FROM GREENBUILD TO DEBRIS FIELD: REFLECTIONS OF A VOLUNTEER

In November 2005, more than 10,000 people gathered in Atlanta, to participate in the U.S. Green Building Council’s,(USBBC) annual Greenbuild Conference. Attendees from around the world were treated to an impressive array of world-class speakers, informative sessions, trade show events and classic southern hospitality. But, this Greenbuild was different from those held previously. Coming only two months after Katrina, the USGBC and several other concerned organizations hosted a series of four design charrettes focused on the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. The events were energized by a combination of urgency and optimism that was palpable. At the bottom of the overwhelming destruction, lie the still living roots of recovery. Charrette attendees knew they were a part of something that would make history.

One of the four charrettes was dedicated to resurrecting the New Orleans schools. Approximately 40 people gathered in concert with approximately 120 others who were addressing planning and reconstruction issues concurrently in three other charrettes. As the charrette ran its course, it was obvious that the tenets of sustainable design and development were in play and the desire to reinvent the schools in the crucible of the high-performance green school movement was entrenched and in very good hands. Local and regional members of the USGBC, the American Institute of Architects, several New Orleans community service and non-profit organizations were joined by others from around the United States.

The LEED for Schools Committee, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, Global Green, BuildingGreen Inc. and several teachers complimented the core group of the New Orleans recovery team. It was an inspirational and informative gathering that fed on the energy and enthusiasm of the larger New Orleans Planning Charrette. The work of the charrette is documented in Learning From Disaster – A Vision and Plan for Sustainable Schools and Revitalized Public Education Along the Gulf Coast in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. It takes its place as part of the larger New Orleans Principles produced to document the overall charrette event.

My experience in Atlanta moved me to spend the second week in December volunteering my labor as part of the effort to refurbish the schools. I was hosted by Hamilton Simon Jones, the director of Community Relations for Tulane University, and John Williams, AIA, a central figure in the New Orleans recovery effort. I had the privilege of sharing a house with several Tulane University students who have been volunteering since Katrina ravaged their school and their neighborhoods. Part of my week was spent painting and moving furniture into an elementary school in anticipation of students whose return I witnessed Wednesday, Dec. 14; an occasion I will always remember. The remainder of the week was spent removing debris from a flood-damaged learning and afterschool center. The experience was unforgettable — to be able to work with a small group of volunteers who came together from the community and around the country to serve anonymously and without fanfare.

We saw first hand the aftermath of one of the greatest disasters in our history and stood with people of indomitable spirit dedicated to rebuilding their community and the schools within them. In the course of working, much of our conversation was about the issues of local government, the school board, fractured teacher union relationships, the emergence of charter schools and the seeming insurmountable problems that still face New Orleans. I reflected often on the school charrettes and the work that was done in Atlanta. How different it was to be standing waste deep in debris. My stay ended with a tour of some of the schools that are back up and running. Given the week I had, our discussions about high-performance schools and integrated curriculum were at once exhilarating and surreal. I asked many of those I met how they are coping and what they intend to do to get some semblance of normalcy back in their lives. I heard different versions of the same answer over and over.“We will do what we have to do to get our children back in school. That’s why we are here.”

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