Alex Epstein - VOLUNTEER | Not in Our Town

Alex Epstein - VOLUNTEER

Grade Level: 
Middle School (6-8)
High School (9-12)


Alex Epstein is a college student who, during high school, was compelled to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Using the tool of VOLUNTEER, Alex made multiple trips and engaged with the local community.

Alex took initiative and helped found NY2NO, or New York to New Orleans, to involve other young people in the revitalization of the New Orleans landscape.

This video is part of a series produced by Not In Our School's parent company, The Working Group, for the Institute for Advancing Unity. This series focus on extraordinary people whose personal choices have inspired others to join in tremendous collective achievements.

This lesson addresses the following Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies. You can have students look for these issues and examine them in themselves.

  • Self-awareness: Alex Epstein realized more about himself by engaging with a community that was systematically marginalized.
  • Self-management: Alex Epstein’s 9 days of volunteering was a catalyst for more action; it inspired him to engage in more regenerative work for himself and his larger social community.
  • Social awareness: Alex Epstein engages students and community members in conversation about the unequal distribution of devastation that Hurricane Katrina inflicted. He has them explore it for themselves by taking them to the site of the devastation.
  • Relationship skills: Alex Epstein collaborated with other students to found NY2NO, and with community members to transform the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.
  • Responsible decision-making: Alex Epstein encourages volunteers to approach the task with humility, and encourages volunteers to see their work is bi-directionally worthwhile.

1.  Prior to showing the video, briefly explain the primary themes of the video. Use some or all of the following questions (include at least one writing prompt):

  • What does the term volunteer mean to you?
  • Who is most affected by natural disasters? Why?
  • Do you think it’s important to connect with different kinds of communities?
  • What do you think is the best way to get people to work together?

2.  After watching the video, engage students in a dialogue about the film using some or all of the following questions (include at least one writing prompt):

  • Initially Alex thought it was just going to be a short trip until he was impacted by community organizers who told him they would be doing more than build houses. He allowed himself to be inspired by locals. He allowed himself to see what people did despite their hardships.
  • Alex said that in the span of nine days he learned more than he had “in every history class he’s taken.” Why do you think that is?
  • At one point in the film Alex says “kids don’t really listen to people handing out flyers.” Why do you think that is? What kind of volunteer work is most effective?
  • How is volunteering different from charity?
  • Alex believes that it is young people who “break down the doors” for social change. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Extension Activities

  1. Hurricane Katrina’s damage disproportionately impacted the geography of New Orleans. The Lower 9th Ward, which once had the highest percentage of black home ownership in the nation, was hardest hit. After the hurricane, the Lower 9th Ward received less private investments for rebuilding efforts than other towns. Have students do research to examine the impact Hurricane Katrina had on the Lower 9th Ward and the rebuilding process. Compare it to the impact and renewal of other areas, such as the Treme neighborhood. Have students write newspaper articles explaining why the Lower 9th Ward had suffered more devastation than other places and propose possible solutions.
  2. Have students make a list of social issues in their community. Then have them research volunteer opportunities or ways to get involved in the problem. Have them commit to at least 10 hours of their chosen community work. Have students make two minute speeches to the class, describing their experiences by answering the following questions (Alternatively, students could make posters with graphic depictions short narratives with  the answers to the questions.):
  • What was the nature of your volunteering work?
  • Why did you choose this organization/activity?
  • What did you learn about volunteering?
  • Did you feel like you gained from the experience as much as you gave to the experience? Why? What were some of the personal gains you made?
  • Do you think you will continue volunteering?

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