Grad students apply their knowledge

Sociology graduate students travel to New Orleans to get real world experience in their field at Lafitte Greenway. Courtesy of Martha Sibley

Sociology graduate students work with the Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans to gain real world experience and promote community, environmental sustainability, economic growth and health.

Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. David Burley, who is on a planning board for the greenway, teaches an Applied Environmental Sociology class where his students help the organization Friends of Lafitte Greenway finish the Lafitte Greenway trail.

“We’re helping them figure out how to do that,” said Burley. “We’re doing research on past negotiations with the railroads. It’s the Norfolk Southern Railroad company. We’re researching economic development opportunities along that stretch of the greenway. We are doing a number of things putting together a paper for the greenway as well as developing documents that public officials like the mayor’s office and the city council members can use to advocate for the final leg of the greenway to be developed as well as for them to negotiate with the railroad company to get them to sell the land to the city or allow the trail to be developed along that last stretch.”




The Lafitte Greenway is a 2.6-miles-long trail that crosses through several neighborhoods. The trail opened in November of 2015.

“Many cities are doing this with old, abandoned railroad lines that were just blighted property,” said Burley. “An example is the Atlanta BeltLine in Atlanta of course, and New York has the High Line, which they took an elevated railway that was abandoned, they hadn’t used it in decades, and turned it into a park called linear park that goes through a good portion of Manhattan. The goals behind many greenways is also not just a park for people in the city to enjoy but also environmental remediation.”

The environmental efforts include mitigating storm water flooding and reducing the heat island effect. Along with environmental and community functions, the greenway also serves a transportation and economic purpose.

“It being a linear park, people use them in a multitude of ways,” said Burley. “For recreation whether it’s running, riding their bikes or whatever, but also you’ll often see people going to do their grocery shopping or riding their bike to work because it goes through so many different parts of the city. It has what we call multiuse. It also spurs a lot of economic development because you get building of apartments, housing and other amenities like microbreweries or restaurants and grocery stories.”

Sociology graduate student Martha Sibley discussed how participating in the project adds to her education.

“Getting the opportunity to do projects like this is really important as part of my education,” said Sibley. “Actually getting outside and involving myself in stuff going on in the world is really important to an education as opposed to sitting at a desk for an hour and 15 minutes and getting spoken at. Getting the opportunity to work with people on projects that are important and have a positive impact is huge. That’s kind of what drew me to sociology is this idea that I can do these things.”

Sociology graduate student Tristan Gill explained how the project differs from a normal class.

“You can sit and read books and theories all day, but if you don’t actually apply it, you’re not really getting anything out of it,” said Gill. “I think just apply what we learn, and Dr. Burley has been doing really good with this as far as this class goes. We learn stuff, and we apply it in real life. Just that general application of what I learned to real life ‘cause you don’t get to do that with everything you learn. Another thing also, if I go into the teaching track, this is something I can utilize with a class to apply what they learned.”

Sibley believes the greenway helps people connect with their community.

“If you’re outside and instead of looking at your phone, you’re looking up and getting to meet people that you otherwise would not get to meet,” said Sibley. “Also, the physical activity does help. Yesterday, I saw some of the statistics ‘cause I went down there, and certain parts of the greenway, the age life expectancy is 55 and if you go a little bit further down, the life expectancy is 80, and that’s a huge disparity in age. The people along the greenway need this because the long term impact will be that their life expectancy will go up due to increased activity. The Lafitte greenway, they offer classes, yoga classes, Zumba classes, a lot of different things to kind of promote this activity of being healthy and exercising and just spending time outdoors because spending time outdoors has proven to have positive mental health impact.”

For Sibley, the hardest part of the project has been the time she had to devote to her thesis.

“I haven’t been able to give it as much focus as I would like to do,” said Sibley. “I find these projects really interesting so I like to kind of give it 100 percent. I tell people I like to do all things and know all things. With the lack of time, I haven’t had the opportunity to really do that. I’m looking forward to now that it’s over with my thesis, I can really focus and make this the number one priority for me.”

Sibley enjoys learning about the New Orleans community.

“It’s an important part of culture in the state of Louisiana,” said Sibley. “New Orleans is known around the world, and people’s perceptions of New Orleans is probably a bit different from what locals’ perception are. A lot of people come down to party, but as a sociologist thinking about New Orleans, I see things like the health disparity and low income families and all of that stuff, the area that is frequently flooded and has issues with job stability. Other people’s perceptions of New Orleans are it’s a party city and a place to go have fun, but it’s difficult for a lot of people living down there. Things like the Lafitte Greenway make it better.”

Gill’s role in the project has been researching vacant space and past negotiations.

“I’ve enjoyed the research ‘cause I’m fairly big on doing research,” said Gill. “It’s one of the things I like to do, which is good because I’m a research assistant for sociology. I think that’s been my favorite part. Also, I liked when we went down there, walked down the greenway and met with the people on the committee.”

Sociology graduate student Andre Colebrook shared his thoughts on the project.

“The most enjoyable part is figuring out how would it work and looking at the final product on paper and some day envisioning that it will actually happen in real life.,” said Colebrook.

Past semesters, the class has worked with the Hammond Eastside Elementary Magnet School and helping Reconnect produce their first farmers market on campus.

“It’s hard doing what we do,” said Gill. “It’s difficult, and it may not actually pan out, but it’s fun doing it. Even if something doesn’t turn out the way you want it to turn out, just know that you worked towards it. You worked towards a goal.”