A remarkable number of metaphors for an improved understanding of the world involve physical expansion. Whether an opening of eyes, broadening of horizons, or widening of perspective, it seems that figurative growth is an integral part of a worthwhile experience. Through their Februrary Middlebury Alternative break (MAlt) endeavors, Middlebury students were able to burst the bubble, returning not only with bigger social circles but also a greater grasp on how they can improve their communities.
Even with uncertain expectations of the MAlt trip to Oakland, California students were never lacking enthusiasm.
“I really wanted a new experience where I could meet new people and do something together that we’re all interested in,” Ashley Guzman ’13 wrote in an e-mail of her decision to apply. The timing of the trip — just four weeks after a break she spent at home — made it ideal for a new destination. Ramin Pena ’13, who considered multiple MAlt trips, was drawn to this one for the service aspect.
In addition to fundraising, the group of 12 prepared for the trip by meeting weekly in order to learn about the Oakland area and the organizations with which they would be working. These organizations, based in Oakland and San Francisco, spanned a variety of causes, allowing the students to learn about and participate in what Pena called “efforts to help the environment — not nature,” he clarified, “but people who live in it.”
A number of these efforts were focused on empowering people to succeed in the business world. For example, the students sat in on an introductory course at CEO Women — an organization dedicated to helping women start up or expand small businesses. By providing training and grants, then following up periodically on participants’ progress, it aims to guide and foster their success. The students also learned about Women’s Initiative, which follows a similar model.
The group saw a success story in another organization: Wardrobe for Opportunity, whose executive director was a CEO Women graduate. The premise: provide women with the support and professional wardrobe required to make it in the business world.
“They may have the skills, but they may not have the clothes, and that makes all the difference,” Pena said.
The students helped to prepare the clothing for donations with tasks such as steaming suits and organizing shoes.
One Pacific coast bank provided them with background on how banks work; specifically, how this one, with a positive impact on the community at the core of its mission, differed from many larger corporate banks.
“They emphasized the importance of keeping capital within Oakland in order to lift people out of poverty and be able to offer small business loans and investments,” Guzman wrote.
A tour of San Francisco was also an eye-opening experience. Pena described a “sub-community” of the homeless population in the city defined by complacency.
“There are people who choose to be homeless,” he said, rendering shelter work a bit more complicated. “We’re just supporting their logic that they don’t have to work.”
For the most part, however, the students found their volunteer work at Youth Engagement Advocacy and Housing (YEAH!) to be worthwhile and rewarding.
“That was the best,” Guzman wrote, “because we really got to interact with people our age who are very much like all of us, but in less fortunate circumstances.”
The group’s duties included cooking and serving food and preparing supplies to be donated. They also learned about empowerment efforts through agriculture. The People’s Grocery in Oakland allows locals to grow and pick their own food near the once-luxurious California Hotel, now a haven for squatters.
In addition to improving the state of the surrounding area, according to Guzman, the farm’s long-term goal includes “promoting environmental and racial justice in West Oakland.” As part of their tour, the students learned of the historical context of injustice that continues to hinder these efforts. They were able to do some gardening of their own with Save The Bay, an environmental organization, planting flowers along the shoreline in San Francisco.
Residents can also obtain produce through the Alameda County Food Bank, where the students helped to bag three tons of oranges in a day (in fact, the first day that the facility was open to volunteers). They were also given a tour of the Bank, which feeds about 49,000 people in a week and works to support local producers in order to provide the freshest food possible.
The group members bonded quickly,, as evidenced by their reunion after the first day of working in smaller groups.
“We literally ran into each other’s arms because we were so happy to see each other,” Guzman wrote. Pena, who knew most members of his group before the trip began, agreed: “everyone got really close by the end,” he said.
If the “withdrawal” that Guzman felt during the first week back on campus is any indication, the friendships are likely to last.
Both Guzman and Pena, New York natives, felt that they had gained perspective on urban social stratification and its implications. During their time in Berkeley, where they were housed, Pena was taken aback by the contrast between students at the University of California and the city’s substantial homeless population.
“It was kind of crazy to see students okay with it,” he said. “I don’t know how you deal with that.”
Still, he was inspired and comforted by the generosity he witnessed.
“It definitely revived my faith in humanity,” he said. “I know that there are people who will sacrifice living lavishly to help people get out of the slums.”
Guzman was impressed by the initiative of the organizations’ beneficiaries even before they received any assistance. The catch with some of these programs, the students realized, is the need for some sort of prerequisite knowledge and often a referral. With regard to Wardrobe for Opportunity, for example, “You can’t get the clothes if you don’t have the skills,” Pena said.
While this type of system necessarily limits the number of people who can receive assistance at a given time —“They may not always be perfect, but they do what they do as much as possible,” Pena said of the service organizations — it meant that the students were meeting trainees who had already managed to stand out within their communities.
“I was able to see firsthand what it means to be from another country and not know English but be so passionate about a business idea that you are willing to work as hard as possible to achieve those goals,” Guzman wrote. Despite the organizations’ limitations, it seems that helping to create a network driven by such values is a worthwhile step toward a culture of social mobility.
Simply put: “If you help people, they help others,” Pena said.
The students move forward now with a new outlook on daily life. “I learned to appreciate the things that I have, and my circumstances,” Guzman wrote, “plus I made 11 new ‘besties’ who I’ll love forever and ever.”
When it comes to this past year’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Lisa Luna ’13 decided to take a hands-on approach. Thus, the concept of MAlt Pensacola was born.
“Emma Loizeaux and I decided to lead a MAlt trip to Pensacola [Florida] because we felt that the environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill needed to be addressed and that it would be good to get Middlebury students down to the Gulf Coast to work on restoration,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Students like Janet Bering ’13 were eager to jump on board. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to apply concepts I’ve learned in the classroom as [an Environmental Studies and Biology] major, as well as help a damaged community,” she wrote in an e-mail.
The group began planning well before winter term, meeting regularly to discuss fundraising and learning about the problems facing their destination. The challenge of fundraising was partially alleviated by the Middlebury Environmental Council, which provided the group with a grant covering a substantial part of the costs.
As Luna admitted, the name of the trip “is a little misleading, since [they] did very little work in Pensacola itself.” In fact, the group stayed just east of Pensacola and worked in a variety of locations in northwestern Florida.
With the help of Community Collaborations International, an organization that directs volunteers to existing endeavors that need their help and match their interests, the students connected with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA), the Muscogee Nation of Florida, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“Most of our work actually ended up being in the realm of general ecosystem restoration in the area, rather than restoration explicitly related to the spill,” Luna wrote.
For example, oil did not actually infiltrate Choctawhatchee Bay, yet the group worked on restoration efforts there as part of a larger-scheme effort to improve the region.
“Everything in the region’s ecosystem is interconnected. The long-term impacts of the spill have yet to become apparent, so it’s important to support the health of the entire ecosystem, and I think that we helped with that,” explained Luna.
The group’s work with the Muscogee Nation of Florida (a Native American tribe working toward federal recognition) was the most directly focused on the region’s residents. The first day of the trip was dedicated to helping at a Muscogee food bank in Bruce, cleaning sheds to be used for storage. As Bering pointed out, the spill had a serious negative impact on the local economy, rendering the food bank even more critical. While in Bruce, they also volunteered an afternoon at an after-school program for “at-risk kids” organized by the United Methodist Church.
Later in the week, the students worked with the CBA on an invaluable undertaking for the bay: constructing oyster reefs.
“Oyster reefs are an incredibly important part of the bay ecosystem,” Luna wrote, “because they provide habitat for a variety of other species, help to control shoreline erosion, and filter water, which helps maintain the necessary water quality for other plants and animals.”
The reefs were one type of habitat that suffered tremendously as a result of the oil spill. In accordance with the CBA’s usual technique, students created artificial reefs out of mesh bags full of fossilized oysters that they had filled themselves, shoveling 30 tons over one and a half days.
Next, they met with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on Eglin Airforce Base, where they learned about the detrimental effects of damming on endangered species.
“The whole ecosystem in the area needs work,” Luna wrote, “and building a new stream, while helpful, won’t solve the habitat problem for … any of the species that depend on the area.”
Their efforts involved planting, which can “help jumpstart ecosystem recovery.” The work took place both near the pond created by the dam and in a DEP greenhouse. This situation exemplified the delicate, complex, intertwined nature of the various systems in the region, and how easily the balance can be upset.
The group dynamic proved both lighthearted and indicative of serious commitment to the projects at hand.
“We were pretty silly most of the trip and got along really well,” Bering wrote. “One of the most fun aspects of the trip was the other people I was with, and I really hope we all stay in touch.”
Luna agreed: “Our group was totally awesome.” More specifically, “It was fun to be working outside with a group, learning a lot from local experts, and then sitting down and talking about what we had experienced. We all learned a lot about each other, or at least I did, and it was great to spend time with people that I otherwise may not have met.”
Both students valued the chance to get their hands dirty, using their theoretical knowledge on a real and therefore much more complex level. Ironically, what initially drew Bering to the trip also proved most challenging. “I learned the difficulties of applying conservation in the field,” she wrote.
One measure of a rewarding experience is that, nearly a week later, students are still grappling with the magnitude of the reward.
“I got a ton out of the trip,” Luna wrote. “I could go on for days, but I’m still sort of trying to figure all of that out.”