Friday, October 30, 2015

A Trip to the Windy City to Explore the Complexities of Urban Poverty

The Gapsters Take Up Residence at the Br. David Darst Center in Chicago

Ahhh, it has been so sweet arriving back to the Mid-West amidst the last few days of changing colors and warm breezes. After 26.5 hours on a train, our Gapsters were ecstatic to not only breathe in some fresh air, but also to wear their hoodies, instead of their tank-tops. While the desert and the Norbertine Brothers of Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey offered a grand welcome, after two weeks of hot, dry weather, we were definitely ready for some cooler autumn days.
Although the weather and scenery has changed, the Gap Experience is still going strong in content, reflection, sharable moments, compassion, and exploration of tough topics. Since arriving in Chicago there has been a palpable difference in our students: they are watching out for one another even more than before, they are thinking deeper and more critically, they are identifying and naming the different emotions they feel, they are coming into their own.

Proof of these changes was apparent after a reflection session on identity led by the talented staff at the Brother David Darst Center. “Who am I?” “Where do I come from?” “Why am I here?” “What is important to me?” We were asked to think about and journal responses to these questions. We are all at different stages of processing these questions—this is a strength of this year's Gapsters. Everyone’s unique background brings diversity to the group. The respect and support that is embodied by our students during our reflection sessions further demonstrates the ways in which they are maturing as a group.  
Staff at Br. David Darst Center Open Students' Eyes to Social Injustice
Br. David Darst Originally Opposed the Vietnam War
Chicago presented the group with many different perspectives. Over an incredibly packed two week period the students were exposed to homelessness, poverty, post incarceration rehabilitation, deportation, gang violence, alternate faith traditions, food deserts & food scarcity, and environmental sustainability. The group visited the following organizations respectively: Cornerstone Men's Shelter (homelessness), St. Leonard’s House (formerly incarcerated), U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (deportation vigil), Precious Blood Ministry (non-violent gang reconciliation), Taller de Jose (ministry of accompaniment for ESL clients), the Golden Shoe Project (public art installation raising awareness about gun violence), Kadampa Buddhist Center (Buddhist perspective), Old St. Patrick's Cathedral (Catholicism), Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (anti-Jewish sentiment in public affairs), St. James Food Pantry (food scarcity), and The Plant (environmental sustainability).
Exploring Issues Related to Urban Poverty in the Heart of the City
Overwhelmingly, the exposure that the group has had toward gang violence and violence in general hit home the hardest. Our Gapsters spent time talking with some boys their own age who have grown up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago—'Back of the Yards'.  The two boys shared their honest life-stories with our students: these boys have known incarceration, parole, gun violence, robbery, drug trafficking, battery, and death.  When conversation was redirected toward the Gap students, the two boys were shocked to discover none of them had ever been arrested. Different worlds came together that day to share perspectives via a two-way conversation, rather than a one-way presentation. To further address the issue of gang violence in Chicago, the group traveled via train to Daley Plaza to participate in the Golden Shoe Project. The interactive art display used spray-painted gold shoes to represent lives lost to violence in the city last year: 432 shoes. The public was welcomed into the display to read and mourn the tags attached to each pairs of shoes which included the victim's name, age, description of death, and sometimes a personal message from a family member. This public display moved the students deep to their core. As one Gapster said, “It’s one thing to hear stories, it is another to visually see representations of those stories…to imagine the actual people.”
Madeline engaging in the Golden Shoe Project. 

Perhaps the Most Potent Message Student's Heard Throughout the 2-Weeks in Chicago
On one of the last days in Chicago, the students went to serve at the St.James Food Pantry, which addressed the issue of food scarcity and urban food deserts in a slightly different way than other food pantries. Rather than simply handing out bags of food to those in need, the volunteers and staff believe deeply in more of an empowerment model of assistance -- that is, clients who visit the food pantry are also provided with an 8-week nutrition class designed to help clients understand food and nutrition labels, and also to encourage clients to make healthy food choices when shopping for groceries. The pantry serves over 1500 clients monthly, and
the respect and dignity the long-standing volunteer staff showed the clients was something especially inspiring to the students. They found it quite impactful to be working in such a positive environment for such a positive cause. Not only did some students directly serve and interact with a culturally diverse client base that morning (52% Asian, remaining 48% mixed ethnicities), but many worked behind the scenes to help sort, clean and organize the food storage area. It was quite impressive to see the level of organization and efficiency with which the volunteer staff distributed food, and the systematic method of reducing food waste by encouraging the clients to take only what they knew they would truly eat. The camaraderie and genuine joyfulness that as present that morning was something that many students were not expecting. And as one student said as they were debriefing their service-learning experience, "Working here this morning put a face to hunger, and it made me realize how someone might just need a bit extra in helping to feed their family, especially if they don't have a job. I mean, it could be me in a few years."
Madeline, Alec, Morgan and Mallory Sort Fresh Produce to Bring Out Front to the Distribution Room
St. James Food Pantry Clients Are Provided With Multiple Choices of Food
Jack, Abby, Christian and Josie Distribute Bags of Food to Clients
Later that day, Gapsters headed down to 'the Yard' which is an area of the inner city that historically housed many meat processing and packing business. Now many of the warehouses are abandoned and sit empty -- subject to vandalism and further deterioration. Yet, the students discovered at least one bright spot amidst the otherwise empty and bombed-out buildings -- The Plant. 

The Plant is located in a 93,500 square foot former pork packing facility. Built in 1925, the building was owned by Peer Foods, who operated on site until 2006. Bubbly Dynamics, LLC purchased the building in 2010, and The Plant was born!

Bubbly Dynamics purchased the property for an extremely low price – about $5.00 per square foot! It was assumed that the new owner would simply strip the facility of an valuable metals, tear the building down, and build something new on the property. However, part of The Plant’s mission is to show that sustainable food production can happen inside of an existing, undervalued property such as this. To that end, instead of stripping the building and tearing it down, The Plant will reuse as much as possible of the building and internal materials.The Plant is a center for start-up for existing food producing businesses to develop into viable, sustainable ventures. The Plant’s business incubator consists of permanent tenant spaces maintained by Bubbly Dynamics, LLC, and offers food-producing businesses the advantage of reduced rent and energy costs. All food waste generated by these businesses will be processed in an on site anaerobic digester to create bio gas for The Plant’s renewable energy system. This self-sustaining, interconnected process helps the businesses housed in The Plant grow and prosper together, while creating new, green jobs in the community.

The Vibrant Mural on the Outside of 'The Plant' is Indicative of the Vibrant Ecologically Friendly Businesses Inside
Gapsters Getting a Tour of the Aquaponics and Aquaculture Areas Inside 'The Plant'
So Long Chicago, Hello St. Lucia!!
As the students packed up their bags and reviewed the many experiences and people they encountered throughout their two weeks in Chicago, it became clearly evident that developed a new depth of understanding about the many challenges that people face when living in poverty, particularly in the inner city. And rather than feeling overwhelmed with the enormity of the social injustices that occur within our cities, many of the students were galvanized to actually get angry about some of what they learned. But as one of the speakers they heard at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs so aptly pointed out, "It is one thing to educate yourself about a particular issue -- to even become an advocate on someone else's behalf -- but it is another thing altogether to really take a stand for the long haul and actually get involved. You have to make the decision to put your thoughts into action." 

So it came time to say good by to the friends we made at the Br. David Darst Center, and to head home for a few days to repack and regroup. The learning journey continues as the group prepares to head towards warmer climes and lush greenery.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Digging Deeper: Exploring the Highs and Lows and the Spaces in Between...

Watching as the First Hot Air Balloons Take Flight in the Pre-Dawn Hours
So it has been a while since we've been able to update the blog. Besides having some minor technical difficulties with uploading photos and software compatibility issues, life just got busy and there weren't enough hours in the day to accomplish all that we had planned.

Our final week in New Mexico was filled with both highs and lows, as the students more concretely learned about the various social injustices and forms of oppression that occur around the globe, and in our own country -- sometimes in our own back yards. Yet, as they were processing the full impact of what they were learning they also celebrated the rich and diverse Latino culture that pervades this part of the desert southwest with several events at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. 

At the end of the first full week, the students volunteered to serve at the International Hot Air Balloon Festival, which is an annual event held in Albuquerque. Arriving at 4:15 am to watch as the first balloon took flight in the early pre-dawn hours was really something quite magical to behold. The students watched in awe as the shapeless, masses of reinforced nylon lying in the dewy grass slowly filled with hot air, and became gargantuan recognizable shapes, which then floated skyward. As the day warmed up, after the sun crested the horizon, an entire fleet of hot air balloons were launched amidst a throng of well over 8000 eager spectators. 
Hundreds of Balloons Preparing to Take Flight 

As the day wore on students made their way through the busy festival grounds over to the Music Fiesta site and checked in with the Volunteer Coordinator. Upon receiving their assignment the group meticulously numbered and set up the seating area for the three bands who would grace the main stage area later that day. The Music Fiesta is the culminating event, concluding the annual 7-day international event and usually draws huge crowds. After setting up the venue site, students then ticketed, checked-in and ushered hundreds of ecstatic concert goers to their assigned seats. The headlining band was The Band Perry which for many of the students was a double-bonus: getting to see the hot air balloons and getting to see one of their favorite bands! It was a day full of sun, fun, and festivities.

Students Assist in Setting Up for the Music Fiesta Main Stage Event - The Band Perry
The Crew Prepares to Ticket and Usher Excited The Band Perry Fans to Their Assigned Seats
Who Wouldn't Want to be Greeted and Seated by One of These Friendly Faces?! (Alec, Autumn, Kate)
Morgan, Nicole and Sam Eager to Assist Concert Goers

It was a good thing that the students were buoyed up by the hot air balloon festival because the following week -- the final week in Albuquerque -- was a bit more challenging than simply setting up chairs for a music concert.  

As previously mentioned the students were confronted with the hard realities of what it is like to live in fear. Fear of economic insecurity; fear of being ripped away from your family and swiftly deported; fear of domestic violence; fear of being labeled and judged as 'disabled'; fear of not having enough food to feed your children; fear of not having the 'right'color of skin; fear of living in a toxic environment... Visits to a number of social justice and human rights organizations throughout the second week in Albuquerque gave the students plenty of opportunity to reflect on the level of privilege that most of them have known since birth. Discussions with the folks at Somos Un Pueblo Unido gave the students an understanding of the common practice of 'wage theft' that occurs frequently in the immigrant labor force. They learned about the complexities of how the political process and the various legislators who hold office in any particular state, inevitably shape the laws that govern any particular region or state, particularly as it pertains to the vastly contentious issue of immigration. For many, it was a wake-up call about the importance of becoming politically aware and the power of grassroots organizations to influence and shape public policy. 
Additionally, they learned about the the pervasive effects of domestic violence among the largely Latino and Hispanic community in the greater Albuquerque area. Yet, the women who serve as advocates at Enlace Communitario, an organization committed to eradicating domestic violence at its core, were quick to inform the students that domestic violence cuts across all socio-economic classes and other demographic identifiers that people tend to use when working with a particular population or addressing a particular issue. Not surprisingly many of the Gap students felt very emotionally raw when they heard the personal story of one woman who had endured a very painful past, full of violence and abuse. Entering first into the country as an illegal citizen, not only did she eventually gain US citizen status, but she was eventually able to break out of the cycle of violence and abuse. The resounding message from each of the organizations the students met with that week was this: "Don't sit and wait for these issues to simply disappear or go away, because they won't. It is up to your generation to carry the torch and work towards a solution to these complex problems." The students also spent a day working with Catholic Charities, where they learned not only about the 'charity model' of how this organizations has historically dealt with serving the needs of those who are in need -- particularly the immigrant population to the greater Albuquerque/Santa Fe area -- but additionally they gained some understanding of the dizzying number of statutes and types of immigration visas that undocumented persons are faced with once they cross the border and want to file for citizenship. As one student stated "It seems so unfair that just because I happened to be born on the north side of the Rio Grande and I have white skin, I am able to have all the freedoms and opportunities that I do." . 

The two weeks in New Mexico ended with several celebratory events hosted by the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC), the first of which was taking in the featured art exhibit: Quinceanera: Our Story, Our Future. The evening before we had to board the Amtrak to make the long train ride back to the Midwest (27 hours+), students helped the educational outreach committee at the NHCC prepare for an early Dia de los Muertos celebration, which included making traditional sugar skulls for local children and other participants to decorate and take home. Although many of the students knew in a general sense what the traditional Mexican 'Day of the Dead' celebration is -- an annual event to honor and acknowledge loved ones who have passed on -- many were unfamiliar with the level of dedication and commitment many people take in observing this holiday. After several hours of volunteering for educational outreach committee, the students were finally able to attend the exhilarating and galvanizing concert by the East LA band, Las Cafeteras. Not only were they incredibly talented musicians and performers, but the message the band delivers: 'Equality and justice for all!' got the packed audience revved up. As one student stated emphatically, "this is my jam!!!

Traditional Dia de los Muertos Altar Honoring Loved Ones Who Have Passed

Morgan M., Morgan P. & Alec Making Sugar Skulls

Zack Puts Final Touch on Sugar Skull

Local Kids Decorating Skulls to Take Home

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Headed Out West

Gapsters (soon to be 'Trainsters') gathered together at Union Station in Chicago. 

Greetings From Albuquerque!

Hola from the desert lands of New Mexico! After many laughs, lots of people watching, and only a few delays on the train, we have arrived safely to our new home for the next two weeks--the Norbertine Community of Santa Maria de la Vid. What a serene location! Although tired upon arrival, students were re-energized upon learning they would be able to sleep in a bed in their own rooms, rather than a sleeping bag in a shared tent, or cramped into a train seat that only partially reclined. When morning broke on our first day at Santa Maria de la Vid, students were amazed by the very different scenery surrounding them--the night sky occulted the shrub-adorned dusty plain that is characteristic of the semi-arid area of the New Mexico landscape. A large solar panel farm abuts the property line of the Norbertine Abbey grounds and day time is typically framed by an endless blue sky that overlooks the Sandia and Manzano mountain ranges. In addition to staying at this beautiful space, we are gaining a stronger connection to our St. Norbert College roots as we live among the generous hospitality of our Norbertine Brothers.

Sunrise over the Manzano mountain range. Photo taken from the Abbey grounds.

After a very engaging orientation to the Santa Maria Abbey by Abbot Joel P. Garner, O. Praem, the students were invited to join he and the rest of the Norbertine Brothers for an evening meal. Not only was the meal absolutely delicious with a definite southwestern’ flavor of green and red chiles, the conviviality was palpable and conversation and laughter flowed easily at each table.

Abbot Joel gives us a tour of the Santa Maria Abbey.
Once a Packer-backer,
always a Packer-backer! 

After a few days to rest up and catch up on some school work, students got their first taste of the great New Mexico community with a visit to Mandy’s Farm--a therapeutic living farm for those with varying cognitive and physical abilities. The students, as well as the staff and residents at Mandy’s Farm, had a blast preparing the grounds for the second annual Haunted Barn Halloween Benefit! The Gapsters did not hesitate to roll up their sleeves and get down to work: cleaning out an irrigation channel, raking leaves and shoveling manure for compost, tilling and preparing garden beds, organizing and sweeping out the barn, and patiently unwrapping invasive vines from the garden’s fence. Before leaving the farm, the students’ hard work was greatly rewarded--not only did they help beautify the farm for its fund-raising event, but they made many new animal friends including alpaca, llamas, chickens, goats, and of course horses. It was quite a sight to see all of the Gap students hanging out with one another and their new furry buddies at the end of the day!

Nicole, Kate, Autumn, Morgan, and the fearless Dr. Fredrickson hanging with the horses!

Abby, Zach, and Madeline ridding
a fence of some invasive vines.

Mallory and Sam gathering hay to feed the horses.
Jack, Josie, Matt, and Morgan's
interpretation of American Gothic.

A new face joined the Gap Experience this week. Dr. Deirdre Egan-Ryan flew into Albuquerque from St. Norbert College to further facilitate the course she is teaching as part of the Gap Experience. Dr. Egan-Ryan’s course, American Myths, Community and the Individual, prompts students to think critically about the various myths that have informed our collective ‘American Identity.’ Through group discussions and careful analysis of the assigned course readings, students are challenged to think more critically about whether commonly held myths about a shared American identity are in fact, true, or perhaps as Dr. Egan-Ryan points out, might be considered falsehoods--or at least in need of more critical reflection. Student interest and participation in the course accelerates as they directly relate their service-learning experience and cultural exposure to the largely Hispanic culture directly back to their studies. Many of the students are discovering that there is a distinct difference between high school and what is expected of them at the collegiate level, but the excitement is very much alive as they apply what they are learning through their interactions with the local community to their academic inquiry.

In addition to serving the community and hitting the books, our Gapsters are experiencing New Mexico through the strong influence of the Hispanic arts in this part of the country. The chatter continued the entire drive home after seeing Confessions of a MEXpatriot. This one-man play chronicled the cultural bifurcation experienced by a young Mexican-American who struggled to reconnect with his Mexican ancestry, while still being heavily influenced by his American upbringing. Students truly enjoyed their time at the theater: Some were in awe at how a single person could memorize and perform such a complex monologue, while others affirmed their years of learning Spanish as they expressed their joy in understanding the Spanish parts spoken throughout the show. Some Gapsters could relate to the story as having been a ‘gringo’ or tourist in another country, while still others could relate to the satire directed towards the ever-popularized hipster. The students’ enthusiasm and commentary about the outstanding performance spilled into the classroom, where Dr. Egan-Ryan tied yet another lived experience to classroom theory and the academic learning process.

Playbill and ticket for a one-man show.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Northwoods Adventure Continues on the the Superior Hiking Trail

Christian hangs loose off a granite rock face at Shovel Point

Abi's smile reflects her sense of accomplishment 

After the group emerged from 2 solid weeks of canoeing and portaging through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, they took a day to do some rock climbing at Shovel Point -- a premier climbing spot located on the Minnesota north shore. The day-long climbing adventure certainly helped solidify group cohesion and trust. Picture this: tethered into your climbing harness, with all other climbing safety measures in place, you step over the edge of a 50 foot cliff, rappel your way down a craggy granite face, with nothing but open air between you and the chilly waters of Lake Superior. Yep, that is what this group of 16 intrepid adventurers did! After a beautiful day of climbing the group split up into three smaller groups and hiked independently for 6 days, covering over 60 miles per group. Facing a day of drenching rain, heavy packs, cool weather, maneuvering across boardwalks and suspension bridges, the three brigades ended their trek and made their way back to Voyageur Outward Bound's base camp outside of Ely, MN, a few days shy of a full month. 
Hiking across the Baptism River near High Falls

Morgan's hiking group north of Tettegouche State Park
Christian, Matt and Zach take in the view

They spent a few days in and around Home Place, Outward Bound's base camp, trying out their skill on the high ropes course, assisting the Outward Bound staff in complete gear clean up, and then two full days engaged in direct service with local organizations: Habitat for Humanity, the Ely Marathon, and the Ely Area Food Shelf.

Alec and Morgan show off their new power tools
Swinging like monkeys on the high ropes course!

The chefs of some delicious stir-fry!

All dressed up and ready to cheer on some marathoners!

Sam, Alec and Nicole taking a break
The bridge less traveled by