Last week, under the guidance of Memphis educator Lauren Boccia, four students from St. Agnes Academy visited New York City. Their focus was not to take a bite out of The Big Apple but to be part of The Big Onion project, during which they would “peel back the layers of New York” through service projects and community-focused advocacy. Over the course of seven days the students visited five service sites, giving of their time and in return being on the receiving end of experiences that were empowering and eye-opening.
I spoke with Lauren about the group’s trip here to New York, learning that the humanitarian and philanthropic focus for these young ladies was present in every aspect of their visit. During the various scheduled outings, they were concerned with the social issues impacting the city’s neighborhoods rather than the sightseeing tours most tourists undertake. For them the New York City experience was seen through a different lens- that of someone seeking to make a difference in the lives of others and doing it not for personal reward but for the restoration of voices that have been silenced or ignored as time has carried on. They learned during a visit to United Cerebral Palsy of New York City that a disability can be deafening in the fight for basic rights and it is here, at UCP, where a young lady explains how she is being heard again. It is here where the students learn what it is like to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, opening doors-literally- to navigating the subway and obtaining reputable housing, among other common necessities.
“I feel empowered,” the young lady shares with our young Memphians. Lauren states that they, too, feel a sense of empowerment, musing how this feeling will translate into action when they return home to Memphis.
Visits to various establishments including The Bowery Mission, the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in Harlem, POTS (Part of the Solution) in the Bronx, the Hot Bread Kitchen, and the Reconnect Café in Brooklyn exposed not only the vast amount of giving back taking place but also the need to keep doing so as gentrification continues to expand in many of these areas. One of the primary questions the students had to address was, “How do you better communities but maintain culture?” Lauren explained that answers were pondered during walking tours through Brooklyn and Harlem, neighborhoods wherein entire families have been displaced because of skyrocketing rents. And yet, these neighborhoods remain a cultural hub for many immigrant families and first-generation immigrants. The students from St. Agnes often became emotional as they were told that at the core, it is not just community service but serving communities. It is about sitting with those who are being served and asking questions, remaining long enough to listen to their answers. Lauren stresses:
“We serve them food but have we really sat with them?”
As our conversation continues there is an obvious sense of pride heard in her voice as she acknowledges seeing the subtle transformations taking place, even over the course of a mere seven days. “The students weren’t discouraged or overwhelmed. They were encouraged and full of ideas.” They brainstormed aloud on how to use their individual talents and skills to create change in Memphis, grasping first-hand that you can tell a lot about a community and its residents by the way they treat those who are marginalized. Before leaving New York, Lauren received a text message from one of the girls’ mothers. For her daughter, this trip was truly life-changing.
As we become more globalized and interconnected, so do the efforts in supporting those who choose to spend at least part of their lives giving back. While St. Agnes Academy covers the cost for student fees incurred by The Big Onion trip, other necessities such as food and transportation are covered by grants.
This year the students were awarded a grant via the Shalom Fund from the Dominican Sisters of Peace. Lauren, from her home base in Memphis, worked closely with staff at the Dominican Academy in New York City. She credits the efforts of Katie (Katherine) Leo, Theology Department Chairperson, Lindsay Sudeikis and numerous others with allowing for a trip that brought the girls together for service and in the process created an environment that nurtured a bond among them that won’t be broken any time soon. The project, now in its fourth year, “is always a leap of faith but it is so important. It knocks down walls of prejudice and stereotypes,” Lauren reflects as we bring an end to our conversation though obviously not an end to this defining chapter of the St. Agnes students’ lives. That is just beginning.
- CJ Kirkland, @CJ_Kirkland