It's that time of the year again, when high school and college students across the country get ready to head south and hit the beach. But this year, a couple hundred of them have picked an unusual destination for their week away from classes, heading to suburban St. Louis for an "alternative" spring break.
Over the course of five weeks, students from every corner of the country are heading to Ferguson, Missouri, the town put on the map after the August 9 killing of Michael Brown by local police officer Darren Wilson — and the massive nationwide protests that followed it.
But while protests are ongoing, and the recent release of a scathing Department of Justice report accusing the Ferguson police department of racial bias has reignited them, organizers have made it clear that this spring break is about community service, not protest.
"The story here isn't just one of protest," Charles Wade, an organizer and protester who has been running the program, told VICE News. "It's not their place to come from university settings and protest when they haven't been here. They don't know the lay of the land."
Instead, these spring breakers are meeting community leaders, participating in discussions about structural racism and community policing, and going door-to-door in the community, conducting voter registration drives and learning about the importance of local government.
Wade and others thought about hosting a structured program after they heard from some students that had decided to travel to Ferguson on their own, inspired by the movement born there in the aftermath of Brown's killing.
Since August, Ferguson has drawn countless curious visitors and racial justice pilgrims of sort — including scores of activists who flocked to the area during last fall's "Ferguson October" weekend of action — but organizers wanted to make sure that students heading to Ferguson could learn something, and have a positive impact.
"What would you do here for a week, if you didn't know what you were doing, didn't know where you were going?" Wade said. "I just felt that it was a recipe for disaster."
But while the focus of the program is on education and service, the first two weeks proved eventful, as the arrival of the first spring breakers coincided with the release of the DOJ report on the town's policing practices, which was followed by the resignations of top Ferguson officials, including the police department's chief, and then renewed rallies. One demonstration last week ended with two officers shot by a man currently in custody; his actual affiliation to the protests is now being hotly contested.
"You can kind of feel a buzz in the community. Things are changing. Being here in the midst of a lot of pretty important developments has been very interesting," Samantha Nichols, a religious studies senior at Missouri State, told VICE News. "You can tell that these changes are taking place and you can tell from talking with people that there are still tensions that haven't been resolved."
Nichols, from Kansas City, said she had countless conversations about Ferguson following last summer's protests — but wanted to see the place for herself.
"It kind of got to a point when I thought it was necessary to visit the community, and not only see the community, but serve the community in any way that I could," she said, adding that she found it to be less tense and chaotic than she had imagined.
"It's such a welcoming community, with understandable cynicism about whether it's ever going to get better, but simultaneously a very palpable feeling of hope, that things will and can get better," she said. "You feel welcome, and no matter what you see on the news, it's just a community of people who want to see improvement, and many of them are working very hard to make those improvements materialize."
Part of the point of the program is to teach students not only about Ferguson, but about their own communities.
Sequoia Kemp, a college junior from upstate New York, said the greatest thing Ferguson taught her was the importance of civic engagement and participation in local government — both elements that Ferguson activists have emphasized over the past months.
"I'm not really well-versed on my own city council and who the representatives in my state are, and I want to be able to able to be effective in my community," Kemp said, adding that she plans to keep up her volunteer voter registration work back in New York state.
While she had been following developments via tweets and live streams for months, going there showed her that Ferguson is not so different from Rochester, where she goes to school, or Syracuse, where's she's from. But when two police officers were shot outside the Ferguson police department last week, her phone — and that of many others on the program — blew up with concerned texts and calls.
"People get killed in Rochester all the time, but my mom never texts me to ask if I'm ok," Kemp noted. "But if I'm in Ferguson and someone gets shot it's, 'Hey are you ok?... You would have thought that we were going to a war zone, but I'm walking through the neighborhood, talking to people, and it's so calm here."
Still, after the shooting by the Ferguson police department, spring break organizers thought about calling off neighborhood canvassing for the day.
"But then we started following the news and there was something about the decision not to go out that I felt fed into the narrative of Ferguson being unsafe," said Wade. "What concerns me is that it's always presented as if the area is unsafe because of the residents."
"When you look at the behavior of officers over the last several months, nobody ever considers this place is unsafe because of the officers," he added. "Why is it that nobody had this concern before?"
So on Thursday, hours after the shooting, Ferguson's spring breakers were back on the streets, talking to residents about the town's ongoing healing process.
"They're happy that they're here with everything that's going on, because they feel like it's enlightened their experience. They've been able to experience things that they had only watched from afar," Wade said. "Everything here is a teaching moment."
All photos by Charles Wade