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Four Januarys ago, Josh Morrison '09 flew from Seattle, Wash. to Louisiana. He had never been to New Orleans before, and the city was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina that devastated the city six months earlier, while Morrison and his classmates were heading to College Hill for freshmen orientation.

For ten days, Morrison, along with a group of about ten other Brown students, slept on cots in a church basement and woke at dawn to gut homes, removing appliances and furniture that had been destroyed in the flood.

Morrison has since returned three more times to do relief work. "It was one of the greatest times of my life," he said. "It was so much fun — working so hard during the day, going out at night and seeing the city, enjoying life."

He's been one of many to make the southward journey.

"I'm just one piece of what Brown has done in New Orleans. There's been a lot of effort on so many different fronts from Brown students," he said.

After the storm

Over the last four years, Brown has sent dozens of trips and hundreds of students down to the gulf. Many of these trips have been organized by campus institutions like the Swearer Center for Public Service, Habitat for Humanity, Brown/RISD Hillel, the Brown Christian Fellowship and College Hill for Christ though others, like Morrison's, were simply informal groups of friends and friends-of-friends, brought together by a desire to do good for the New Orleans' community.

Though there has been no campus-wide coordinated relief effort and the Swearer Center does not keep records on the number of students who have been to New Orleans since 2005, the patterns of Brown's involvement seem to mirror larger responses to the situation, both in its fragmentation and in its eventual flagging. 

Ian Sims '10.5, who graduated high school the summer the storm hit and traveled to New Orleans in his year before starting Brown, describes the efforts on the ground as "really disorganized," and says that the Brown "mishmash" is reflective of the larger situation.
"Right after the hurricane, tons of people went, and it's still kind of fractured and disorganized," says Sims, who, along with Morrison, has organized two unofficial trips over the winter break of his freshman and sophomore years.

Sarah Raifman '09, who has been to the city twice and is on the executive board for Brown's chapter of Habitat for Humanity, says there has been a huge drop in volunteers traveling to the Gulf since Katrina.

"In the Brown community and among our level of university peers, it's been less, though — for Habitat at least, for our break trips, there's definitely always way more interest in the Gulf region and New Orleans specifically" in comparison to other locations, she says. 

‘A hugely shaping experience'

For members of the class of 2009 — most of whom arrived at Brown as the storm hit — Katrina and its aftermath have informed and exemplified their relationship with the University, both allowing them to go beyond the campus bubble and enriching their academic, social and spiritual life on campus.

"Our class was certainly very aware of it," Raifman says.

Morrison says the storm offered many in his class an opportunity for service. "It was a hugely shaping experience for me at Brown," he says. 

Jon Mitchell '09, who participated in Hillel's alternative break the spring of his junior year, says his experiences in New Orleans strengthened his ties back to the College Hill community.

"It was a great thing for my relationship to Brown," he says. "I was terribly impressed with everyone that came down — I wasn't used to seeing Brown students bending their backs in this way. I was inspired by that."

Sims, an Africana Studies concentrator, says his experiences in New Orleans have also profoundly influenced his academic work.

He said seeing the disparity in which neighborhoods were most assisted in recovery efforts made visible topics that he's studied. "It's this tangible, real-world connection to what I'm studying and intellectualizing." 

For many like Sims, New Orleans has brought into sharp focus issues of poverty, privilege and power that can seem abstract and distant in the campus bubble.

"A lot of this was stuff I had never encountered growing up in a fairly wealthy part of the country and going to an Ivy League school," says Taylor Stearns '09, who went to New Orleans with the Brown Christian Fellowship over the spring of his junior and senior years.
For those who went to the city later or have been back multiple times, this awareness of inequity has only deepened.

"This year, it was really interesting to see how much had changed in the wealthy areas and how, in the poor areas, nothing had changed and everything was still abandoned," Stearns says.

Mitchell recalls researching the city before deciding to go on his trip.

"I looked into the state of New Orleans in 2008, and quickly realized that it was really no better than it was in 2006. Many of the parts of the city that had been totally devastated hadn't even been touched by the relief work. I quickly realized that it was a lot deeper and more entrenched of a problem than I thought."

Sims acknowledges the depth of the problem but says he has some reservations about what he sees as the isolated, narrow nature of many Brown students' involvement.

"I don't want to diminish the fact that it can be an incredibly rewarding and valuable experience, but if it means that people can drive through the poor neighborhood next to their town and not think twice, then it means they're working backwards. It can't just be a feel-good vacation."

Beyond graduation

Since his experiences in New Orleans made a permanent impact on his life, Sims encourages others to help the relief efforts.

"The work is more complicated than us just going down when we have a vacation. It needs to be more sustained. For me, it's completely shaped how I am going to live my life."

Morrison says he will not look at free time the same way since his time in the Gulf. "It taught me that I never want to take a vacation for vacation's sake. I always want to do something useful with my vacation and my time," Morrison says.

 Sims says he hopes the city will stay on people's minds.

"Oftentimes, our historical perspective is to iconify things. I worry that Katrina is already fading into a past moment." However, he says, leaning close, eyes wide, "We're still in Katrina."

But if the next generation of activists and relief workers is any indication, Brown is in no immediate danger of losing sight of Katrina after the class that came in along with it leaves College Hill.

Sarah Grimm '12 went this year with Brown Christian Fellowship.

"I would really love to keep to keep going," she says. "It's definitely not over."




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