Miki Doan: The future of Education in the Ninth Ward

Posted on 01/04/2011

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For my spring break, I had an opportunity to go with SEEDS to New Orleans for a service-learning trip. As I was born and grew up in Vietnam, I went on a trip with a different perspective than most of my American friends. Nevertheless, in a week, I have learned more about how to share my thoughts and respect other’s experience from this trip than any book or class that I have taken. One of the places that impressed me the most was Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG).

On March 10th, we headed towards OSBG. As our van reached a colorful building surrounded by multiple rows of vegetables, a big sign “We have eggs!” welcomed us to OSBG. Although five years have passed since the levees broke, Martin Luther King Elementary School is the only public school operated in Lower Ninth Ward. In 2008, Nat Turner decided to drive his blue bus from New York to New Orleans and start an alternative school in the old Blair Family Grocery to offer youths in the area a supportive environment to learn and grow.

OSBG raises the students’ awareness about food justice and urban farming as well as provides affordable healthy food for the community. During the orientation, we learned about their sustainable system: turning food waste into soil by composting, using the soil to grow plants, and selling the products to the local restaurants. Suddenly, I recalled that I had learned about this system in Vietnam throughout my primary and middle schools. VAC is an acronym for the three Vietnamese words Vuon, garden, Ao, fish pond, and Chuong, pigsty. With this structure, gardening, fish rearing, and husbandry are integrated to support an individual family as well as to make use of the land, water and solar energy. I did not take this concept seriously when I was little. I used to believe that only those who did not have any education would end up having this lifestyle. However, as the teacher at OSBG demonstrated how efficiently and effectively the sustainable system worked, I came to realize that everyone could make a change to the community and the environment just by incorporating little things to his or her daily life.

After the orientation, to help the school with one of their projects, we picked up tools and walked towards a vacant property nearby to build compost piles to grow mirliton, a favorite traditional squash in New Orleans. Back home, although my grandparents had a farm in the countryside, I never had to work on the field. Growing up in the city, I was fortunate to be pampered by my parents, but at the same time, I got to pay a great price for my negligence. I was disconnected with the land of my country, with my root, and even my grandparents’ life. Thus, when I ran my hands through the soil and felt its fertility, I was amazed by my connection with the land that was miles away from home. Within five hours of work, we finished clearing out the lot and mounting fifteen compost piles.

I could not comprehend how the people, who lived on the land for years, felt when they had to leave behind their homes and community. At that moment, I realized we might have pulled out the weeds, but the roots of injustice and suffering were still buried under layers of soil. Only twenty five percent of the displaced people have come back and rebuilt their lives in Lower Ninth Ward; hundreds of houses marked with X’s by the crews who checked for inhabitants after the Katrina have not been demolished nor renovated; one could drive miles without seeing any schools or banks within the area. Katrina happened five years ago. The levees broke five years ago. Yet, to this day, Lower Ninth Ward is still devastated and struggles to survive the post-Katrina effects.

The trip cost $150 in total for the whole week and I truly believe it is my most well-spent $150. The Office of International Education has supported the SEEDS, especially international students financially and spiritually to have a chance to participate in the program and enrich our college experiences. I learned not only about New Orleans but also myself and my own culture. Such experience like this trip has definitely helped me to define my identity and what I can bring to the community.

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