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Opinion

Spring break trip focuses on social justice

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March 28, 2014

Over spring break I participated in a Destination program with eight other UW-River Falls students and our staff advisor in Atlanta, Ga.

We partnered with the Medici Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to connect students with service opportunities. Each day, our Medici Project guide exposed us to two service-learning activities within the theme of “urban poverty.”

As we traveled around to different sites, we learned that this glimpse into Atlanta’s urban poverty might be more effective in shaping our lives, than the lives of the people we hoped to serve. The sixth, seventh and eighth graders at Harper Archer Middle School may not remember the three days we spent mentoring them in their math classes. And we were amongst a sea of faces when we served brunch to over a hundred people living with homelessness at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Certainly, our efforts contributed to the web of support that exists to strengthen Atlanta’s communities. Our smiles and enthusiasm might have brightened someone’s day or gave much needed respite to staff facing overwhelming need. I hope that the eighth grader that approached me to ask about how he could pursue a science career will hold onto my words of encouragement and advice when he struggles to pay attention in class. But all I have control over is my own actions and what I choose to do after such a profound experience.

My ‘aha!’ moment came during a late night group reflection. We were participating in a talking circle, where we each had to answer how we would individually take action after our spring break trip. Reluctantly, especially as the trip leader, I admitted to the group that this particular trip originally had not been my first choice.

I am a conservation major and had participated in four other alternative spring break trips that all focused on the environment. It only seemed natural to me that I should be paired with my implicit strengths. But the Universe or Amy Lloyd, the UWRF Service Coordinator, knew better and gave me the Atlanta trip to lead and focus on social justice work.

In group reflection, I shared that I had gotten so wrapped up in the technical and academic facets of preserving the environment, that I had lost touch with the reasons why conservation is so important to my humanity. Last semester, in my literature of environmental justice class, I did the mind work to see that social justice and environmental justice are inextricably intertwined. My Destination experience though, gave me the time and space to do the heart work to really let that sink in.

Harper Archer Middle School, almost completely composed of children of color, has 100 percent participation in the federal free and reduced lunch program. According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals.

Visiting these children deeply moved my Destination team. Personally, I wanted to take that rowdy bunch of eighth graders into the woods adjacent to their school and let them tear at the kudzu vines that are choking out their native plants and trees. Also, along a power line easement, a massive, growing pile of tires continues to be illegally dumped within sight of the middle school’s classroom windows. I need these children to know they are not part of a social dumping ground that will leave them chronically disadvantaged like the state of the natural environment that surrounds them.

While I have no immediate answers, as how I will address social and environmental injustices in the long haul, I have been given the opportunity to reflect in a complex and dynamic setting. Challenges, solutions, frustrations and successes were presented in diverse ways over a week of service. My Destination experience in Atlanta has framed a new way of looking at the world and how I must take responsibility within it.

Molly Breitmün is a non-traditional student majoring in conservation with a minor in GIS. Her interest in campus sustainability was fostered by becoming an undergraduate fellow for the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development as well as by her peers in the Student Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture.