Building Bridges

Clockwise from top right: Sr. Ann Howard, SND, freshman Diamond Moore, sophomore Margarita Vasquez-Martinez, junior Sandra Mendez-Banales, junior Elisia George, sophomore Ingrid Mozqueda, junior Danielle Williams, freshman Denisse Santillan, junior Juana Ortiz-Ayala (center left), and senior Raissa Audrey Tseumie (center right).

For most, “spring break” is a welcome reprieve from the stresses and workload of college life. But for several years, a group of Trinity students have traded all that for an Alternative Spring Break of community service in Selma, Alabama.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in this poverty-stricken city will live in infamy as the site of Bloody Sunday, where a peaceful civil rights march in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery was met with brutal beatings, dogs mauling children, and a police-sponsored mob. This year – as we mourned the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination – nine Trinity students traveled to Selma for a week of service, learning, and spiritual reflection. They were accompanied by campus minister Sr. Ann Howard and Dean Meechie Bowie, who says that with each trip the students get an eye-opening experience as they meet people who were on the bridge for bloody Sunday, and who lost friends or family to the violence: “It’s almost overwhelming for them – they say, ‘This wasn’t in our history books! Why aren’t we being taught about this?’”

The students’ week-long trip immersed them in the history and current realities of the civil rights movement, while providing them a unique opportunity to make their own contribution to the lives of current Selma residents. Beyond the informative visits to historic sites that are common to many trips, the group made their own civic contributions: painting a home and a local school, reading to elementary students, and marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with many other activists and concerned citizens in a reenactment of the events in 1965.

Danielle Williams and Raissa Audrey Tseumie paint a house that was “rotting away.”

The experience was transformative. “The paint on these houses is not the only thing that will remain long after this trip,” said Denisse Santillan. Her fellow travelers agreed that trading a weeklong break from classes for a tiring week of house painting gave them a more profound sense of connection to historic events. It also demonstrated the rewarding satisfaction of aiding those who are currently affected by economic and social disparities. Margarita Vasquez-Martinez recalls “the smile on Mr. Eddie’s face when we were done painting his home that had been basically rotting away. He was so thankful for us. His smile gave a face to the people of Selma, and it was definitely a beautiful face for a community that has suffered so many injustices.”

Deeply affected by the everyday tribulations of the people they met, the students hope that they were able to show this impoverished community that there are people who care and who are aware of their struggles – Selma has a poverty rate of about 45 percent, and the echoes of the violent sixties still reverberate. Unfortunately, “the beatings and brutality didn’t stop after the bridge,” says Vasquez-Martinez. One’s chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime in Selma is one in 10, and the median income is just $29,737 for women, with females 25-34 representing the largest population in poverty.

Juana Ortiz-Ayala reads to elementary students.

As young women seeking to make a difference themselves, the students came to see that their very presence offered girls in Selma a glimpse of a possible bright future. Sandra Mendez-Banalez was deeply moved by “the chance to read to a few elementary school kids in Selma. The way they looked up at us college women, with big smiles and bright wide eyes, was unforgettable. They were all so excited to hear we were from Washington, D.C., and you could just tell how enticed and hopeful they all were from their faces.”

Although the Trinity women were proud to demonstrate their own successes to these children, they also came to understand that while many escape poverty by going away to college, this does little to improve conditions in their hometowns. The group took pride in their efforts to proactively help Selma, and freshman Denisse Santillan observed that “we must make the difference we want to see.”

Although they were in Selma for just a week, and spent most of their time on service projects to benefit the community, the group was also immersed in the history of Selma, visiting the Jackson Home Historic Site where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march was planned. The home is maintained by Jawana Jackson, who lived there as a little girl and has kept it in the exact condition it was in when Dr. King received the phone call from President Lyndon Johnson, informing he noted civil rights leader that the president was signing the Voting Rights Act.

Enveloped in this historic setting, and after marching across the Pettus Bridge, junior Elisia George said she felt the weight of responsibility to those who had gone before, and found a new understanding of the importance of community action in the world today. She said that, “In the last election, many young people did not vote because they did not like or feel connected to either candidate, but after seeing where blood was shed to earn us this right – where too many people died to give me the right to vote – I will never go into an election the same again.”

At the end of each day in Selma, the group gathered to reflect on their experiences, and discuss how the day’s activities were affecting them – lessons learned, and personal priorities reevaluated. They also bonded as a group; three of the students had taken nursing classes together but had never really talked outside of class, but now they have a regular study group and Sr. Ann Howard says she often sees them together on campus.

All nine of the students report that through days spent in community service, they have a newfound motivation to become more involved in activities that contribute to community and promote social justice.

Junior Danielle Williams summed it up: “Participating in the Alternative Spring Break has been by far the most rewarding experience of my life.”

Watch the video the students created capturing their experience.