Nicole Hay wasn’t sure what to expect when she decided to go on a civil rights immersion trip through the University of Portland.
The Camas native, who will be senior at UP in the fall, did know she wanted to do something to make a difference in other people’s lives.
“I took a class about social issues in education and we talked about de facto segregation and how it is perpetuated inadvertently,” Hay said. “I’ve always had an interest in history and the South. I thought I had to try this, because I am going to be a teacher and it is important not to perpetuate segregation. I thought a trip like this would give me the most experience.”
Although the 22-day trip began on May 6, the true start was in September, when Hay and 16 others began meeting every Friday afternoon to discuss the civil rights movement and continuing social oppression.
“It was very eye opening,” she said.
The group flew into Birmingham, Ala., to begin the trip. They stayed for several days in Montgomery, Ala., Memphis, Tenn. and Little Rock, Ark. Activities included learning about the origins of the civil rights movement, having dinner with Martin Luther King’s barber, working in a school, visiting the National Civil Rights Museum and Rosa Parks Museum, volunteering in a food bank and building a wheelchair ramp for a women with cerebral palsy. They also toured Heifer International, a nonprofit organization that provides livestock to people living in poverty and shows them how to care for and make a living from the animals.
“I really enjoyed hearing everyone’s stories,” Hay said. “Everyone was really open and willing to share their experiences, whether it was with civil rights, Hurricane Katrina or their personal life. I have never encountered so many different perspectives.”
Hay’s favorite project was volunteering in the school.
“I got to work in the kindergarten class and they were so sweet,” she said. “I also really enjoyed working at the food bank and helping people who had been impacted by a recent tornado.”
The most shocking experience came when the group learned about the inequities in the criminal justice system in Alabama, Hay noted.
“The high rates of the poor and minorities on death row, compared to whites accused of the same crimes, was appalling,” she said. “To hear that these judges can pretty much do whatever they want was awful. It was very scary.”
After Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas, the University of Portland group headed to New Orleans, where they stayed in the Ninth Ward, the hardest hit when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
“I had been to New Orleans before, but the places we were working in were in part of the city I had never seen before,” Hay said. “It was a completely new experience for me.”
She said the Ninth Ward was far more revitalized than she had envisioned, but that abandoned houses still dotted the landscape, and that there was a major disparity in housing options.
“It was either shacks or mansions, it seemed,” Hay said. “No in-between.”
While in New Orleans, the group worked with Habitat for Humanity helping with home improvements and Green Light, an organization that goes into homes across the city and replaces incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs. The group also had the opportunity to tour the French Quarter and visit other famous sights.
One mainstay Hay noted from the trip was the sense of community, whether in the food bank, local school or Ninth Ward.
“Everyone welcomed us with open arms,” she said. “And we saw so many small scale civil rights movements, and people fighting for things that were right. It made me want to do more in my own community.”