Spring break often conjures images of sunny destinations and tropical locales. For two groups of students, however, the city of Richmond offered just what they were looking for in a spring break destination. 

Two alternative spring break programs — one organized by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement discussed education, while another sponsored by the Office of Common Ground considered issues of food justice — relied on Richmond businesses, nonprofits, and schools to provide a backdrop for their exploration.

Tours of public, private and charter schools; service projects; and meetings with the superintendent and other administrators from Richmond Public Schools allowed the CCE’s students to develop a nuanced understanding of the challenges facing students, teachers, administrators, and parents.

“Richmond has a rich and complicated history, particularly in education,” says Adrienne Piazza, manager of educational initiatives for the CCE. “Our region’s histories of segregation and massive resistance are still being felt today. For many of the participants, this is not their first encounter with Richmond Public Schools. They have volunteered through the CCE, or taken a course, or attended a school board meeting. This program is a way for them to see greater context.”

Hannah Leedle, ’15, found the experience eye opening. “I learned that Richmond’s education challenges are steeped in culture, politics, and history, and that there is no single solution,” she says. “Simultaneously, I learned that there is hope for progress.”

Meanwhile, service at a hunger-relief organization and a community farm, visits to community gardens and neighborhood markets, and meals at local restaurants painted a complex portrait of Richmond residents’ access to healthy food for Common Ground’s alternative spring break participants.

“Poverty, lack of transportation, institutionalized racism, and sometimes lack of nutritional education and familiarity with fresh health food can combine to make it very difficult for our neighbors to have sufficient and healthy food,” says Lisa Miles, associate director of Common Ground. “We wanted students to understand that even as they may be quite savvy about their own food choices, there are many barriers to making those same choices for lots of Richmond residents. And we wanted them to see who was working on the problems, and where progress was being made.”

See more from the Richmond sites that raised complicated questions about local access to food and education — and how the two sometimes even intersect.