TOWNSHEND — Eight students from Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School are back after trips to New York City and New Orleans to collect oral histories from people affected by climate catastrophes.
In late March, the students traveled to New York City, where they learned about United Nations' environmental policy and sustainability goals and sat in on a U.N. General Assembly session.
They then traveled more than 30 hours by train to New Orleans to watch climate mitigation strategies in practice. Students worked with a local group, the Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association in the city's Ninth Ward, to build regenerative gardens and to learn about the role they play in flood mitigation.
Sophomore Ely White, who went on the trip, said he was most inspired by the Association's president, Katherine Prevost, who has played a key part in the ward's reconstruction. Students also visited the Katrina National Memorial Foundation Museum and recorded interviews with survivors and first responders to the namesake hurricane that struck New Orleans in August 2005.
One memorable story for White was the story of John, a bus driver they interviewed. A first responder to Katrina, John was part of many search and rescue teams in the immediate aftermath of the storm. He told the students about finding the sibling of someone who was just a few feet away from where they were searching.
John's story caused students to reflect on their own experiences.
White said he was struck by the destruction left in the wake of Katrina that remains, even after nearly two decades have passed. The Ninth Ward is still recovering from the destruction wrought by the storm. Some roofs are still lined with tarps, and empty lots remain.
“There's a lot of work that still needs to be done,” said White.
In their free time, students danced on pontoon boats to the music of Taylor Swift as they cooked together. For some of them, the trip was their first time out of the state.
According to a press release from Journey Away, White “came away from the trip feeling more thankful for a safe place to live and a roof over his head.” In additional comments to The Commons, White talked about traveling with other students.
“We didn't know each other super well even though we go to a small school,” he said. “We bonded over the trip.”
The journey started in the fall when students took a once-a-week class to plan the details and figure out how to raise $6,000 to fund the trip. According to trip facilitator and school librarian Jenna Greenbaum, the students applied for grants from the Stratton Community Foundation and the Windham Foundation, then crafted an itinerary around “policy, framing, and reality” and what those words meant to them.
The students found success with a community Mardi Gras night on Feb. 17, raising a large chunk of the expense budget. The party also gave the group a chance to practice their oral history skills. Students set up a listening booth where attendees told stories about how the weather had affected their lives to practice their interviewing skills in the leadup to their trip.
Reimagining the travel program
Historically, the school's trip program, Journey East, facilitated an exchange trip between students from Townshend and China. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the current geopolitical situation necessitated changes, said Greenbaum.
Greenbaum is interested in reestablishing the exchange aspect of the program in the future.
“I hope to bring people back in the summers of '24 or '25,” she said. She envisions the trip being extended and involving more extensive travel to places like Vietnam and France.
Now having returned, the students are set to work on environmental stories around Vermont and explore how climate events have affected their home state, according to the news release. Audio recordings of student interviews and stories will be on display at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, beginning Saturday, June 24.
An experienced traveler himself, White said Journey Away was different from traveling with his family, as he's used to.
He considers the experience formative and said he believes that “learning outside the classroom and traveling is something every high school student should do.”