Not long ago Harry Anderson said, “The biggest challenge in New Orleans has been to find workers who can climb a ladder after lunch.” The group of 40 HBS students, faculty, and staff who traveled to The Big Easy this January certainly encountered its fair share of challenges – not the least of which involved climbing ladders and eating lunch. But the trekkers also encountered more than their fair share of success. Working with seven different partner organizations, from the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives to Habitat for Humanity, HBSers spent 10 inspiring, empowering days in New Orleans, and they returned a truly transformed group.
In its third year, the New Orleans Service Immersion gave participants the opportunity to put their HBS classroom experience to work in a real life setting. Working in teams, they wrote business plans, developed strategies for turning around failing schools, and benchmarked best operating practices for health clinics. For many participants, the immersion was a unique leadership opportunity, as well – they had to work in resource-strapped organizations to complete projects in areas with which they had little or no prior experience. Perhaps most importantly, they had to make a lasting impact in an exceedingly short time period.
This last requirement reveals an important turning point in New Orleans’ rebuilding efforts. Though large swathes of the city remain abandoned; though many roofs still contain holes where residents chopped their way out of flooded attics; though critical pieces of infrastructure remain in disarray; the city is coming back to life. Signs of recovery abound: hotels were filled to capacity during the week after New Years, the airport experienced its busiest travel day since before Katrina on the day after the BCS championship bowl, the beads were flying and the hurricanes were flowing on Bourbon Street. So vibrant are parts of the New Orleans economy that Harry Anderson’s quip contains a more serious kernel of truth: labor is in such high demand that MacDonald’s is paying more than $10 an hour to new employees.
Now that recovery efforts in the city are no longer focused on the immediate relief of human suffering, volunteer opportunities in New Orleans must address a need that is, in many ways, far more complex: how do you rebuild the social and economic fabric of a society? As immersion participants found, part of the answer lies in helping to rebuild the civic and cultural institutions of that society, but an equally large part of the answer lies in taking the time to have fun with those very institutions. From checking out the clubs of Frenchman Street to eating mountains of slimy shellfish at Desire Oyster House to rooting on the hometown LSU Tigers in the BCS Championship Bowl to propping up the local economy at the Harrah’s roulette table, trekkers took full advantage of New Orleans night life.
As New Orleans’ needs become longer-term in nature, support for initiatives like the Service Immersion must also become more enduring. The Student Association has taken a substantial step toward institutionalizing this trip and work like it with its Community Impact Fund. Indeed, the generous support of the SA covered all transportation and related costs during the trip. Additionally, HBS provided funds for several essential portions of the trip, including opening and closing dinners, a bus tour of New Orleans, conference room facilities and lunches for meetings, and gifts for our partner organizations. Finally, faculty and staff, including Stacey Childress, Kelly Diamond, Dutch Leonard and Laura Moon were instrumental in making this trip a success.
The 2009 HBS Service Immersion will return to New Orleans in January 2009. For more information contact Carter Romansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.