In a few less-than-quiet classrooms in New Orleans, about 15 middle and high school students have been gathered together over the past five weeks discussing what they want to do about the BP oil spill. This was not the way they'd originally planned to spend their summer vacation.
In fact, they'd planned to spend it envisioning how New Orleans schools could be improved by 2015, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
For most of these young people, Katrina was, of course, the biggest event to rock their lives, causing some to lose family members, some to lose homes, and most to be temporarily relocated to other communities. But it was also the event that got them out of New Orleans, where both the illiteracy and murder rates are among the highest in the nation, and allowed them to see what other schools look like.
"The bathrooms were the biggest things for me," recalls Dudley Grady, Jr., who is now a student at Xavier University of Louisiana. "To see a clean restroom in school? I'd never seen that before. To see toilet paper, soap, mirrors on the wall that were not broken? I'd never seen that," he repeats.
After returning home, Grady joined other students with similar experiences and -- under the wise and supportive guidance of founder Jane Wholey and some other very committed adults from New Orleans and around the nation -- formed a new group called the Rethinkers: Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools.
Over the past five years, the Rethinkers have gathered for six weeks every summer, concluding the yearly programs with some uniquely attention-getting news conferences at which they've announced recommendations for how New Orleans schools should rethink bathrooms, food and cafeterias, and a myriad of policies and practices to promote a climate of dignity and respect.
Many of their recommendations have been met with approval, and the group has attracted attention from media outlets ranging from the Times-Picayune and Christian Science Monitor to the American Prospect and Rachael Ray show.
But this year's BP spill, which has been spewing continuously since April 20, created a new focus.
To kids in New Orleans, the oil spill is not as dramatically obvious as Katrina was. Houses are not under water and they can't even see the oil or the ships or the helicopters or most of the news crews from the city. But "this is as big and bigger than Katrina," says Angelamia Bachemin, the director of the Jazz Hip Hop Orchestra who works with the Rethinkers.
"Katrina was devastating," 19-year-old Grady adds. "But we know this will affect our lives forever."
In one of several experiences designed to help students learn how the spill is already affecting the lives of local residents, several Rethinkers recently visited the Crescent City Farmers Market on St. Charles Avenue and talked to shrimpers.
Kay Brandhurst, whose family has been fishing since the seventeenth century, said she is still catching shrimp in Lake Pontchartrain, the second-largest saltwater lake in the United States. "But the oil spill makes me nervous for future seasons," she tells the students. "It's the unknown. It's the unknown that is really scary."
There are clearly a great many unknowns. These days, paramount on the minds of many shrimpers is not only what future seasons will bring but also, more imminently, what will happen during hurricane season, which runs through the end of November?
"If the wind blows the wrong way, it can pump the one little happy fishing ground we have full of oil," says Brandhurst.
And with New Orleans's economy intimately tied to the fishing industry, the students have begun to understand that the larger community's future hinges a great deal on the fate of shrimpers like Brandhurst.
Finally, one student asks the group's last question: "How can we help?"
"Lots of prayers," says Brandhurst.
This Thursday, July 15, New Orleans students plan to offer something more than that. During a 10 a.m. news conference at Langston Hughes Academy, the Rethinkers will present their recommendations for what role schools should now play in the wake of the spill.
Lisa Bennett is the communications director of the Center for Ecoliteracy and a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is a contributor to the Center's book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009). The Center for Ecoliteracy pioneered the Rethinking School Lunch program.