Rows of demolished storefronts and boarded up windows covered in soot greeted the group of 100 or so students from Howard University as they walked down West Florissant Avenue in the Ferguson section of St. Louis, Missouri.
Sophomore Tamirah Simon was part of a group of Howard students who traded in sunny beaches to spend spring break helping others in St. Louis, a new stop for the Alternative Spring Break program this year.
The scene of broken stores and homes hit them hard. “It was sad to see people’s livelihood destroyed,” Simon said.
However, feelings of sadness were quickly turned to triumph. As they walked, people along the streets and in their cars reacted to seeing the students dressed in their school paraphernalia. “Residents of St. Louis honked their horns and raised their fists,” Simon said. “It made me feel like there was still a sense of community amongst the black people in St. Louis.”
Howard students have participated in similar public service trips since 1996. This year students were dispersed to nine cities across the country and Haiti, which is still recovering from a devastating earthquake that happened in 2010.
St. Louis was added at the suggestion of Howard senior Ashton Ragsdale and junior Sable Givens, who are St. Louis natives. They said they couldn’t help but feel that their hometown was in need of service in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in nearby Ferguson.
“It is our obligation to serve underserved communities and important for us as African-American college students to go to places that others won’t go and let the community know we care, we’re listening, and that we are here for them,” Ragsdale said. “I yearned for black college students to come to my high school, and it would have been very impactful to meet and interact with college students that looked like me.”
During the week, Howard students mentored and tutored students at Normandy, Riverview Gardens, and East St. Louis High Schools. They also visited Annie Malone Children and Family Center, St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center, Head Start, YWCA St. Louis, Better Family Life Cultural Educational Business Center, Jackie Joyner Kersee Center, Beyond Housing and the Covenant House of Missouri.
The high schools were well equipped with smart boards and computers, but the schools still face many issues, such as poverty and low graduation rates.
Howard students helped tutor in math, science and English. They also taught from a civic education curriculum developed by two graduate students that broke down the prison industrial complex. The students discussed the concept of slave labor in prisons; if inmates do not work, they are punished with solitary confinement, functioning as a business, where law enforcement act like recruiters.
Riverview seniors Maya Austin and Elantra Jackson said what they learned really opened their eyes about the system. “I knew about it,” said Austin, “But I didn’t know that in-depth into it.”
After the presentation she felt compelled to share what she learned with her younger siblings and other young people. “I think what they’re [Howard] doing is really good and helpful,” Jackson said.
She could relate to the information because these were students close to her age delivering the message. “I feel like we should be past that [prison industrial complex] by now… We have rights just like everybody else and everybody should be equal, all men and all women are created equal,” Jackson said.
The St. Louis students were not the only ones who were moved by their encounters. Howard freshman, Grace Olubowale, who volunteered at the high schools and the juvenile detention center, was humbled by her experience with ASB St. Louis.
“I am grateful for HU ASB. I’m grateful that my school gave me this opportunity to not only make a change in someone’s life, but make a change in my life,” Olubowale said. “I’m going again next year and I hope that more and more people can hear my story or I can talk to more people on the campus and tell them it’s real because all those kids who went to spring break somewhere tropical … they’re not going to bring back what I brought back.”