With inquisitive minds and eager hands,15 Mills women devoted their mid-semester break to Oakland youth and neighborhood participation as part of the fourth annual student-led Alternative Spring Break.
“Working in the community really appealed to me,” said junior Thuy Tran. “I wanted to do something meaningful; doing Alternative Spring Break really makes me feel like I’m contributing to something.”
In this year’s program, dedicated to examining youth perspectives in the neighborhoods surrounding Mills, participants spent several days at Burbank Elementary School working with students on murals and a garden. Their work contributed to the Burbank Beautification Program, which is replacing asphalt with grass and creating a community garden.
“Looking at the gardens, we could see we had done something,” said freshwoman Evelyn Krampf, one of three student coordinators for the program.
At Burbank, the students involved in Alternative Spring Break helped fourth graders paint murals on benches. For many participants, the most poignant moments took place at the elementary school. Freshwoman Margaret Ledyard-Marks described a particularly rewarding experience she had there. “It was neat to be able to focus on one little boy during the mural painting, and see how proud he was to see that he was contributing to helping the school and creating something that would last,” she said.
For Tran, the work at Burbank elementary inspired her participatation in a tutoring program sponsored by Mills CARES. “It definitely broke down some stereotypes I didn’t want to admit I had about Oakland and the community around us,” Tran said. “I feel more comfortable going out there and I’m more apt to connect to the community.”
While Tran was previously hesitant to do community tutoring. “Now that I’ve done this I feel like I’ve bridged that gap,” said Tran.
In addition to their work at Burbank, the Mills students visited the East Oakland Youth Development Center on. The center’s mission is to provide a safe place for young adults through art, athletic, and job training programs, including culinary classes, Karate, and West African dance.
“We were there to observe how the community helps itself,” said Ledyard-Marks. “It was inspiring to see how this is a really bad neighborhood, but people were still working together for the kids, reaching out to its own members.”
“What Mills students may not know is that there’s a vibrant community center there that’s giving young adults a fun learning environment,” said lead coordinator junior Mica Miro.
A large part of Alternative Spring Break was concentrated on breaking stereotypes regarding crime and ethnicity in Oakland. The itinerary included group discussions with Kim Seals, Mills college diversity directors.
“We had reflection sessions and talked a lot about personal issues regarding race which I think need to be addressed more,” said sophomore Ruth Sears. “We also had two diversity workshops with Kim Seals; it helped bring perspective to things.
“The side of Mills the community tends to see is the one with the razor wire, but actually getting out and talking with people, I sensed a lot of support which was refreshing,” said Sears.
To round out their experience, they met with Upward Bound students for pizza and a conversation to perspectives. “These were young people willing to talk about their lives and what it’s like to grow up in Oakland, and to learn from Mills students about college,” said Leslie Townsend, director of Mills CARES and the sponsor of Alternative Spring Break. “It was truly a dialogue: they asked Mills students questions and Mills students asked them questions.”
For the student coordinators and the student participants, the experience was gratifying and enriching experience. “There was a lot of rewarding, hands-on participatory service,” Miro said. Krampf, her co-organizer, agreed. “My sense is that people learned a lot, felt like it was a really valuable time, and connected to the community,” Krampf said.