Learning Social Justice: An interview with Ruth Idakula

The Center for Ethical Learning and Social Justice Renewal. CESLR,is a New Orleans-based nonprofit on the front lines of social justice action in New Orleans, hoping to meaningfully impact communities through service learning journeys founded in anti-racist education.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the “flood of 2005,” as Ruth Idakula, Executive Director of the Center for Ethical Learning and Social Justice Renewal. refers to it, has exacerbated existing inequalities in the city. Even 14 years later, racial and social disparities are as alarmingly visible in New Orleans, and they’re seemingly deeply rooted in our institutions. From public schools being underfunded to the criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color, equality can sometimes feel idealistic and elusive. However, CESLR and the people behind it represent a force of concrete, grass-roots work in making social justice impact. When I sat down with Ruth Idakula, here is what was discussed. 

Idakula: We’re organizing and we’re also an education group. Primarily, we are an anti-racist organization, which means that we believe that it doesn’t matter what injustice you are fighting against. If you do not have an anti-racist lens, you’re not tackling the full problem and so [that’s] what we do here.

However, simply facilitating volunteer work does not tackle the full issue. While there was a surge in volunteer interest post-Katrina, entering communities without a comprehensive understanding of their unique history and culture has proven to be problematic and potentially dangerous.

Idakula: One of the things that happen when folks started coming here to help out in New Orleans was that the groups that came to volunteer have been mostly primarily whites going into an African-American city. And they were getting a lot of reports back about racist acts that were coming from people who had very good intentions.

While simply obtaining interested volunteers is a goal, it is necessary that volunteers are informed about the community they are entering in order to serve it successfully.  CESLR specializes in transformational learning, which it administers through a variety of service learning journeys. Groups can dorm within the center, which includes home-cooked meals, a historical driving tour around the city, and a dialogue with one of the center’s many community partners, in addition to their service mission.

Idakula: We do two reflections with them during that week, once after the first day they’ve been out in the community and the day before they leave just to check-in with them and see where they are in terms of what their experiences [are]. A lot of people come back after they’ve been out for a couple of days really transformed… Even though you can find poverty all over the place, I think that there’s something about the city that makes it very blatant about the injustices that happen. And so because it’s very visual I think it strikes people in a particular way. So yes, we tried to be there for them to help facilitate them through that emotional process and to kind of a guide them into what to do when you go back home because this is not just something you just drop here, you take it with you.

Through these learning experiences, the center hopes to cultivate mindful individuals who are able to complete community service that is tangible and significant to those communities, addressing areas in need with care, respect, and appreciation. While CESLR’s work is focused on bettering New Orleans, the centers core philosophy is ultimately universal:

Idakula: Not everybody needs to be an activist and that everybody needs to be an organizer. Go do whatever it is that you find joy in in your life and find ways to do it better and more humanely…So we tell people, ‘Go back to wherever you come from, and just make it better there.’ Treat people better, understand what power dynamics are. Understand that equality is not equity, right? So some people get it like up, you know,  there are people who do not. So how do you fix those situations, right? How do you balance power? Is what we ask people to do.


To find out more about CESLR visit http://celsjr.org


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