When Southwind High School economics teacher Biba Kavass traded in PowerPoint slides and charts for a raw view of economics and poverty, she never could have predicted the life lessons her students would learn. Instead of offering only bonus activities and leadership roles to her top students, Kavass gave the Memphis high schoolers a front row seat to a shocking reality.
Kavass drove her students slowly through the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, stopping every few blocks to open the doors and brave the suffocating summer heat. Amongst dilapidated houses, FEMA trailers scattered down the street, and exhausted structures covered in graffiti, her passengers sat in mutual shock. The first question one of her students asked: “When did Hurricane Katrina happen again?” When she responded, “eight years ago,” her students were in disbelief. It was a drive that senior Landon Hawthorne remembers as heartbreaking.
“Poverty is one of the worst things you can experience,” he said. “You can’t understand unless you see and feel it and communicate it. This trip has opened me up to a world that not many people can see.”
Kavass says one of the most visible signs of desperation was the graffiti—not the vulgar language or gang affiliations, but the messages: “No jobs, no help.” It was this message that Kavass and her students wanted to learn how to change.
The Ninth Ward in New Orleans
The group was on a 10-day trek to study the positive impact of small business loans on poverty, starting at home in Memphis, traveling through the Mississippi Delta, and ending in Louisiana. Before the trip, some in her group had never left the city of Memphis. Southwind High, a school where 78 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch, is home to many students living in poverty. But despite the hardships at home, Kavass wanted her kids to learn an important lesson.
“This [poverty] exists in the world, and not just in their neighborhood, and in ways that far surpass the poverty they live in in Memphis,” she said.
Along their route, Kavass scheduled interviews with small loan success stories to show the group how one small business loan could change someone’s life.
After their drive through the Ninth Ward and on the way to their last meeting in New Orleans, Kavass said her students began to notice a change in their surroundings. A few blocks away from the near decade-old devastation, her students saw signs of revitalization.
“You could see it in the faces of the people in the streets,” Kavass said. “They held their heads a little bit higher, they walked with a purpose.”
The stark contrast that shocked her group in New Orleans also brought many personal fears about their own future to light. When interviewing small business owners, Kavass heard her students ask advice not just about small loans but also perseverance, failure, fear and never giving up.
While Kavass heard her students banter about business terms and economics on the way home, more than anything she heard students ask, “How can I do more?” Just weeks after they returned home, her students found a way. Kavass used money raised from the school’s KIVA club (a club devoted to small business loans which the entire traveling group belongs to) to provide a small $75 loan to a woman in New Orleans restarting a small concessions business.
Watching her students reflect on the realities they saw first-hand, Kavass realized she had also given the group a window into themselves.
“It changed all of us including me,” she said.
Kavass and her students are currently working to edit video footage from their trip into a documentary on the power of small business loans.