Guest blog post by Sophie Miller: Serve LA member
In October, the Serve Louisiana team held orientation for the 2021-2022 service year; this year, Recirculating Farms is hosting two Corps members: Dimitri Celis is serving as Programs Coordinator and I (Sophie Miller) am the Community Outreach Coordinator.
What is Serve Louisiana?
Before talking about orientation, let’s start by exploring Serve Louisiana. Serve Louisiana is a branch of AmeriCorps based in Louisiana with clusters of emerging leaders in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette. The program started as the Louisiana Delta Service Corps in 1991, part of a three-state initiative to tackle social issues facing communities in the Lower Mississippi River Delta region. Corps members are placed at nonprofits, schools, and grassroots efforts in the area. Members serve full-time for 11 months at their respective organizations, which include Orleans Public Defenders, Pontchartrain Conservancy, Urban Strategies, amongst other agencies. Once a month, Corps members gather to explore topics ranging from maternal and child health to restoring the wetlands to develop a deeper understanding of Louisiana communities. In fact, Dimitri and I will be leading a team meeting on food access in March! Serve Louisiana envisions a “continually healthier, more sustainable and more equitable South Louisiana community for each new generation of children and families.”
Discussions during orientation
Orientation began with a reflection on a poem by Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright and poet. “A Bed For the Night” touches on the simultaneous importance of simple, good deeds and their futility in creating long-lasting change. Unless acts of service are combined with radical institutional change, the cycle of poverty will endure. We also discussed institutional change as it pertains to ending racial disparities, a key concept behind the series led by Dialogue on Race Louisiana (DORLA). DORLA is another partner organization of Serve Louisiana based in Baton Rouge and “dedicated to the elimination of racism through education, action, and transformation.” Over the course of six weeks, DORLA participants discuss the origin and impact of racism, preparing for each two-hour dialogue by reading articles before the session. The factual resources ground the difficult conversations and establish a baseline understanding of the issues at hand. Instead of focusing on changing the hearts and minds of society, DORLA recognizes the importance of influencing institutions to prompt change. We see the power of institutions in the decrease of tobacco use in the United States once smoking was banned in federal buildings, public places, and commercial flights. Rather than shaming smokers, making it difficult on an institutional level to smoke affected behavior. DORLA envisions a future where institutional opportunities are equitable and accessible to folks of all colors.
At one point during the orientation, we split into four groups based on our primary focuses at our different organizations: volunteer management, technology and social media, program development, and community outreach and awareness. In the community outreach group, we discussed the keys to public participation. Here are the main takeaways: those involved in the results of a decision should be involved in the decision-making process and after a decision is made, the public should be informed of how their thoughts influenced the ultimate call. These are straight-forward, seemingly obvious lessons, but all too often, decision-making is streamlined and neglects the people that need to be at the table.
The “Negro Motorist Green Book” Exhibit at Capitol Park Museum
While in Baton Rouge, we stopped by the the Capitol Park Museum which is currently hosting the Negro Motorist Green Book exhibit. “The Green Book” was published annually from 1936 to 1967 during the Jim Crow era to help Black travelers reach their destinations without harm by listing trustworthy businesses; it was first made by Victor Green, a Harlem postman. The exhibit takes visitors through different parts of the United States (West, Midwest, South, East) and addresses the challenges Black travelers faced in each region as well as lists notable restaurants, bars, gas stations, and other businesses that welcomed Black travelers during the Jim Crow era. Alongside text and photographs, museum attendees view artifacts ranging from cashiers to business signs.
Above is a list of New Orleans businesses included in “The Green Book;” the nightclub that stuck out to me is the since-closed Dew Drop Inn – located around the corner from our farm!
The museum highlighted the role of ExxonMobil’s predecessor, Esso, in distributing “The Green Book” as well as hiring African American engineers, scientists, and marketing executives; ExxonMobil is a major sponsor of the exhibit.
A particularly moving piece of the exhibit was the interactive driving “game.” In this simulation, us, the participants, are African American travelers, and we have to check our Green Book to know which businesses we can trust. When my fellow Corps members and I were engaged in the display, a sheriff pulled us over and proceeded to follow us out of town, and we just barely made it before the sun went down. A “sundown town” prohibited African Americans from staying overnight. This simulation made the dangerous realities of traveling during the Jim Crow era as a Black person even more tangible.
The exhibition is only here until November 14, 2021–it is a traveling Smithsonian visit–so make sure you make your way to Baton Rouge while it’s still here!
Hurricane Ida Clean Up
The last activity we did during orientation was volunteering with RISE St. James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in their Hurricane Ida relief efforts in St. James and St. John parishes. RISE St. James was started by Ms. Sharon Lavigne, a former special education teacher and now environmental activist who began organizing her neighbors to stop petrochemical plants from coming into their neighborhoods and causing heightened cancer risks. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade formed in 2000 and has been organizing with “communities whose health and homes are devastated by the petrochemical industry.”
These areas along the Mississippi were hard hit by Ida, and are still looking for volunteers to help out. RISE St. James, Inclusive LA, Concerned Citizens of St John, Healthy Gulf, Descendants Project, Zion Travelers Co-Op, and the Ironton Organizing Committee are mobilizing relief efforts – click here for more info! Tasks include mucking and gutting homes, disassembling fallen roofs, and salvaging viable wood, tarping roofs, etc.