Education in Donations: Emily Allan

DIY bus

Tonight at The Gallery at ABC No Rio, a benefit art show is hosted by the New York 2 New Orleans Coalition (NY2NO), a youth-led, not-for-profit organization started by a group of go-getting high school students after a Cuban adventure  screwed up their school-sponsored travel. NY2NO shuttles students from New York to New Orleans, where volunteers gut and rebuild homes, do agricultural work, and learn about and participate in local activism. But these kids aren’t fundraising for themselves tonight. (They already did enough of that to buy their own bus, and then some.) All proceeds from the benefit go to the Lower Ninth Ward’s Community School, which is an alternative educational facility that focuses on community and leadership—and which was founded by the notoriously fun and popular teacher Nathan Turner. Emily Allan is one of the organizers for NY2NO, and she has led trips of up to 200 kids to New Orleans for the past several years. All that, and she’s 17 years old. Eat your heart out, Blake Lively.

Lucy Madison: How did NY2NO come about?

Emily Allan:
Well, the Beacon school used to do trips down to New Orleans. They were started by this teacher, Nathan Turner, who also used to take students to Cuba. I guess one year the board of education didn’t approve it, but they decided to go anyway. And even though the trip wasn’t officially affiliated with Beacon, they got caught coming back and the school got a lot of negative press. So they stopped all the trips to New Orleans. I think about three or four kids who had been really moved by the experience just said, “Okay, well if we can’t go down with our school anymore, we should just do it ourselves.” New York to New Orleans was essentially started as a name to allow us to go down there.

When did you personally get involved?

I went on our first trip, which was, I think, ten kids and chaperones in the summer of 2007.  It was very disorganized. I became an organizer after that, and we’ve really grown. This summer we had seven trips-seven weeks, with about 30 to 40 kids on each trip. Kids take part in rebuilding and gutting houses, and New Orleans residents take them on a tour of the levee system in New Orleans, which can be really eye-opening. We learn a little bit about the social history of the city, and geographical history, in terms of like infrastructure and class and race dynamics down there. We also take part in community organizing mandated by the organization we work with down there, called the Survivors Council. The kids learn how to canvas – they go door-to-door and ask residents how they’ve been for the three years since the storm, and what they think the community needs, and ask them to come to weekly meetings to talk about how they can move forward together as a community. I think a lot of kids get really affected by the experience, and come back to New York and really want to be active in their own communities, which is really powerful.

Why do you think it’s meaningful that the organization is led by students?

EA: There are so many different service trips available to youth that are run by adults, but-and I’m a high school student-the ones that are led by other high school students are much more empowering. The community organizations that we work with are very much driven by the fact that the people have to lead themselves and learn how to unite, and can’t really depend on anyone else. And I think that it’s inspiring for us to see other kids doing that.

LM: You’re about to graduate and go to college. How are you going to keep the coalition alive after you leave?

EA: We’ve been training younger organizers, so a group of people who are juniors next year will be able to take leadership positions in New York, so we can keep Ny2NO in high school. And hopefully, for those of us who are going to college, we can plan trips from our there or figure out a way to incorporate NY2NO.

LM: This sounds like a huge responsibility.

I mean, it is a really big part of my life. It’s kind of like a job, but at the same time it’s not – it’s just something I do every day. I don’t get paid and it’s not like I have to do it; I work really hard because I want to. I feel like I need to be doing it. I guess it’s kind of selfish. It makes me feel, like, alive. [laughs] I think that one of the most beautiful things is communicating with people, and that’s what we do in New Orleans. A lot of it is just talking to people and learning about people’s lives. That aspect has been very powerful to me.

So tell me about the event tonight.

EA: The public school system in New Orleans has always been flawed, but since Katrina, it’s even more so. I have all these really scary statistics about how in some places—especially in the Lower ninth Ward—there are really no high schools. Like, period. So we’re holding this event to benefit Nathan Turner’s Community School. We’ll have a mixture of student art, and art by some people who went to New Orleans this summer who have done art projects based on that, and then we have some professional, adult artists who have donated things.

Art New Orleans will start at 7 pm on December 19 in The Gallery at ABC No Rio. ABC No Rio is located at 156 Rivington Street, New York. Tickets are $5 in advance and $8 at the door. To buy tickets in advance, email [email protected].