Senior Marie Fernandez is the President of SEEDS. Hailing from Charlottesville, Virginia, Fernandez got involved with SEEDS during her freshman year and fell in love. The annual SEEDS spring break trip is just around the corner, so I talked to Fernandez about the program and its service.

Lucy: What is SEEDS?

Marie: The SEEDS Project is a student-run organization at the University of Richmond that exists to work alongside marginalized communities and examine the complexities of American society in order to encourage a deeper understanding of the role of service both locally and nationally. More simply, we are a student-run alternative break organization that partners with communities around the United States in order to both meet their needs and gain a better understanding of the social and environmental justice issues that impact these communities with the ultimate goal of creating active citizens out of our student participants.

L: When did SEEDS start, and when did these trips start?

M: The organization began as the Collegiate Disaster Relief Team in the spring of 2006 in reaction to Hurricane Katrina. In 2009-2010, the organization was rebranded to The SEEDS Project to better reflect the new mission.

We’ve returned to Louisiana every year since 2006, making this our 12th year in the area. Our trip to West Virginia was added in 2011-2012, making this year our sixth consecutive year in West Virginia. Our last spring break trip, to Michigan, was added this year, so this spring break will be our pilot trip! We also have a fall break trip into Richmond itself that allows us to make connections between various communities around the country and our own city. This trip began three years ago in the fall of 2014.

L: Are they always during spring break? Where have you gone in the past?

M: We run three spring break trips and one fall break trip. We return to the same locations and many of the same community partners each year in order to build sustainable relationships. Our fall break trip is into Richmond, and our spring break trips are to the gulf region of Louisiana, the Appalachian region of West Virginia and the Detroit area of Michigan. Personally, I went on the West Virginia trip my freshman and sophomore years, the Louisiana trip my junior year and I will be going on the Michigan trip next week! I have also been on the fall break trip into Richmond both this year and last year.

L: How did you get involved?

M: I first found out about The SEEDS Project in the fall of my freshman year via chalking and a paper flyer. After going to an information session, I decided that since I was from Charlottesville, I didn’t need to go home over spring break. I could do that any weekend. So I applied to The SEEDS Project’s spring break trips, and somehow I got in! I went on the West Virginia trip my first year. The unique SEEDS community — both in terms of people and mindset — drew me in, and I joined the Leadership Team my sophomore year and have been deeply involved ever since.

L: Who goes on the trips?

M: Any undergraduate University of Richmond student is eligible to go on the trips! We have an application that we encourage any and all students to complete. From the submitted applications, we endeavor to select a diverse group of participants for each trip — in terms of service-learning experience, gender, major, race/ethnicity, social group, extracurricular involvement, etc. We believe that difference across many lines is not only valuable, but vital to our experiences and discussions throughout the trip.

Each trip has four or five members of our Leadership Team leading the trip and one faculty advisor acting in a supporting role.

L: Where does the funding come from?

M: While we work with our community partners to create an impactful, holistic and cost-effective experience in each of our locations, the trips are costly for our organization. Much of our funding comes from the continuous and generous support of the Student Organization Budget and Appropriations Committee (SOBAC). We also raise a large proportion of our funding by seeking support from the university and Richmond city communities including organizations such as the Western Henrico Rotary Club, the Robins School of Business and the Center for Civic Engagement, to name a few.

L: Who started SEEDS?

The first trip was initiated by a group of Bonner Scholars who wanted to support the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans, Louisiana.

M: What does the future of SEEDS look like? What are some goals that the program has?

The SEEDS Project has experienced growing interest from the UR student body in the last three years, which is a wonderful problem to have! It was in large part due to this increasing interest that SEEDS decided to turn our thoughts into actions by adding our third trip to Michigan this year. We hope to see this new trip garner support from the campus community, and we hope to solidify strong community partner relationships in Michigan in the next few years. We also hope to see our fall break trip in Richmond continue to grow, as it is an excellent opportunity available to any student who has previously gone on a SEEDS trip to connect their experiences in other areas of the U.S. to our very own city.

Our organization continuously aims to create active citizens of our participants. We hope that they are exposed to a broad array of perspectives surrounding some of the social and environmental justice issues in various communities and that they have a better understanding of the complexity of many of these issues — they aren’t easily solvable. However, instead of disheartening our participants, we hope that motivates them to actively and deeply engage with their future communities on a long-term basis. We hope they choose to look beneath the surface to the root causes of these types of issues as well as past the media to the overlooked people groups present in their communities.

L: Can you talk about this year's trips?

M: This year, we will be running three spring break trips in addition to the fall break trip we already ran. We are incredibly excited to be returning to Louisiana for the 12th time! We visit two locations in Louisiana: Dulac and New Orleans. The first is a rural, wetland community where we get firsthand exposure to coastal erosion. We’ll look at how environment, community and identity are very intrinsically tied together in that area. In New Orleans, we’ll dig into some of more systemic issues such as education, violence, food accessibility, etc.

In West Virginia, we will be returning to our community partner of six years, Big Creek People In Action (BCPIA), in McDowell County. While in one of the poorest and most rural areas of West Virginia, we will have the opportunity to engage with members of the community whose families have thrived off of the coal industry for centuries. We’ll also focus on issues the community faces, such as drug and alcohol addiction, poor education systems, lack of access to healthcare, etc. For the second half of the week, we’ll return to Charleston, the capital of the state, to look at the environmental impacts of coal mining and flooding from a more academic perspective.

During our pilot trip to Michigan, we will be focusing on the impact the withdrawal of the auto industry has had on the economics and the community in Detroit. We hope to understand the fragmentation that exists, probably in large part due to the first prevalence and now absence of the industry. The city has recently undergone much revitalization and renewal as a result of internal and external support, something we hope to understand. Ultimately, we hope to connect this new trip and some of the themes we will draw out with our two pre-existing trips and to the City of Richmond.

Contact lifestyle reporter Lucy Nalen at lucy.nalen@richmond.edu

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