Spring Break with Hurricane Katrina

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore students once again demonstrated their passion for social empathy by taking part in a weeklong, intensive service project in New Orleans. Recently devastated by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, this resilient city is slowly climbing back to its feet with the help of compassionate people such as the students who took this trip over Spring Break.

The experience itself was “mind blowing,” say Danielle Toaltoan ’07, one of the participating students. She remarked on her surprise that so little progress had actually been made in their area; she noted, “I was in for a shock when I saw the blatant disregard for the people who have survived the disaster. The racism and classism at hand in the clean up effort is so obvious it was painful to witness.” The students worked with a group called Common Ground, an activism group that served as an inspiration for many.

Despite the disregard on the parts of the government and much of the American population, hope is not lost. Many of the people the students met were “genuinely interested in bringing about change, in dismantling the systemic discrimination we have in place, and in ensuring that the tragedy of Katrina never happens again,” says Toaltoan.

These groups worked together and “gutted houses, talked with survivors about their experiences during and after, and attended a workshop on dismantling systematic racism,” says participant Priyanka Sohoni. “Overall, the experience was a real eye-opener about the current situation.”

The effort has continued to permeate the hearts and minds of participants and supporters alike. Toaltoan and fellow participant Kendra McDow ’07 were moved to found the Common Ground Solidarity Network, which will “take the lead in Swarthmore’s campaign to address the issues of Hurricane Katrina.” Says student supporter Bernadette Baird-Zars ’06, “I think it’s absolutely imperative that Swarthmore students continue to act in response to the aftermath of Katrina, and I’m very happy with what this group of students has done so far, and I applaud the effort.”

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