What do you see when you imagine West Virginia? The rolling, picturesque Appalachian Mountains where simple people live in the back country of the Ohio River Valley, miles away from their neighbors?
What about New Orleans? The buzzing nightlife of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, where you can absorb sun and jazz as the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico?
For the members of The Students Engaging and Enacting a Dialogue on Service Project (SEEDS), a student-led social and environmental justice organization at the University of Richmond, they see opportunities to spread awareness of issues in these communities through spring break service trips.
Members of The SEEDS Project at Richmond began taking spring break trips to New Orleans in 2005 to learn about the communities still hindered by Hurricane Katrina and how to propagate awareness of poverty and the exploitation of the region’s oil and other resources, SEEDS treasurer David Fanelli said.
The first SEEDS trip to West Virginia occurred last year to double student involvement in the organization and examine social injustice and exploitation through removal of coal in the Appalachia region, SEEDS President Maya Tatro said.
Students on the New Orleans trip help and learn from the United Houma Nation, a Native American tribe of about 17,000 people that the state government recognizes, but the federal government did not, Tatro said. Most members of the tribe are fishers and oil rig workers who had struggled since Katrina struck in 2005. Students will paint, garden and install shelves at a charter school near New Orleans during its rebuilding process as they learn about Houma culture and communities, she said.
In War, W. Va., a town of 862 people near the southeastern border with Virginia and Kentucky, students work and live with Big Creek People in Action, a community outreach group run by longtime natives of the area, Tatro said. Projects will include putting up drywall, painting and repairing roofs and windows in houses, she said.
Yet, the service is not the primary reason for these trips, Tatro said, but rather the changes in students’ lives from growing together, despite coming from different walks of life, who would otherwise never mesh. She said SEEDS members are also focused on long-term sustainability for the regions.
“It’s very easy to go on a service trip and not bring it back,” Fanelli said. “We want to perpetuate our cause and carry it on after we’ve left, by making the project sustainable. If we raise awareness back on campus, then people can make a true impact in numbers to pressure state and federal funding. But if people don’t know about it, then they won’t contribute to it.”
The goals of these trips are to develop leaders, especially among underclassmen and environmental studies majors, and to continue to address social justice issues in these regions and throughout the U.S., Tatro said.
“It’s also an opportunity to learn from speakers and activists and talk to community members, who can share their story and explain their frustrations about dealing with huge corporations that are causing injustice in their communities,” Tatro said.
Preparation for this year’s trips included workshops with Richmond Sustainability Coordinator Megan Zanella-Litke that specifically addressed environmental and social justice issues in New Orleans and War, a series of speakers and panels pertinent to the regions and visits to Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT), an organization centered on helping children in the East End of Richmond, Tatro said.
SEEDS might add a third trip in the next few years, which would center around recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy in New York City, Tatro said.
The members of SEEDS are now primarily focused on fundraising for their trips this year, having reached about 60 percent of their goal on RocketHub, and spreading awareness online through their WordPress blog, Facebook page and RocketHub profile.
Contact reporter Zak Kerr at firstname.lastname@example.org