Day Eight

Ryan Comrie ’19 and Lauren Bromage ’17
18 March 2017

RYAN:

With stomachs full of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ chicken from the previous night, the Harvard team journeyed to Nashville on Saturday. Gorgeous 65-degree weather met the team as they arrived on Broadway Street, the main hub of Nashville. After an initial stroll through Broadway, ducking in and out of eclectic souvenir shops and enjoying the live music, the team went to a bridge that overlooked both the Tennessee River and Tennessee Titan’s stadium. Sharing laughs over pictures they had taken on the bridge, the squad maneuvered through hoards of people and party buses that dominated the sidewalks and streets of Broadway Street and found a place to eat lunch. BB King’s Blues Club did not disappoint. Live music and a hearty meal provided an excellent setting for the team to bond even more. Subsequently, some of the gang decided to head over to Vanderbilt to tour the campus, while others decided to explore the streets surrounding Broadway.  Those who went to Vanderbilt also visited a large park adjacent to the campus that had a replica of the Parthenon!

 

LAUREN:

Next, the group headed to “Crazy Town” on Broadway, a booming 3-story venue with a live band on each floor. With a prime location in front of the stage, the team enjoyed even more of the Southern food they’d grown to love. However, it wasn’t long before we gave up our seats and stormed the dance floor. We danced and sang the night away as the band played rock, country, reggae, and even Hiphop classics. As I looked around at the smiles of the people around me I reflected on how close we had grown throughout the course of the week. It was difficult to believe just ten days earlier I barely knew this group with which I now shared so many memories and inside jokes! Our time in Nashville ended with an ice cream run and a reflective talk on the drive home. Before heading to bed, we gathered at the Maloney household for a few final games of “One Night”. I couldn’t imagine a better way of ending such a wonderful spring break if I tried to.

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Day Six

Amanda Mozea ’17-’18
16 March 2017

Thursday – Jackson, Mississippi

 

On Thursday, we started out early for Stewpot Community Services. It was our last day at the community center. We started out by sorting clothing into piles for men, women, boys, girls. I was struck by how plentiful the resources were for those in need who came to Stewpot for assistance: piles and piles of clothes stretched out in front of us. In some rooms, we would literally have to wade into the donations to organize them. But, despite the charity of giving an old jacket or a used blouse, the reality was that the men and women we were serving were in need of assistance far greater; and that was where charity was not enough.

 

At lunchtime, we headed over to the soup kitchen and went through our usual assembly-line routine of food preparation, distribution, and clean-up. The difference was that this was our last time serving lunch to the West Jackson community. I realized that, even in our short time with Stewpot, we had developed a relationship with the community members who we saw again and again for lunch.

 

We said our goodbyes to the Stewpot community and headed into Downtown Jackson. Our first stop was the Smith Robertson Museum. The museum celebrates African American Mississippians from times of slavery to the present. The museum is located in the Smith Robertson School, first Jackson public school for Black students. Among the notable alumni was Richard Wright who is most famous for his semi-autobiographical work like Black Boy. The museum took my breath away on multiple occasions. The trail from slavery to present day was a long, bitter, bloody one, and the museum made sure that its patrons understood that.

 

The most memorable of the exhibits was part of the exhibit dedicated to James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi. The room was constructed like a classroom with wooden desks and chairs facing towards the presence of a teacher. Seated in one of the chairs was a full-size cutout of James Meredith, pencil in hand, ready to learn. On the wall behind Meredith was a quote from the governor of Mississippi at the time of the integration of the University: “I have said in every county of Mississippi that no school in our state will be integrated while I am your governor. I shall do everything in my power to prevent integration in our schools.” In the middle of the quote was a Confederate flag. The symbolism could not have been any more powerful. The desperation by which White Mississippians clung onto the supremacy could not have been any more tangible.

 

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Our next stop after the Smith Robertson Museum was the Mississippi Supreme Court and Capitol Building. The contrast of the celebration and acknowledgement of African Americans at the Smith Robertson Museum was stark. In the capitol building, the ornate stain glass, marble pillars, and murals celebrating Mississippi left no mention of slavery or the presence of African Americans at all. I had to remind myself that while Mississippi is taking a great many steps towards reconciling its past with its present, there is much work to be done.

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Inside of MS Capitol Building.

Day Five

Vanessa Boyle ’19
15 March 2017

Today, we continued to work at the Stewpot Community Services. We served lunch to the customers of Stewpot, with menu items including cranberry juice, chicken, green beans, and dessert. Following our soup kitchen responsibilities, we headed over to the Stewpot Opportunity Center where we organized snacks and toiletries.

After Stewpot, we visited Medgar Evers’s home. His home is marked by a ‘Mississippi Freedom Trail’ sign detailing his significant contributions as a civil rights leader to Mississippi’s history. It was an emotional experience to be able stand in Evers’s driveway, the place in which he was assassinated for fighting for civil rights. There were also pictures detailing Evers’s assassination, including the window through which the bullet passed through.

We finished our day by returning to the Northminster Baptist Church. Cecilia, one of the participants and an incredible cook, prepared a delicious dinner of cheeseburgers and pasta salad.

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Day Four

Kelly Navarro ’19
14 March 2017

Today was our first day of community service in Jackson. After a delicious breakfast from our resident chef, Cecilia, we went to Stewpot Community Services, where we started at the Community Kitchen preparing lunch for the clients. We donned our gloves, working and chatting alongside the staff and volunteers as we filled trays and takeout containers with beef chili, salad, canned peaches, crackers, and assorted desserts. At noon, the clients came into and filled the tables. We said a brief, yet meaningful, grace before the clients began eating.

 

Once we finished cleaning, we walked to our next location: the Opportunity Center, which serves as the only day shelter in the city. Because it was too cold to work outside, we were split into two groups to help them organize donated supplies. The other group was sent to the toiletries closet, while Amanda, Brian, and I were sent to the food pantry, where we organized the boxes of pasta and countless granola bars with Tetris-like precision. During our work here, we took a break to see their hens and ducks, which serve the dual purpose of providing eggs, as well as pet therapy for the clients here. Aside from Brian, we were initially a bit scared of holding the hens, but they were gentle and very comforting.

 

Later that afternoon we went to Hal & Mal’s, a New Orleans-style restaurant known for live venues, Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade, and a love for blues and Elvis. We met with seven Harvard alumni and gave a round of introductions before mingling with the group. They regaled us with stories of their time at Harvard, from engaging in protests during the Vietnam War era to visiting their children at Currier House (objectively the best house). They also all recounted the paths that led them to Mississippi. Though two completed their law degree in Mississippi after attending Harvard, many of these native Mississippians had sworn to never return, only to find their home calling back to them after some time away. They all told us of their inspiring work giving back to their communities, from education interventions, to working over thirty years in civil rights litigation, to serving as a councilmen for Jackson.

 

For dinner, we got to enjoy another helping of Southern cooking—namely hushpuppies, muffulettas (olive salad, ham, salami, and cheese sandwiches), and tamales as close to Mexican tamales as you can make them. This was followed by sausage, bread, and red beans and rice, which were delicious and extremely spicy (too spicy for me to finish!). We finished the night watching one of the alumni, Ron, play his banjo with a jazz group. We were all spent after our busy day, so we skipped trivia night (Pub Night) and a film for our civil rights movie marathon.

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Day Seven

Alannah O’Brien
17 March 2017

As Friday morning dawned, the Harvard team had to split up in order to visit two different elementary schools. One group talked to students at Austinville Elementary School, while the other half of the Harvard team visited Woodemeade Elementary School. It was fascinating to see the diversity of these schools, and to see the passion the teachers and school employees had for taking care of and teaching the children under their care. While we weren’t able to teach much about college to the elementary school students, we were able to tell them about the various subjects we study and the many states and countries that we come from.
After visiting the elementary schools, the Harvard team were reunited in order to talk first at Austin High School and then Decatur High School. We talked to freshmen at both schools about our experiences in college and the college application process. We organized ourselves into small groups, which allowed the high school freshmen to ask many questions and get more personal responses. However, not only did the high school students hopefully learn from what we had to say, I think the Harvard team also learned today by hearing about the high school experience in Alabama.
In between the high school visits, the team went to the RailYard for lunch. Many of us ordered the enormous Heartbreaker burger, a double bacon cheeseburger enclosed by two grilled cheese sandwiches. This huge lunch was followed later by an enormous barbecue dinner party held later on at the Maloney house. The St. Patrick’s Day themed party was a great way for the Harvard team to say thank you to all the workers from the Habitat for Humanity site, our host families, and many people who contributed to the success of this trip, including the mayor of Decatur. Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ donated the barbecue and provided a variety of delicious pies, which were the perfect end to another great day in Alabama.

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Day Six

Madeline Bernstein
16 March 2017

Today was a bit bittersweet, as it was our last day working on the Habitat build. We finished an amazingly productive week by finishing our work on the roof, installing the protective sheathing. It was also the first warm day of the trip, and the Harvard team finally enjoyed some of the Alabama sun we had all been hoping for. It was a beautiful day, and it was great to finally be taking off layers rather than putting more on. Everyone was in a great mood, with people singing and laughing as our construction work came to an end.

Because we started with framing the house on the first day, by the end of the day today it was amazing to see how different the build looked from when we started. The whole team was very excited at the amount of progress we were able to make this week, especially because we were able to see the house literally spring up in front of us. Everyone had different parts of the house that they spent a lot of time working on, whether it was sawing the windows, nailing the roof, or making the doors, and we all have a deep sense of pride at what we were able to accomplish this week.
As we left the worksite, we reflected a bit about how much we have learned, and all of the skills we’ve gained throughout the week. Most of us came in with little or no construction experience, but thanks to the amazing Habitat construction team who worked with us this week, we left knowing a lot more about construction. One team member even commented that he felt he learned more in this last week than he has so far in class at Harvard this semester. The whole team is incredibly grateful for the great construction team we had with us this week, and we’ve all made different friendships and connections with these workers. We were definitely sad to leave the worksite, but are excited to spend some more time with the workers tomorrow night.
In the evening, Brandon Price generously took us out on his boat with his son J.R. We went up and down the Tennessee river, shared dinner and watched the sun set. In previous days we had spent a lot of our time as a team playing games, engaging in small talk, and getting to know each other in small ways. In contrast, something about the idyllic setting of the boat ride resulted in the team really opened up to each other. We bonded a lot as a group, and — joined in the conversation as well!
The boat was back in the dock before we even realized we had turned around, and we left feeling refreshed and closer as a team.

Day Five

Carter Hartmann
15 March 2017

Our Wednesday began bright and early at the Rotary Club of Decatur Daybreak breakfast meeting, where the team witnessed an incredible display of generosity and hospitality. The team mingled and conversed with distinguished Rotary Club members over a delicious hot southern style breakfast. After getting to know impressive members of the community, including judges, superintendents, and ex-NFL players, the team had the opportunity to formally introduce themselves during the morning’s program. In an incredible act of welcoming, a Decatur judge presented the team with certificates of honorary citizenship to Decatur. The hospitality continued as multiple Rotary members presented the team with Alabama themed t-shirts. Overall the morning was a microcosm of the kindhearted and selfless community that the team has witnessed throughout the trip.

The team is becoming a well oiled machine on the work site. A combination of mastery over the tools and a stronger chemistry between each other and the permanent volunteers has catalyzed our efficiency. Today we finished the sheathing on the house and installed the trusses on the roof. Everybody was having fun and working hard!
Tonight, the team enjoyed dinner with the First United Methodist Church, the oldest church in Decatur. Delicious food coupled with friendly company created another environment that welcomed the team with open arms. After dinner, the Maloneys took the team across the street to the Morgan County Archives where we got an in depth look at the history of the region we were staying in. The archives were full of fascinating glimpses into the Civil War and historic court cases, the team especially enjoyed looking through old Decatur newspapers. Following the archives, the team went out to Escape Decatur, an escape the room attraction. Trapped in a wild west themed prison, the team was forced to use critical thinking and problem solving skills to solve riddles and complete tasks in order to escape. Amidst the puzzling tasks, the team worked together and gelled even closer as a group. We successfully escaped the room in forty minutes, twenty less than the allotted time. After a long day of work and play the team went back to the Maloneys’ to relax and enjoy each others company.

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Day Four

Liam Baughman ’19
14 March 2017

Day four on the work-site began with introductions to two new tools, the reciprocating saw and the compound saw, that would prove indispensable to the day’s tasks: completing interior walling, applying exterior siding, and clearing doorways. Temperatures in the mid-30s and spitting frozen rain presented challenges, but they were nothing a couple hand-warmers and pairs of pants (okay, maybe a few of each) couldn’t solve, along with the excitement of recognizing some real tangible products of our labor. As walls acquired backing, as doors became walkable, and as the team began to work like a well-oiled machine (certainly better oiled than those temperamental orange nail-guns) our reasons for being here – contributing meaningfully to better lives for more people while learning new skills, making new friends, and understanding a new culture – kept us warm against the cold.
Work was followed by an approximately hour-long break for rest or other responsibilities before the group reconvened at the Decatur Youth Services After School Program. There we met Director Bruce Jones, Daybreak Rotarian, former NFL player, and inspiring community leader. We divided up into three groups working with elementary and middle school aged students, supporting them on homework, playing basketball and dodge ball with them in the gym, competing in jeopardy (Team Lays beat Team Doritos by a narrow 4 points in a close game that included knockout beat-boxing by Lauren and a debate over the pronunciation of “stan”), and sharing experiences and aspirations with each other. Though the worlds brought together by this experience, Harvard students and at-risk Decatur youth, were in many ways quite different, we laughed with and learned from each other through the warm environment fostered by the Youth Program. May this program’s work providing a safe, positive environment for disadvantaged students serve as an example for others looking to innovate education and break cycles of poverty.
Afterwards the group disbanded to dine with host families, and while these experiences certainly varied across we five pairs, it can certainly be generalized that this was a wonderful evening filled with sharing and memory-making. Since tomorrow we will be getting up before daybreak in order to make it to Daybreak (the sun rises at 6:58 AM yet we’re expected at 6:45 AM), most of us turned in early.

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First Day of Service

Eana Meng ’19
13 March 2017

“The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward.” – ‘Abdu’l – Bahá

“What are you guys doing here?” the teacher asked us in one of the three languages taught at the District of Columbia International School.

It was a sincere question – blunt in English translation, but honest in its meaning. We sheepishly answered, “We’re here to be as helpful as we can be.”

Today was our first day volunteering at DCI School, a public charter school aimed at fostering “multi-lingual, culturally competent and committed” students (from their Mission Statement). We arrived in the morning, around nine, and had a debrief meeting with the principal of the school, Simon Rodberg. A journalist-turned-educator, Mr. Rodberg has spent time at our rival school, and later at our very own Harvard Education School for a Master’s degree. He is a deeply committed and passionate man, and cared about catering to our interests and skillset. He was given a hard task – our plans with a previous school fell through the weeks leading up to our trip, and Mr. Rodberg graciously allowed us to volunteer at his school. Taking seven college students and putting them in the school for a week is akin to placing seven new but temporary parts in a complex machine with its own rhythm and hum. How can those seven pieces fit in without disturbing the machine’s pace and efficiency, but maximally be both utilized and benefitted? There is no perfect solution, and it requires a lot of – pun intended – adjustment.

Adjustment takes place on all fronts. For the school’s students, it’s getting used to seeing a college student in their classroom for a few days. Curiosity abounds for them and there certainly was no lack of direct questions today. From “who are you?” to “what other schools did you get in to?”, the students, refreshingly, asked exactly what they wondered. Teachers, too, were curious. For them, adjustment takes form of how to make use of us while also considering what we wouldn’t mind doing. When asking if I would be okay with taking three slightly-on-the-rowdy side students to the library to help them finish their work, the teacher seemed apologetic, as if it was a lot to ask of me. Later, when she learned that I was hoping to become a doctor one day, she was shocked. She didn’t verbally ask the question, but the sentiment was the same as the first teacher’s: what was I doing there? Why was I spending my spring break helping make a chicken dish, encouraging a clearly very smart but disinterested middle schooler to finish his vocabulary practice, or sitting next to a focused student, treading the line between engaging her in a conversation in a foreign language and allowing her to finish her work?

We here for both them and us, undoubtedly. There is no shame in doing service for the sake of learning and educating oneself; this experience is invaluable in understanding and figuring out how to best help. One teacher told us that this is a “ground zero” of sorts, the realest of realities of our American education system. The day to day in and outs of education are not pretty – as the minute hand ticks by, the long hours are filled with nearly every imaginable happening. Students yelling at each other, throwing things at each other, students yelling at the teachers, students listening perfectly to the teachers, students finishing their work quickly so that they can read a book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, students eager to learn, students who simply just do not want to be at school – it’s all there. The school is truly a microcosm of the larger world we’re all living in, and it’s an amplified, unrestrained version.

But, we’re just here to be as helpful as we can be. In whatever shape or form that takes, there is nothing beneath us, nothing too “mundane” to ask of us. Of course, there are things we feel more comfortable, more interested in helping with, but that’s where our adjusting comes into place. We’re learning and understanding that most teaching moments are not romantic, only the very few select instances are – a teacher’s small sigh of relief, a student finally getting a concept, a student feeling a boost in her confidence. These small moments might not have changed the macro-world, but on the micro and equally as significant level, they might have made that teacher or that student feel just a little better – and for us, that’s the best we can hope for.

Over a home-cooked dinner tonight, we all wondered, what impact are we making here? We may never know, but for me, that’s okay. My high school English teacher once told me that seldom does he ever get to see the products of his time and love, and he counts himself very lucky when he hears from a student years later. And he’s okay with that, and carries on with just as much hope and dedication – safe in the knowledge that education has been, and always will be, what defends us from a deluge of ignorance.

Day Three

Brian Lai ’20
13 March 2017

Beats. Beatings. Beats. Beatings. Music. Suffering. The Music of Suffering.

Today’s trip could not be encapsulated by those words, but they sure were an unfortunate motif of our historical trip and a worse reality for victims in the past decades. Our itinerary was all in Mississippi today. We left the University of Mississippi Campus to go to the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, had lunch in Ground Zero (a restaurant co-owned by THE Morgan Freeman, mind you), then solemnly visited Emmett Till’s places of injustice—Bryant’s Grocery Store and Tallahatchie County Courthouse, Fannie Lou Hamer’s memorial site, and finally settled in Jackson.

Human emotions spill into our action, creativity, and imagination; the music of blues was no exception. For any recorded blues artist, you can witness the passion of the artist reveling in his or her song. But you can also sense the uneasy inspiration for the “blues” made obvious by the fact that it evolved in the English language to describe depression or winter sadness. You feel that in all artists, from famous ones like Muddy Waters, who worked as a sharecropper, to the men Alan Lomax recorded that were working in Parchman Farm penitentiary and whose chants echoed those of slavery. Blues arguably originated from the Mississippi Delta region, and spread throughout the country. The impact of blues, such as the one “Big Mama” Thornton’s original Hound Dog song had on Elvis Presley’s, meant that this expression of human emotion was the origin for modern music, as blues inspired rock and roll and so forth.

But there are places too solemn, and tragedies too sorrowful, where no music should be played.

The courthouse, where Emmett Till’s case was tried, and the grocery store where Emmett Till was accused were places of unspeakable injustice. Emmett Till was a 14 year old boy from Chicago, visiting Money, Mississippi. After buying candy, Till was accused of sexual threats towards Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the owner of the store. He was then abducted, brutally beaten, murdered, and thrown into the nearby river. The evidence of any threat was lacking, yet the jury acquitted the men who killed Till within 67 minutes of trial at the courthouse. Few months after, the men admitted murder to a magazine but went free, and only in 2017, it surfaced that Carolyn Bryant admitted there were no sexual threats at all. Here, an innocent 14 year old boy was robbed of his life, with no justice ever returned. To me, this marked one of the cruelest acts of humanity in modern times.

“Slavery was such a long time ago, forget about it man”. I am not quoting anyone directly, but that seems like a feeling that some people do hold. The fact of the matter is, we cannot forget about these crimes against humanity. The injustice fueled by hatred and racism with the murder of Emmett Till happened in 1955, and there are people still alive that were personally affected. We do not have to trace too far back in history or in our music to understand the suffering that occurred so tangibly recent. But even if centuries more pass, these are things we cannot and should not ever forget. Rather, we owe it to the people that went through the suffering and dreamed of a better humanity, to learn from the mistakes of our past and to continue the fight for a better future.