The Role of Social Justice Educators in Responding to and Preparing for Large-Scale Disasters
Lessons Learned from Magnolia Project at University of California, Berkeley

Note added September 4, 2017: Twelve years from the date I posted this, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The flood of the city was not a natural disaster. Even though I posted this on August 29 2017, I wrote the first version of it in late October 2012. I left UC Berkeley in November 2015; Magnolia Project existed from spring 2006 until spring 2016. I offer this in the hopes that it will be useful to those struggling in Houston, and those who will work for years to come to rebuild that city. I carry these lessons with me every day. I am thankful beyond words that my work in New Orleans put me in relationship with amazing people, including Mack McClendon (RIP), Tim Thomas (RIP), Molly MJ McClure, Alice Chamberlain, Fatima Mohsin, Becka Christine, Nazanin Salehi, Kiyanna Grimes, Ashley Miller, Robyn Stiles, Sharon Martinas, Ravi Patel, Catalyst Staff, Phil Hutchings, Avery Tenacious Brewton, Antoni Trochez, Sarah Ducker, Chika Kondo, Kati Hinman, and Kali Akuno

As I write, Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard, providing us with an awesome display of nature’s power. At latest report, more than 7.5 million people are without electricity, and media images of water rushing ashore, people in shock moving through knee-deep water, fires amidst the flooding, and police and fire responders conjure memories of Fukushima 2011, Iowa 2008, Indonesia 2003, and New Orleans 2005. The parallels that Hurricane Sandy shares with Hurricane Katrina are many, though the analogy is by no means perfectly congruent.

The following reflections are gleaned from my personal experience in engaging more than 450 students in 50,000 hours of service to the relief, rebuilding, and recovery of post-Katrina New Orleans through a variety of short- and long-term projects and programs.[1] My reflections will explore Magnolia Project’s successes and challenges in balancing direct material assistance with addressing structural oppression. (Flaherty, 2009)

As emerging practice-able principles in my own work as a social justice educator these tentative conclusions do not represent the collective wisdom of students, faculty, and partners in this 10-year effort, which programmatically has been coordinated through Magnolia Project at UC Berkeley[2]. Rather, these reflections seek to encapsulate my own efforts to stay engaged personally and professionally in the long-term recovery of post-Katrina New Orleans — which in the process has led me to consider how I am preparing myself and my community for the impending earthquake that will strike the San Francisco Bay Area in the not too distant future.


There is no doubt that disasters — man-made as Hurricane Katrina or natural as Hurricane Sandy — demand that those with resources provide direct material assistance. College and university students find many avenues for providing philanthropy or hands-on service. Over my nearly 10 years in this field I have observed just as many student motivations for this service, whether springing from a sense of being a “good person”, helping the United States live up to its values by serving as an “engaged citizen”, or being led by an ethical duty to alleviate the suffering of others. The failure of the service-learning pedagogy to engage these personal imperatives in a way that invites students to challenge institutional discrimination and systemic oppression is a valid criticism of the field as a whole, which mainly reinforces the status quo. (Saltmarsh and Hartley, 2012; Stoecker, 2002)

Social justice educators who practice critical service-learning seek not only personal transformation i.e. student learning but also community transformation, which entails providing direct material assistance while redistributing power and establishing authentic relationships. (Mitchell, 2008) As an educator I must make visible these twin goals in the programming I offer to students. This transparency is both an easy feat (since such goals are more aligned with my personal and professional imperatives) and a serious challenge to my standing as a professional whose main source of influence within the institution is to offer irresistible invitations to students to engage in difficult questions facing our communities and society. How do I encourage students to provide direct material assistance and also interrogate the reasons for the disproportionate impact of disasters on working class communities of color, or more broadly on communities where “target” or “subordinated” identities intersect to create unjust synergies of oppression? (Tatum, 2003)

When introducing students to service-and co-curricular learning experiences off-campus, social justice educators must encourage students to question and problematize the status quo. I aim to do this in my own practice by providing service opportunities complemented with education and reflection. One key to reflection (among the many best practices in the field) is the ability of facilitators/educators to ask the right question at the right time. This sort of intentional, strategic questioning “usually changes the listener as well as the person being questioned”. (Peavey) To acknowledge the reciprocity at the personal level that this transaction engenders between listener and questioner (educator and learner, teacher and student) creates a foundation upon which to elevate this principle (reciprocity) to the levels of group discrimination and structural oppression.

Understanding Local Context: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans 2005–09

I begin with material, concrete conditions encountered by community members, out of state students and educators at the time that Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. The national narrative of these initial events, much like the popular perception of the relationship between 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq, demonstrates the power of the media to shape opinion about important events. (Greenwald, 2004; Muhammad, 2011) The following brief summary is sufficient only to note the key developments that cast long shadows into the present.

The storm and flood left 80% of the city of New Orleans underwater. Disputing the popular narrative that the hurricane was an “act of god”, several engineers including UC Berkeley’s Bob Bea, Professor Emeritus Civil and Environmental Engineering have argued that the devastation was man-made.[3] ( More than 1,800 people died as a direct result from the storm and flooding, and more than 200,000 people — mainly low income/working poor, women, elderly, with disabilities and children — were given mandatory evacuation orders by the city. [4] Many were displaced by disaster specialists to Houston, Atlanta, and Charlotte.[5]

The Lower 9th Ward was one of hardest hit areas as a result of levee breaches. Total destruction of this community (at the time having one of the highest black home ownership rates in the nation) is particularly devastating to the already vast wealth-inequality between racial groups. Pre-recession, generational poverty that has captured entire generations was observed in all it starkness through the displacement and relief process. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was widely condemned for its slow/lack of response. As recognized years later and only due to much public pressure, police misconduct during the relief period showed blatant disregard for the city’s African-American population. (Thompson, 2012)

Often not cited in mainstream news stories of the on-going recovery of New Orleans is the grassroots effort led by Malik Rahim, who in 2005 established Common Ground, which hosted hundreds of volunteers, many of them white, privileged college students. By early 2006, despite an estimated 200,000 people displaced, New Orleans public housing stood vacant. In December 2006 Common Ground once again hosted hundreds of volunteers, this time in an effort to save public housing. The effort failed and the public housing units were razed. Often ignored by local media, community efforts publicized these developments to a more receptive international audience: by August 2007 the grassroots organization Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF) held a Peoples Tribunal, during which testimony was heard from citizens by a panel of international judges. Like many other organizations led by local leadership, PHRF ceased operations by December 2008.[6] (Luft, 2009)

The relief and rebuilding post-Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the unequal opportunities afforded to the residents of New Orleans based in large part on their limited access to resources, including well-paying jobs, vehicles, extra food, and help from family and friends. As Hurricane Sandy makes landfall, a similar dynamic grips the nation: images of dramatic rescues and the Governor (in this case Chris Christy) chastising residents who have not heeded his orders to evacuate, dazzle the airwaves — with hardly a word about the fact that those most in need of rescue and unable to “heed orders” are disproportionately from low-income communities of color. Reminiscent of the response in 2005 by the grossly mismanaged New Orleans Parish Police Department, the Hoboken Police Department by 9:30pm on October 29, 2012 had issued a dispatch summoning all police personnel for a midnight rendezvous at police headquarters due to social media “intelligence” of flash mob looters. (Hoboken Police, Fire EMS, Public Works, and OEM) Similar to the Orleans Parish jail in 2005, Rikers Island provided little to no information to families of prisoners on its evacuation plan of the 12,000 people housed there.

I have translated a development path with features I first practiced with Magnolia Project (MP) that include coaching students to confront material needs in the short term while exploring the structural dimensions of their service. A 10-year commitment to the Gulf Coast, special dimensions of MP include: development of a Community Advisory Group (CAG) that guided the program’s three initiatives; alumni involvement; faculty involvement at both UC Berkeley and The University of New Orleans[7]; year-round programming; and staff involvement from its founding. As a place-based, multi-issue social action project, MP focuses on not only understanding the immediate causes and consequences of Katrina but also on raising awareness of its larger implications nationwide. Through a critical service-learning pedagogy, both MP staff and student leaders promote a deeper understanding of the social, political, and economic issues involved and their connections to the Bay Area and beyond. Pre-MP, where as an educator I saw “opportunities” to apply what I have learned professionally to new settings, today in the seventh year of MP programming, as a social justice educator I feel an imperative to create the deepest relationships possible and understand what constitutes power and how it is wielded in order to see possibility for distributing it in an equitable fashion.[8]

Magnolia Project has engaged the people of the Gulf Coast from 2006-present. In the past six years 365 Cal students have contributed over 46,000 hours of service — mainly to working class/low income communities of color in Gulf Coast relief, rebuilding, and recovery, through more than 50 community based organizations.[9] The hours served have been through grassroots organizations (including several that have risen and fallen from 2005–2008 in direct response to Katrina), government offices, and traditional nonprofits.

I humbly offer the following as a small part of what I hope will become a set of practical actionable guidelines that colleges and universities can implement toward both ends.

1. Think long-term campaign and seize the opportunity on your campus to engage diverse stakeholders

Parker Palmer writes that educators must actively build movements on campus.[10] When a disaster strikes, an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset are not the territory only of the for-profit or even social enterprise sectors. Driven by students and faculty (supported and encouraged by staff) MP was fueled by student energy and passion. Students initiated our first contact with the people of New Orleans, with the first immersion trip in spring 2006 proposed and led by a civil engineering major. As staff at the public service center on campus I was in a privileged position to connect students with faculty, and to myself connect with staff and faculty during a brief window of time.

Magnolia Project’s response on the UC Berkeley campus emerged and has been sustained because it was embedded in existing service structures. These structural opportunities on the UC Berkeley campus made the connections promising and provided an on-going space to collaborate. The Democratic Education at Cal (DECal) program allows undergraduate students to lead their peers in course for credit — with faculty sponsorship. As our students prepared for their first service-learning trip through our Alternative Breaks program, two faculty members helped guide the DECal and plan on the ground partnerships including service sites. In preparing for our second Alternative Breaks trip in spring 2007, students invited a faculty member from African American Studies who connected the program with Peoples Organizing Committee (POC), which had long-term positive implications for our efforts.[11] During two academic years — perhaps a useful measure for captivating the sustained awareness of faculty (and students) — I coached students to seize the moment and connect with others on campus while looking for synergies.

Organizing lessons from the civil rights movement of the 1960s pointed to this organizing as “slow, respectful work”. (Payne, 2007) It was alluring to consider adopting the programs of that era (such as doorknocking and freedom schools) yet potentially harmful if we failed to honor the organizing methodology. This excuse (wrapped up in lack of time but at core a privilege) was one of many that soon manifested as we as a collective waded into decades of racial-, class-, and gender-inequality. Did I as a professional have a clear organizing methodology and the ability to communicate across differences with which to effectively coach students?

It was crucial for me to acknowledge the common interests in communities near and far; only by having built and maintained a professional/organizing network was I able to take immediate action myself. Seeing that “injustice anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere” (King, 1963) informed what role my commitment would take, and in this case it would be one of aspiring ally. In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, I reached out to any and every contact I had with other university staff across the country, from past fellow advisory board members to educators I met before my work in higher education. The Spring 2006 Alternative Breaks trip spent an evening at a Tulane University summit of college volunteers in the area (with students from other colleges with which I had made contact), whose goal was to unite and educate the youth effort, mainly because I reached out to my colleagues there.

2. Hold fast to experiential learning practices and trust in students as leaders

Learning by doing and strong student leadership are two values that formally emerged from our Center after our engagement with the Gulf Coast. Cal Corps’ Alternative Breaks program not only had a formal education component — dialogues facilitated by student trip leaders — the trips themselves were led by students for students. Our role as staff was to recruit, train, and coach these and 150 other students to lead social action efforts at UC Berkeley. I am fortunate that the exposed and celebrated culture of student-centered social justice on my campus is congruent with my personal model of change. I engage “students as stakeholders” with the glamorous yet difficult-to-achieve vision of “students as colleagues”. Too often even within my own institution power holders locate the power of students not within the students themselves, but with their parents, delaying adulthood and in some cases maturity to judge and act independently of any parental figure.

Formal reflection — with students, with partners, among staff — was crucial to continually inform what was next for our project. For students with intersecting dominant or agent identities (white, male, middle class et al), one accessible question was forefront: What does it mean to be a citizen in this country and what is my role in engaging these issues? What prevents me from fulfilling this role? As short-term immersion efforts snowballed into a large-scale, 3-week summer service trip in 2007, we continued to encourage the importance of reflection and dialogue, a foundation of our center’s model particularly embraced by our Alternative Breaks program. By MP’s formal emergence the group was serving with POC, where staff Curtis Mohammed (1960s SNCC activist, formerly Curtis Hayes) personally led debriefing sessions at the end of each day. Focusing on the power of the collective and gladly accepting this model of education from a civil rights icon, students engaged in reflection not just with peer groups on the trip but also with community members (because “speaking up around community members makes us more accountable to them”), within student teams (because “speaking up around peers illuminates the pieces of your day that you didn’t see because of your personal blinders”), and then “hopefully with your peer groups back home (because speaking up around people who haven’t done what you’ve done forces you to own the lessons you learned)”[12].

By the end of year one it was commonly accepted among student leadership — as a result of its reflective process — that while the scale and pace of destruction in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina was enormous, these processes were happening in all our communities. Magnolia Project has been fortunate to identify long-time city resident Mack McClendan, founder of The Lower 9th Ward Village, which continues to engage residents directly in the matter that most impact their lives. Mack is a community member who strongly values the power of learning by doing and strength in student leadership, and models these values in his interaction with them.

3. Involve yourself in local solidarity efforts (outside of your professional position/institution)

Much of the successes above presuppose connections to grassroots change agents such as Rahim, Muhammad, and McClendan .[13] While faculty partners introduced MP to some initial community partners, it was my willingness to commit myself to local off-campus efforts — and in the process make several mistakes from which I was able to recover — that have continued to connect students with change agents. With over 2,000 Hurricane Katrina survivors displaced to the Bay Area, two solidarity organizations sprung from veteran civil rights and younger radical activists of color and allies: Bay to Gulf, and Katrina Solidarity Network. As I advised student leaders while they prepared for their 2006 spring break trip, and met with students and staff after the trip, I was inspired to become involved with both of these organizations.

In August 2006, a public Commemoration was held in Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza (4 years later the scene of Occupy Oakland) with more than 100 people in attendance. The reading of the names of deceased by candlelight had a tremendous personal impact on me. I soon was attending general meetings, involving myself in the campaign to save public housing in New Orleans, and helping to plan the second Commemoration in August 2007.[14] The long-time committed activists who I met through my involvement with KSN solidified the trajectory of MP. My presence at actions and increasing ability to affirmatively articulate my role as an ally built up trust with the local Bay Area social justice activist community — and unbeknownst to me at the time, by extension with activists in New Orleans. Only through meeting a long-time anti-racist organizer at a KSN meeting was I introduced to Rachel Luft at The University of New Orleans and Ingrid Chapman, an anti-racist organizer with Catalyst Project.[15]

My involvement was effective at generating continued contact with grassroots leadership in part because I possessed and was willing to risk wielding the social and cultural capital (even if was as a “staff at the community service center at UC Berkeley”) to enter the KSN multi-racial, multi-generational organizing space. Students (especially those from more privileged backgrounds) might not feel this same confidence and ability to engage with elders. As Ray Jayadev has motivated me to see, this gap between the Millennial generation’s lack of experience with social movements and my own experience with social movements during 1990s allows me to serve as a bridge for intergenerational change making.

4. Develop strong, personal relationships now, across all sectors but especially grassroots organizational leadership

Developing authentic relationships — perhaps across identity differences — is related to involving oneself in community change efforts. Critical service-learning (what is often referred to on the UC Berkeley campus as “transformational learning”) demands working with non-mainstream instruments of change. The educational impact on students can only be as great as community partners offer an alternative and provocative vision for a more just world. While nonprofit professionals individually might exhibit this alternative consciousness, non-traditional or indigenous leadership frequently finds itself marginalized by traditional nonprofits, which more and more model themselves after the policies and practices of the corporate sector. [16] In addition, these leaders of and from the community most impacted played a crucial role in steering MP away from relief work that seemed to support a just rebuilding but in fact reinforced oppressive (segregationist) policies. (Flaherty, 2009)

Too often offices within higher education whose mission is to serve off-campus communities build relationships with a narrow segment of change makers, typically organizational leadership in traditional nonprofits and city and local governments. Organizations, like leaders, have histories tied to forms of social action and models of change. While establishing short-term volunteer projects, semester-long internships, and perhaps even longer commitments to local communities, I encourage staff and students to see this work as part of a longer-term effort to build authentic, trusting relationships. University staff often have the privilege of professional mobility; one way to utilize this privilege in service to justice is to connect grassroots organizations (indigenous leadership) to local government disaster preparation efforts. In 2009 our CAG articulated this very principle: how can MP bring to the table more government representatives so that our partner organizations could develop relationships with leaders in our community across all sectors? Similarly, we have begun to introduce our grassroots partners in Oakland with the Oakland Office of Emergency Services.[17] This role of “cultural broker” is one unique way in which higher education can serve the public good.

Much has been written on the failure of local governments to work effectively with state and federal governments, not to mention grassroots community leaders. Try to meet with the point-person (if one exists) within the city whose role is to coordinate higher education partnerships. If no such position exists within your local city government, encourage your local government (perhaps through an intervening institution like Campus Compact) to establish a central coordinating office and convene a task force of service providers. In August 2005 the City of New Orleans had no such office, and even after much time and effort no such office exists today. These relationships with grassroots leaders will be needed in the immediate relief work that will follow a major disaster.[18]

5. Find projects where students can speak directly with community members to hear their stories

As soon as material conditions make this possible, and through an organized effort, seek to take advantage of “movement moments” by way of the relationships you have built proactively. Students will need education and reflection to complement this story sharing so as not to reinforce stereotypes. Grassroots leaders and community members most impacted by the disaster should be co-educators in transforming a “do- good” attitude into a long-term commitment to social justice.

POC’s model, structured after Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had students walking neighborhoods in the afternoon, speaking directly and deeply with residents. Both from a community impact and transformational learning perspective, it was powerful for students to gut houses (engage in mold removal while taking houses down to the studs) in the morning and then doorknock in the afternoons. With POC as the organizational lead, the stories shared with students did not waste away in well-intended faculty research projects or graduate student theses, but rather informed the continuing movement emerging in New Orleans.

While MP was born out of our short-term Alternative Breaks program, it did not fully emerge until summer 2007, almost two years after Hurricane Katrina. Even at this time students were engaged in borderline relief-rebuilding work, demonstrating the lack of support that some communities experienced in seeking to recover without government assistance.[19] It is not necessary to plunge students into a situation where they are put “at risk” though it is useful to interrogate even this terminology embraced by institutions seeking to manage/mitigate the risk of students serving off-campus communities. MP was very conscious of the severe housing shortage even two years after Katrina (and continuing today); while having a “housing hub” would have been ideal for our volunteer needs, the needs of our out-of-state volunteers did not trump the needs of New Orleans community member seeking to rebuild their lives.[20]

6. Be present with your students as a co-creator of the experience

It was powerful for students and the community to see me as an educator on the trip, not as a “teacher” but as a co-contributor. Over the course of the fall 2006 Cal Corps staff and students convened to discuss a longer commitment to Gulf Coast based on feedback from the first spring Alternative Breaks trip. Professional staff were able to provide student staff with an organizational framework, serve as a place of institutionalization, and provide historical context. A useful frame for staff was to speak in inspired terms of Mississippi Freedom Summer (1963 and 1964)[21] with the intent that a commitment by UC Berkeley could propel other universities (both private and public) to make similar public commitments.

On the first MP trip itself in summer 2007 I was the lone professional staff, supporting a group of three core leaders, who in turn managed 12 reflection leaders, 12 team captains, and 12 drivers (among 90 total trip participants). Working in teams of seven, students engaged in reflection sessions three times each week, held community meetings two times each week, and concluded the trip with a community partner dinner celebrating their achievements — which has become a program tradition. My role was to coach the three core leaders to build an organizational infrastructure to support each individual student, and support the reflection leaders. Because two of the three core leaders also led the spring break 2007 trip, they had established relationships with POC and were able to navigate the city both literally and figuratively. While I did not engage in hands on service, I spent the majority of my days coaching the core leadership through challenges and making connections with other potential community (grassroots) partners.

Both my commitment to MP and my own thinking about my role in post-Katrina New Orleans was cemented during the one week I stayed with the students. The saliency that emerged from sleeping on an auditorium floor in a sleeping bag, eating the same food as the volunteers, and experiencing the heat of a New Orleans summer made it possible for me to pose questions such as “What are we experiencing in week one of our trip that displaced residents might still be experiencing two years after Katrina?” Sharing lived experiences made me a more effective coach and gave me legitimacy with students: I was willing (and had the privilege) to walk my talk. As a co-creator of the experience, I created space for students to empower themselves to not only lead this trip, but with my influence successfully challenged the students on that trip to think critically about their experiences. As one founding leader shared with me recently, “A big take-away from my experience with MP was how lasting the effects can be, and what these students went on to do after that summer or after graduation. The unintended/or intended consequence are the soft skills. Do MP alumni view the world differently now? Do they think more about social justice and connect the dots in their own environments?”[22]

7. Establish a place-based social change effort: bring it home.
The act of articulating a 10-year commitment and announcing it publicly and broadly has helped my Center maintain this commitment. I am convinced that through our engagement “out there” (in this case 2,275 miles away) our efforts “right here” have been strengthened, though this has taken intentional effort on our parts and gentle nudging on the part of our partners in New Orleans. It was after seeing the success of our MP CAG that the Center created its own Centerwide Advisory Group; likewise, adding a summer programming component has been so useful to our partners in New Orleans that we are seeking to place summer interns in all 10 locations where we lead Alternative Breaks trips. Place-based efforts (pre- or post-disaster) have the ability to keep universities engaged for the long-term. Creating neighborhood or block-specific areas that campuses can see as their prime area of influence also make certain that efforts are coordinated and not duplicated.

From an experiential learning standpoint, the emphasis that “place matters” allows students to delve into the cultural, historical, and economic context without feeling overwhelmed.[23] Whereas our short-term immersion trips might visit a host community and touch on two or three issues, a three-week service trip — activated year after year — provides an opportunity for students to see the interconnections among social issues. For example, it was easy to connect the tripling of the New Orleans homeless population in 2007 after public housing was shuttered and no material assistance was provided to renters in 2006.

A place-based approach also makes accessible to students the tension between the contextual and universal. Through reflections students emerged with an idea that justice in New Orleans might look very different than justice in the Bay Area. Student leaders challenged their peers to hold the tension between this realization and universal human rights. In addition, a place-based focus also allowed the program to challenge students to see similar, general dynamics (while the specifics might look slightly different) of challenges to a healthy and just community and challenges to efforts to bring about such a community. In fall 2009 students at UC Berkeley were protesting state budget cuts to their education and accompanying tuition increases. By spring 2010 when I visited UNO for our CAG meeting with a student leader, we observed students from that university holding similar protests — induced by the same stimulus of restrictive state funding for education and social services.

Finally, how we as a Center engaged community in the Bay Area changed as a result of our engagement in New Orleans. Ironically, the year before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, my Center abandoned a nascent effort to make a 10-year commitment to a particular neighborhood in our community of Berkeley, CA. Informally, I challenged myself with the notion that while in New Orleans I travelled to under-resourced parts of the city, in my own city of Oakland I had not done so nearly as frequently. With strong, positive results from our New Orleans CAG, the Center formally reinvested time and energy into creating a local “Community Advisory Committee” to guide the work of the entire Center.

8. Build a network within and among campuses in your area to glean best practices.

Sadly, even seven years after Hurricane Katrina, there is no centralized hub through which to share how social justice educators can best serve students taking action in communities in hyper-stressed environments[24]. The efforts on the part of the City of New Orleans to convene such a standing university-city collaborative failed due to lack of support, even though individual staff worked tirelessly to support this idea. Even taking small steps to establish an email listserve of service-learning practitioners (such as exists in the Bay Area) provides for a proactive relationship building approach. If there is one task that falls to social justice educators it is to develop these collaboratives proactively before a disaster strikes, as the New Orleans example demonstrates that a lack of trust/past experience in working together made it difficult if not impossible to come together in such stressful environments.

In addition to looking for or helping to create these resources and hubs it is imperative for social justice educators to get involved and active in the larger conversations about their university’s role preparing for and rebuilding after disasters and creating response models for disasters that occur even outside of our own specific communities. It falls to us to articulate the political aspects of specializing or pooling resources, especially institutions serving metro areas or championing students working in a relief capacity in general.

9. Create Channels Or A “Bank” Of Student-Ready Projects, From Direct Service To Research.

By engaging in these conversations at the university level, social justice educators can advocate for community input to create channels or a “bank” of student-ready projects, from direct service to research. While maintaining this bank, it can serve as a priority list for current pre-disaster service efforts to build resiliency. Community voice should be present in such projects, with community based organizations as mediating organizations. For example, in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans many homeowners did not possess an actual title to their homes. When the storm and flood struck the city, the city questioned the legitimacy of the right of homeowners to return to their homes. As a research project, it would be an immense contribution to the community as well as make for rich learning for students to investigate titles to homes so that these are not in doubt when people are displaced, as was the case in New Orleans.

Currently MP has an opportunity to engage with other student organizations connected to nonprofits whose mission is relief, while exploring collaborations with campus emergency preparedness offices to coordinate student and staff response as relief workers to local communities.


I do not claim through this reflection to cover the wide spectrum of ways social justice educators can support students seeking to expand their knowledge and commitment, while contributing in meaningful ways to communities. I have tried to create and take advantage of teachable opportunities, and coach the staff that I supervise to do likewise. It strikes me that prior to my personal and professional engagement I considered myself an experiential educator; through the process of working with inspirational student leaders and committed community partners and reflecting on my experiences, I now have assumed and try to live into role of social justice educator. Watching students transform their way of thinking while community leaders continue to transform their communities (with student efforts serving as an amplifier) has given me hope against the poverty that plagued pre-Katrina New Orleans and whose objective reality plagues urban areas throughout the nation. None of this would have been possible without the courage of indigenous movement leaders to believe in the power of students and their willingness to engage institutions and educators such as myself who were looking to get in where we fit in.

I consider working in higher education to be a privileged position. Given this privilege, as an ally I have a task to support students who are willing to take personal risks with their bodies as well as their hearts and minds. This does not mean that this work is not without professional risks, as it does in fact take courage to engage in risk-taking as an educator/activist. I call on educators everywhere who view their sacred work of transformation for the public good to integrate even one of these practices noted here to confront the staggering inequality that plagues our communities.


[1] One way to look both “backward” (establishing partnerships in response/reaction to a disaster) and “forward” (building resiliency in communities that are most vulnerable to a large scale disaster) is to see the “recovery” phase (in relief-rebuilding-recovery) as the fulcrum for continuing to respond to the most recent and also to prepare for the next disaster. Here I focus on the foundational period of the Magnolia Project program from 2006–2009 — when there existed a “movement moment”, a phrase I first learned from Ingrid Chapman, Catalyst Project collective member, around the response to Arizona’s passage of State Bill 1070 in 2010.

[2] The four goals of MP are to: 1) Deepen Student Leadership and Learning; 2) Promote Awareness and Support of University Community; 3) Provide Community Support; and 4) Prepare for Future Bay Area/Nationwide Emergency Responses.

[3] After decades of neglect and putting cost savings over protection, the levees could not withstand a Level 2 storm when it hit New Orleans, below the protection status the levees were designed to withstand.

[4] See the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health survey to those in Houston Astrodome more likely to be: black, women, the elderly, and those with disabilities,

[5] Unlike the relief response to Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the City of New Orleans did not house these residents in the city itself in temporary housing pending home rebuilding.

[6] By which time a “second generation” of grassroots organizations had taken hold in post-Katrina New Orleans.

[7] Why did MP not partner in this way with Tulane University, which has more in common with UC Berkeley as far as student population, faculty interest, and reputation? Because of advice we received from a Tulane alum, who encouraged us to look to UNO, where more students were drawn from the New Orleans metro area.

[8] In part by making a long-term commitment to an area, region, or community.

[9] Magnolia Project, like the program it grew out of (Alternative Breaks) is a co-curricular program that incorporates education through student and staff facilitated courses and leadership development.

[10] Palmer, 1992. I would also more heavily emphasize than Palmer not only with peer group but across peer groups, in my case with students, faculty, and unionized workers.

[11] It is striking that by 2008, students were working closely with faculty to develop a faculty-led course with one of the original DECal sponsors.

[12] Ravi Patel, Magnolia Project 2006–2010, November 2012, personal correspondence

[13] Personally, I am indebted to Tim Thomas, longtime San Francisco Bay Area activist, who has continued to mentor me as a racial justice educator.

[14] Event coordinated by Bay to Gulf Solidarity and Katrina Solidarity Network (KSN); both organizations folded into latter by end of fall 2006, which operated until June 2010.

[15] By 2007 I was in a position to invite Ingrid to speak on campus at MP’s first event, “Past, Present and Future of New Orleans” in spring 2007. By 2008 Luft sat on our Community Advisory group and has been instrumental in introducing staff and students of MP to grassroots organizers and organizations in New Orleans, including connecting the program with journalist Jordan Flaherty.

[16] See my “Transformational Learning through Long-term Engagement”.

[17] OES, led by staff with post-Katrina experience, have introduced the frame of “Disaster Justice” as they seek to engage the least resourced communities in Oakland to prepare for an earthquake.

[18] These are but two recommendations established by Geoff Brien, former New Orleans city staffer in his paper “A Recipe For Disaster Recovery: The Rebuilding Of New Orleans”

[19] No money from the vaunted State of Louisiana “Road Home” project was allocated to renters; 100% went to homeowners.

[20] For an index of where the long-term recovery stands seven years after Hurricane Katrina, see Bill Quigley’s “Katrina Pain Index 2012”,

[21] With one crucial qualification: our students did not face physical violence from reactionary elements in their host communities.

[22] Fatima Mohsin, personal correspondence, November 2012.

[23] It is significant that the Bay Area with its three shipyards was a destination for many African Americans who made up the Great Migration, leaving Louisiana and Texas. Many of these people now are elders and anchors in their communities in Berkeley and Oakland.

[24] And as a colleague recently shared, “Nor a model for similarly-impacted communities can utilize the out-pouring of different resources that they receive while in hyper-tension mode.” Minh Dang, personal correspondence, November 2012.


Flaherty, Jordan. Discriminatory Housing Lockouts Amid Post-Katrina Rebuilding. (2009, October 7). Retrieved from

Greenwald, Alan. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. (2004).

Hoboken, NJ Police, Fire and EMS feed, Scanner Radio App. (2012, October 29)

King Jr., Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham Jail. (1963, April 16)

Luft, Rachel. Beyond Disaster Exceptionalism: Social Movement Developments in New Orleans After Hurricane Katrina. (2009, September). Retrieved from

Mitchell, Tania. Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models. (2008, Spring). Retrieved from

Muhammad, Saladin. Hurricane Katrina: The Black Nation’s 9/11! A Strategic Perspective for Self-Determination. (2005). Retrieved from’s-911-a-strategic-perspective-for-self-determination/

Palmer, Parker. Divided No More: A Movement Approach to Education Reform. Retrieved from In Change Magazine, Vol. 24, Issue #2, pp. 10–17, March/April 1992.

Payne, Charles. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. (2007, March 16).

Peavey, Fran. Strategic Questioning Manual. Edited by Vivian Hutchinson revised 1997, Retrieved from, accessed March 22, 2013.

Saltmarsh, J & Hartley, M. To Serve a Larger Purpose: Engagement for Democracy and the Transformation of Higher Education. (2012, March 30).

Stoecker, Randy. Who is the Community? Thinking About CBR: Some Questions as We Begin. (2002, March 22–23). Retrieved from

Tatum, Beverly. The Complexity of Identity: Who am I. (2003, January 7). Retrieved from

Thompson, AC. Propublica. (2012). Retrieved from