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New Orleans and Back Program Builds Community through Art and Service

At first, Jennifer Sonkin was an art teacher. Then one day, inspired by a news story about the long-term effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, she became a woman with a mission. Now Sonkin integrates student leadership, community empowerment, and social justice into everything she does. Arts education has become a vehicle for much larger concepts that Sonkin hopes will transform students, schools, and cities.

Sonkin created New Orleans and Back as a program at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School 11 years ago, and expanded the program to IDEA last year. Sonkin teaches New Orleans and Back classes during the school day as well as two sections of Art II. She also runs the extracurricular New Orleans and Back program. Afterschool and on weekends, students make functional art and sell it at Eastern Market to raise money for their spring trip. During the spring semester, students focus on community service, including planning and holding a city-wide community service conference. Select students who have demonstrated exemplary behavior, grades, attendance, leadership, and commitment to the program are invited to travel to New Orleans for a five-day experience that includes building, advocacy, and cultural exploration. The extracurricular program is led by students who are in their second or third year of the program.

For the Martin Luther King Jr. day of service, 17 IDEA students participated in New Orleans and Back activities. “Instead of the typical reading of a Martin Luther King speech, we talked about why Stevie Wonder wrote a birthday song in honor of MLK Day,” explained Sonkin. “We did team building activities, made sandwiches for homeless people, and started working on an art project for Black History Month.” 

In class this semester, Sonkin will focus on creating a strong student-centered, student-designed community. “The students will be meeting with Ms. McCrae and Mr. Rydstrom and working on ideas about how to strengthen the school community,” she said. “We’re helping plan the Black History Month celebration and adding our tiles to those created by IDEA alumni outside the gymnasium. When students have more input into creating visuals for and actually working on the school building, they have more buy-in to the school.”

Sonkin always welcomes new student participants who wish to learn about New Orleans and who need community service hours. She also invites community members who would like to help support students during activities or with financial sponsorships. 

To learn more, visit or contact Jennifer Sonkin at

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