, whether it was learning the proper ratio for mixing cement from the men in Villa, or picking up digging techniques from a boy named Roberto who made his mark on all of us, we were for a time participants in the community of Villa.
I’ve been going on alternative break trips like this since my first spring break in college, 17 years ago. Whether in Abiquiu, NM, Homestead, FL, New Orleans, LA, or Imbaseni, Tanzania, amidst the different languages and landscapes, it isn’t unusual for strangers to form a bond, held together by smiles, laughter and shared work. It all resonates with a quote I recently read by Pablo Neruda, from “Childhood and Poetry”:
To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.
We certainly felt the love of our new sisters and brothers in Villa, and I’m sure they felt ours right back – widening our understandings of what it means to be human, and uniting us in a common spirit of joy, compassion and love.
December 1, 2009 by Melody Porter
Branch Out Alternative Break trips bring students to work on service projects in communities around the world and just a few miles away, with a strong focus on issue education. Before students depart for each trip, they spend time delving into the issue their service projects address. If they’re building houses, they learn about affordable housing and the local economy. If they’re educating communities about HIV/AIDS, they study RNA reverse transcriptase and societal taboos. Their study is very focused on the issue, both in a broad context and how it affects the community in which they’ll be serving.
One of my favorite things about how Branch Out fosters learning is that many students return from their trips saying things like, “Even though our trip was about educational inequality, we also talked a lot about living wage, and health care, and food insecurity, and….” The list goes on. They see how social issues are interconnected, and how an impact in one area can ripple out to others. They get that when a family has stable housing, children have a place to study and sleep well and can learn better.
When students attend an alternative break trip – whether it’s in Ho, Ghana, or Gaston, North Carolina – they participate in the complexities of society by being engaged in service with the community. While they’re working on projects and in conversations with community members, they integrate their on-the-ground experience with their pre-trip research.
This year, all of the OCES’ service trips – Regional, National and International – are under the Branch Out umbrella. All site and team leaders are trained in the components of a quality trip. In April, after most trips have happened, participants will gather for reorientation to discuss what they learned. Students who worked on similar issues in very different locales will compare what they experienced, and discover how a common issue manifests differently in diverse contexts. They will also learn how they can become engaged in that issue and others connected to it right here in Williamsburg, in their classes, and in their careers and lives to come.
This process makes the impact of one trip much bigger than the trip itself. It helps students become what the national Alternative Breaks movement calls Active Citizens – people for whom the issues they explore are not problems to fix, but ways into a life committed to justice.
October 30, 2009 by Melody Porter
The sky said it all: dark, cloudy and foreboding. It was clear that our day trip with the Gang Reduction and Intervention Program with the City of Richmond was going to be a rainy one.
I was with a group of ten William and Mary students at a community festival on the South Side of Richmond, all of us geared up for a day of service as part of our Branch Out Regional alternative breaks. The group had learned about the city program that holds the festival every year. On the surface, it would be a fun day for all – with teen dance groups, rappers, and other performers, surrounded by information booths and games for kids.
The purpose was a little deeper, though. Bringing people together and creating a positive sense of community can reduce the likelihood of gang involvement for young people. We were there to run game booths, do art projects with children, and support their overall mission.
Just as we took our stations at the moon bounce and the mask-making tables, the sky opened up. The hundreds of attendees at the festival ran for their cars, and we huddled in the middle of a tent under a storm that threatened to make Dorothys out of all of us. A fellow volunteer rounded up ponchos, and we pulled up our hoods and began the clean-up process.
And so as it ended up, we spent much more time interacting with rented furniture and trash bags than members of the community. We were disappointed, to be sure. But after the hundreds of chairs and dozens of tables were loaded onto their trailers and every gum wrapper was picked up, we connected with the city employee who had invited us there. She explained how our presence was so helpful – and how, without the ten of us, she and her skeleton crew would have been there all night cleaning up.
Sometimes service doesn’t really work out like you plan. We went to the South Side expecting to learn about how gangs are a destructive force in the lives of communities and individuals, and to assist with efforts to decrease the dynamics that lead to gang membership. In tiny ways, we did – but we also built connections among ourselves, with the city employees, and with the three youth volunteers from the community who joined our efforts. We’ll see where those connections take us as we pursue future projects.
September 15, 2009 by Melody Porter
It’s not often that you return from a conference re-energized, enthusiastic and raving about the food. But this summer, at the Alternative Breaks Citizenship School (ABCs) sponsored by BreakAway, each of these things was true for me.
For eight days, I stayed in a decommissioned air force base in Sacramento, CA, with about sixty others who are committed to alternative breaks as a tool for social change. The ABCs are a hybrid experience – equal parts training conference and alternative break trip, with a dash of dancing and skits. We spent part of our days in sessions learning about things like the Active Citizen continuum, how to lead reflection, and effective techniques for issue education.
The rest of the days were spent engaging in our issue, “The High Price of Cheap Food.” We explored the struggles of migrant farm families, national and international policy around migrant labor, and the food system in general – from factory-style “big food” to local farmers and more sustainable practices.
Our service projects took us to child development centers at three different migrant family housing areas. Each one was about 40 to 60 minutes from our home base, and any time you drive that long close to Sacramento, you’re going to see some farms and fields. Sunflowers, hay, alfalfa, peppers, and tomatoes…so many tomatoes! Given our current system of food production in this country, there was a good chance that some of the tomatoes growing in those fields would one day end up in my pasta sauce or on my salad plate.
I took away many lessons from the ABCs, ranging from a deeper understanding of what it would take to make our food system more sustainable, to goofy techniques for breaking up large groups into smaller groups for conversation (hand twins, anyone?). In the weeks since the ABCs, I have seen the power of the BreakAway model, and how bringing issue education, reflection and reorientation into every service project we do, enriches student learning and forms active citizens.