Our work with colleges and students this year has been a dramedy of the cinematic variety. They, of course, are the stars; we have been the supporting cast. From too many commitments to office set-up, to site visits, and a Pacific Northwest staff retreat, when it was time to kick off this academic year’s events for the Reese|Brooks|Gilbert Initiative (a program of the Evans Project), it seemed Murphy’s Law (which we’ve determined might actually be physics) was in full effect. Some of the young women and colleges we’d been working with, for one reason or another, were unable to participate in initial check-ins, required readings, and the mandatory, inaugural event—learning tour—a week before. We were worried that we were watching the learning tour, along with all of our efforts, fall apart. At the end of the day, we ended up with two young women, who are now ambassadors for the program, from Prairie View A&M University and Millsaps College. Normally, this is where you’d see an organization report back on the successes and failures of programming, but we tend to stray away from normalcy, for the sake of authenticity. Contrarily, here are a few of the College Ambassadors thoughts about a week with perfect strangers turned family.
Alyssa: I was extremely nervous going into our tour of the southeast. I am not a shy person at all, but I had not actually met any members of the Lighthouse team. When we all got together for breakfast and introductions at the office, there seemed like there were so many employees! I just knew I wouldn’t learn anyone’s name for at least the first couple of days. I was wrong!
Riding for hours at a time wasn’t always fun, but the conversations during them were. Learning crazy new things about each person, sharing music interests (or not), and making fun of how we would fall asleep in the car were all just as important as the planned activities.
Torri: When Reagan was describing what the week would look like during our learning tour, I was preparing myself for long days and strict schedules. Instead, I got days filled with laughs and experiences I will never forget. I never imagined I could form such strong bonds in a matter of a week, but I did and I am grateful to the Lighthouse staff for that.
Alyssa: I will admit when I found out there was only me and one other student coming, I was disappointed. Looking back now, I love the way it all turned out. We got so much personal interaction with each employee; it never would have been so easy to bond with everyone if there were lots of us. Torri and I liked to sit together in silence and do our daily reading and responses. We often did them late at night after all the excitement died down. It was like our own little debrief time. I loved the journals that we got with personal, handwritten notes from Natalie.
Torri: Even though we had a set schedule for each day, there was always room to add something in, whether that be an hour-long “quick TJ Maxx trip” or an impromptu trip to Bourbon Street, Natalie and Reagan always asked for our input when it came to each days’ plans. This amongst other things made the week so much more enjoyable. Soon, I discovered that the only things that were guaranteed were educational experiences, lots of laughing and that Alyssa was going to start and end the day with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch.
Torri: I learned something new at each location we visited. Our first stop was the Whitney Plantation. Here we took a tour of the plantation and saw it through the eyes of the children that were kept as slaves.
Alyssa: I had never been on a tour of a plantation. As a senior at Millsaps, I like to think of myself as a scholar in the making. Though slavery looked different at different points in time and at different locations, I thought I had a decent understanding of what it was like and how they all varied.
Torri: Upon arrival, we received name cards along with stories or encounters of the children we were assigned. This made the experience more surreal.
Alyssa: Reading firsthand accounts was truly eye-opening. I mentioned grounding when we finished [at the plantation] and the team insisted that we do it, if I was interested in it. That was our very first full day together, and after that, I felt like everyone was really invested in my and Torri’s experience. I was so happy.
Torri: The second stop was New Orleans where we shopped, spent time in museums and snacked on beignets.
Alyssa: The Voodoo Museum in New Orleans was … interesting. Anything remotely scary looking terrifies me. I would never go there if I didn’t have to, but I ended up actually being interested in what I was reading. [Voodoo] isn’t as extreme and provocative as I have always thought it was. Learning some of the history of it made me remind myself to take word of mouth with a grain of salt. Almost anything that Black people do is exaggerated and somehow made guilty, so I’m glad we ended up there after all.
Torri: We departed to Birmingham next and arrived at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Across the street is the 16th Street Baptist Church. I had heard and read about what took place at that church many times, but until I heard it while standing where it took place, I never truly understood how it impacted many families and a whole community.
Sitting statue, Rosa Parks
Alyssa: Our time at the 16th Street Baptist Church was interesting too. I caught myself judging the leaders of the church pretty heavily as soon as we sat down to watch the informational video. I spotted the stained glass window with Jesus on it; he was white. I cannot go into all my thoughts because it would take five to seven pages to explain all that. At the moment, there was nothing they could say to excuse why they depicted the image of what is supposed to be their Lord and savior as a white man. Why would the show him as the opposite of how the Bible described him? Especially, why would they choose to show him as the spitting image of the ones who terrorize Black people and bombed this very church? I was livid.
Our tour guide did go on to explain that they feared retaliation and kept the window to protect themselves from any more violence. They even received a gift of a Black Jesus and contemplated putting it up in the church for the same reasons as before. It’s wild to me that Black people even have to accommodate white feelings inside of their own homes (Black churches at that).
I cannot say I agree with their decisions, but I certainly do understand their reasoning and empathize with their situation.
Torri: The next stop was the one I was looking forward to the most, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I had heard about the memorial on the news but actually being there brought on a mix of emotions.
National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Alyssa: My friends and I had been wanting to visit Montgomery’s new lynching memorial since before it was built. I was a bit overwhelmed with the number of pillars representing each county. I found Attala and all of the ones close to it. I would carefully scan each Mississippi pillar for my last name or one of my immediate family’s last names. I didn’t really find either. The number of names engraved on these pillars upset me, of course, but the lost history of those not named upset me even more. I hope those not mentioned feel at peace with the thought of us yearning to just know their names. I hope they don’t feel forgotten.
Torri: I was happy people are getting to hear more stories about lynching because history books only tell so much, but I was also sad.
Alyssa: The Legacy Museum was life changing! It was so small but so powerful. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it through the entire thing just from walking through the very beginning and seeing holographs of Black people.
Torri: -Every time I read one of the many stories that lined the wall, I was reminded that so many lives were taken for any reason the white man could find, even if it wasn’t legal. I was expecting just another civil rights museum at The Legacy Museum, but instead, I got a rush of emotions and plenty of statistics. And, ultimately, a whole new view of the court system.
Alyssa: I had to take a break and just breathe. It is so worth the emotional toll.
Torri: Usually, you leave a museum with a souvenir or pamphlet. But for me, it was a future plan that I left with. After our trip, I decided I want to go to law school and become a civil rights attorney. I never told Natalie, Reagan or any of the staff members, but if it wasn’t for them, I would never have discovered this is what I am passionate about.
Alyssa: I am going to take a group of Pan-African Student Alliance members there in the spring semester. I don’t even have to speak on the tour guide that we had in Savannah, Georgia! The Lighthouse staff was even better than I thought, now that I look back on it. We were always given our own personal space when we visited exhibits like this. There was never anyone hovering over me. I got privacy when I needed it and I was offered company when appropriate.
Torri: I have been part of many organizations, groups and teams but this is truly more than that. This is a mini-family, and I can’t wait for the rest of the year and our next get-together.
Alyssa: We had so many more experiences I will never forget, but the best times were when we were sitting in the house —all of us—around the couch, laughing and sharing our favorite moments of the day. Thank you!