Break for Change: Alternative Spring Breaks

Spring BreakThe term "spring break" usually conjures up images of frat boys slamming beer and kids in bathing suits lounging on tourist beaches; the people and places all somehow indistinguishable from each other. But there are other options for young people who want to do some meaningful work during their time off this spring.

Over one hundred young people will join the Ruckus Society in Florida this March for their second annual alternative spring break. Spank the Bank! is a week-long camp for youth and student activists, focusing on a campaign against Citigroup. Citigroup (which includes Citibank) is one of the largest financial institutions in the world, funding a wide range of projects from prison construction and genetic engineering, to mining in the Amazon and the building of a dam in China that will displace an estimated one million people. "This is an attempt to build and galvanize the student constituency, people interested in making the world a better place," says Beka Economopoulos, one of Spank the Bank!s organizers. She views this action camp against Citigroup as an opportunity to bring together activists involved in a range of social issues: workers, prison and environmental activists, and anyone critical of global capitalism. The camp will include workshops on the theory and practice of nonviolence, nonviolent direct action planning, campus organizing and political theater. Ruckus Society is asking for a donation of between $50 and $100 or more, and all high school and college age activists can attend, though those under 18 years old are required to bring an adult. (Tune in again in a few weeks to read a first-person account of the Spank the Bank by Missy Longshore.)

"The camp will include workshops on the theory and practice of nonviolence, nonviolent direct action planning, campus organizing and political theater."
Another alternative break option for young people is Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge, a one- to two-week program open to kids ages 16 and up who want to help build houses for low-income families. Begun in 1989 in Mississippi, Collegiate Challenge will draw almost 10,000 participating students throughout March and April this year. Participants are responsible for organizing a group of at least five people (high school groups must include one adult/advisor for every five youth), and coordinating their trip with one of the 18 Habitat chapter locations in the U.S. Most chapters house participants in a church or community center, and some ask for donations for the tools and building materials used during the week.
In addition to political and social service organizations, many colleges have implemented alternative spring break programs for interested students. During the week-long break, schools often work in conjunction with community groups that confront issues such as poverty and homelessness, AIDS and environmental degradation. Schools frequently offer credit for participation in the break program, which usually include classes beforehand to provide background and reading in the related field, and post-trip reflections and assessment. While the structure is pretty consistent at most colleges that offer it, their projects vary. Meredith Gaylord, the student leader of one of the three alternative break trips at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will help build a garden at an Alzheimers day care center in Manteo, NC. Scott Buday just returned from a trip to the Honduras with a group of thirteen other University of Michigan students, working to build houses in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. Scott believes gained a new, broader understanding of the impact that Transnational Corporations (TNCs) have on these small Latin American countries. "We use them to better ourselves," he said, "while in the process [giving] them with unfair working conditions and wages. We are hurting the future of these countries and preventing them from developing better standards of living, such as health, education, food and life spans."
Service and volunteer work doesnt always end with the trip; in 1991, students at Stanford created an advocacy group called Stanford Homeless Action Coalition after participating in an Spring Breakalternative break project to help the homeless population.
There are plenty of other opportunities for youth to take part in socially and politically active projects this spring, even if they aren't specifically slated as alternative breaks. The Boise Cascade/Tree-Free Campus Summit this March, organized by the Rainforest Action Network, will bring college students to Idaho in a campaign against the Boise Cascade Corporation, one of largest loggers of old-growth forests around the world. They are also the largest supplier of paper to college campuses, and students at this gathering will focus on creating more environmentally responsible purchasing practices at their schools. The Earthwatch Institute is another organization offering trips not necessarily labeled as alternative breaks. While their one- to two-week long research projects are open to the public, they offer considerably reduced rates to college students. Earthwatch organizes groups of volunteers to work with scientists engaged in research around the world. This year, for example, Earthwatch is sending teams to study social insects building skills and behavior in South Africa, survey hippos in a Ghanan sanctuary, and collect data on wildflowers in Spain.

"Service and volunteer work doesn't always end with the trip; in 1991, students at Stanford created an advocacy group after participating in an alternative break project."
If you are a student interested in an alternative break programs, consider speaking with the student services department at school to find out about alternative break options. Even if none exist at your particular school, consider starting your own program by asking local organizations if they could use some volunteers during your time off.

And finally, it's not necessary to join an organized group or travel far and wide to participate in some meaningful work during your spring break. Simply look around your neighborhood, your school or workplace. Is there a single mom who would really love some free childcare once in a while, or a community garden in desperate need of weeding? Maybe there's an outdated city law that needs to be amended, starting with a petition. While organizations can be great for meeting people and accomplishing some goals, a little creative brainstorming could lead to an alternative break that suits you, and your community, just perfectly.

For information on creating your own spring break program, contact Break Away: the Alternative Break Connection at breakaway@alternativebreaks.com. They offer training and technical assistance for planning breaks, as well as a sitebank listing of over 200 organizations that do good work and could use your help.

Danielle Latman is an un-schooler who likes to ride her bike. She currently lives in New York, NY.
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