Immersion Experience – The Baby in the King Cake

Nearly fifty HBS students spent ten days in New Orleans. They completed service projects for 9 different organizations while down there, doing everything from writing business plans to building houses to assessing the mortgage market.

For those of you who don’t know what a King Cake is, picture a cinnamon bun. Only way bigger. And covered in green, purple and gold sprinkles, with about twice as much sugar and icing as you can possibly conceive of eating. That’s a King Cake. And inside every King Cake is a one-inch tall plastic baby, naked as the day it was born. According to tradition, if you bite into your piece of cake and find the baby, you get to buy the next King Cake.

The point of this tradition is not to stick someone with the bill. New Orleanians are hardly the sort to squabble over such matters. The purpose is to make sure that the party never stops.

In its fourth year, the New Orleans Service Immersion shows no sign of slowing down. Nearly 50 HBS students spent ten days in New Orleans this January, using their classroom experience to do some good in the real world. Working with 9 different organizations, teams of HBSers wrote business plans, assessed the impact of trends in the mortgage market on affordable housing, and refined marketing strategies. They also built houses, helped orchestrate a business plan competition, and worked to focus the program offering of a large multi-service nonprofit organization.

From its beginnings as a student-led response to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, the NOLA Immersion has developed into a defining academic experience at HBS that gives participants exposure to essential strategic questions faced by all organizations. Where the first two years of the Immersion were more about immediate relief services – debris removal and reconstruction of basic civic institutions – the most recent two years have been about starting to address longer term challenges faced by the city. Rather than thinking about how to launch new schools, for example, this year’s participants were helping to address truly fundamental questions about how to compensate and incentivize the teachers in them – questions that school systems in cities across the country are asking.

Even with this change in the nature of much of the work HBS students are doing in New Orleans, basic recovery efforts are still needed. While macro-level statistics on the city show that 87% of the pre-Katrina population has returned to the area, along with 86% of jobs and 90% of sales tax revenue, the pace of recovery has flattened and parts of the city remain decimated. In the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that once was home to more than 18,000 people, fewer than 11% have returned. Parts of the Lower Ninth Ward where hundreds of houses once stood remain nothing more than open fields. Federal, state and local government plans for rebuilding these areas have failed to become reality, and residents are without basic public and commercial infrastructure. A city that was once 70% African American is now less than 50% African American. Such devastation leaves difficult questions about whom the recovery is reaching and what resources were directed toward these neighborhoods even before they were destroyed by the flood.

HBS students worked with Habitat for Humanity and Brad Pitt’s organization, Make it Right, to help address the ongoing needs in the Ninth Ward. By building houses in the Upper Ninth Ward and helping to figure out ways to catalyze commercial development in the Lower Ninth, they put both their hands and minds to work. The Habitat team (along with another HBS team working with an organization called Idea Village) even made the local news:

Not only did the Immersion give students the opportunity to work alongside talented people making a meaningful impact in New Orleans, it also gave them an opportunity to enjoy the city’s famous music venues, restaurants, and other night spots. They ate shrimp and oysters, drank hurricanes, cruised Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street, and Magazine Street, and even managed to join Charmaine Neville on stage for a song or two one night. Trumpet virtuoso Kermit Ruffins cooked for the audience before taking the stage on another occasion. In addition to these activities, Immersion participants enjoyed HBS-sponsored dinners and a reception with partner organizations and New Orleans area HBS alumni.

The student-led and project-based nature of the New Orleans Immersion gives students a unique and substantive way to bring together the core elements of their HBS education. Because they are responsible for producing meaningful work for their partner organizations, students on the New Orleans Immersion – both project leaders and project participants – must not only rely on their academic skills, but also the lessons they’ve learned about listening, teamwork, and leadership. As the New Orleans trip continues to become institutionalized at HBS and as the Immersion program starts to play an increasingly important role in next year’s January term, HBS students will have ongoing opportunities to deepen their learning trough service.

Faculty and staff, including Stacey Childress, David Thomas, Allen Grossman, Jeff Polzer, Mukti Khaire, Rob Huckman, Nic Retsinas, Dutch Leonard, Laura Moon, Margot Dushin, Dana Pratt, and Lindsey Maguire were instrumental in helping students set up and complete the projects in New Orleans. Project leaders Tiera Brown (NB), Marcelia Freeman (NC), Mina Hsiang (NI), Catie Lee (NJ), Jonathan Lujan (OC), Behrad Mahdi (NE), Matt Segneri (NE), and Christina Wallace (NB) also deserve recognition for the efforts they made to ensure the success of the projects.

January 26, 2009
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