The New York Times
By CHARLES WILSON
NEW ORLEANS — For an embattled former New York public school teacher and six young African-American men, a wrecked grocery store here has become a place of second chances.
Five years after the levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward remains largely a place where time has stood still. Lots where shotgun houses once stood are empty and overgrown with tall grasses. Gutted homes with smashed windows list to one side.
Nat Turner, a former history teacher at the Beacon School in Manhattan, arrived here two years ago. He soon became a familiar and curious sight, driving a blue biodiesel-powered school bus emblazoned with the logo “NY2NO”— for “New York to New Orleans” — and offering his tutoring services in the bus for free.
At his new farm of less than an acre on the corner of Benton and Roman Streets, he spoke recently of the reasons that brought him here. “Louisiana has a 63 percent high school graduation rate,” Mr. Turner said. “It has roughly a 60 percent adult literacy rate. We know that wealthy white people Uptown can read, right? But no one really cares if the public school system works because rich people’s kids are going to private schools.”
Mr. Turner, 39, is the founder of Our School at Blair Grocery, a fledgling educational venture and commercial urban farm in the heart of the Lower Ninth Ward. Operating out of a former black-owned grocery store wrecked by 14 feet of water and on two empty lots, the enterprise is an unusual hybrid of G.E.D. training and farm academy. With its emphasis on experiential learning, the school is also a clear rejection of the test-heavy emphasis of No Child Left Behind.
Mr. Turner, who shares a name and iconoclastic spirit with the 19th-century slave rebellion leader, left the public school system in the midst of controversy. He resigned his position of six years at the Beacon School in August 2008. At the time, the New York City Department of Education was investigating an independent spring-break field trip he took with students to Cuba.
Though parents had approved the trip, it was not sanctioned by the Beacon administration. In the report on the incident, published this year, Mr. Turner is portrayed as a Castro sympathizer. Beacon’s principal quotes Mr. Turner as telling her, “I’m a Communist.”
Mr. Turner dismisses the report, for which he did not cooperate, as inaccurate and an oversimplification of his views on the Cuban government.
“You know the famous quote?” he said. “ ‘When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a Communist.’ ”
In New Orleans, Mr. Turner has had to fight a different label: carpetbagger. A neighbor once reported him for keeping too many chickens. Young men from the neighborhood have charged their bikes through his planting beds or cut his seed bags and dumped them on the sidewalk.
Pam Broom, the executive director of the New Orleans-based Women and Agriculture Network, said that when Mr. Turner spoke about the Lower Ninth Ward, he “projected this Northern arrogance about how he was doing what others had failed to do. That doesn’t sit right with people.”
Yet as the Blair Grocery project has grown over the past two years, Mr. Turner has won over some of his former detractors. “He’s gaining respect because he’s being productive,” Ms. Broom said.
Our School at Blair Grocery has six students, all of them young men from the area who had left or dropped out of their public high schools. With the support of volunteers, interns, visiting students and 17 local youths in an after-school program — as well as a staff of seven from as far away as Berkeley, Calif. — the students grow $2,500 worth of vegetables weekly. They sell the produce at a Sunday farmers’ market on site (at a discount) and at two dozen high-end restaurants in the New Orleans area (at a premium).
The project is a test as to whether agriculture can be an effective tool of self-empowerment for black youths. An October 2010 report by the Council of the Great City Schools suggest that the reforms of No Child Left Behind have failed to enhance the performance of black males, who continue to perform lower than their peers nationally on almost every major indicator. This disparity is especially stark in New Orleans, which is deeply segregated and has one of the highest murder rates in the country. The average 16-year-old sent to a juvenile justice facility in Louisiana reads on a fifth-grade level.
“The Blair Grocery idea is to stabilize students’ lives by providing them a safe place to be and a community to do good work,” says Brian Dassler, the principal of the KIPP Renaissance School in the nearby Upper Ninth Ward, who has students who participate in the project.
The farming part of the school’s curriculum includes up to eight hours of minimum-wage work a week. Using intensive growing techniques Mr. Turner and his staff learned from Will Allen, an urban farmer in Milwaukee, the students turn food waste into compost; raise worms to make organic fertilizer; and grow, among other things, root vegetables, herbs, okra and sprouts. They also market and deliver their handiwork to restaurants, most of them located in the French Quarter and Uptown.
Jimmy Corwell, the master chef at the French-inspired restaurant Le Foret, said roughly half of every plate he served was now made up of food from Blair Grocery. When the students deliver their produce, he said, it also provides lessons in accounting and customer relations.
“These Ninth Ward kids come in, and I say I need a quarter-pound of mustard greens at $1.50 an ounce,” Mr. Corwell said. “They work the fractions and make up the invoice.”
Much of the academic program — besides direct tutoring for the G.E.D. — also takes place outside the classroom. Qasim Davis, who left Harlem to become the school’s dean of students, is shaping a set of courses with the other staff that is Afrocentric and free-form.
“Learning doesn’t happen behind walls,” Mr. Davis said.
When the students studied the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson segregation case, the class drove to where Homer Plessy was pulled off the whites-only section of a first-class train car in 1892.
A current events class in early November took the students to a blighted house near the St. Claude Avenue Bridge where days before a teenage woman had been raped. Outside, the young men read news articles about the case and engaged in a conversation about misogyny and violence against women.
It remains an open question to what degree the Blair Grocery project can stabilize the students’ lives. Most of the young men at the school come from backgrounds of entrenched poverty, crime or dysfunctional family life. The only classroom has a bare concrete floor and an upside-down map of the world on the wall, the curriculum is still a work in progress, and the school is not accredited. Even with six students, the director of educational programs, Kyle Meador, said, “It’s not uncommon that we appear in court with them.”
Yet there are reasons to hope for the success of the project — not least because the young people consistently show up. Josh Jones, a soft-spoken student who is a talented tattoo artist, designed the school’s logo: a black-power fist clutching a tender sprig. He said growing and selling food had given him an improved sense of self-dependence. Mr. Jones dropped out of his former public school; he felt his classes before focused only on the state standards’ tests, and he felt no connection to the material.
“They put the people out who have the low grades on the tests just to maintain the high-grade look,” Mr. Jones said. “Here, we all share and learn from each other.”
This year, Mr. Turner intends to reopen the grocery store and to build relationships with other area farmers to secure more fresh food to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward. The school’s work has received support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and last fall the federal Department of Agriculture awarded a Community Foods Project Grant that will provide $300,000 over three years.
Mr. Turner has larger hopes of bringing more jobs to the neighborhood through expanding the work of the school. Driving in his pickup down North Claiborne Avenue near the school one late afternoon, he spotted a group of older men sitting in a circle by the edge of the road, drinking beer. “All those dudes can roof houses, they can sheetrock, they can do plumbing, they can do stuff,” Mr. Turner said. “And I’m not in a position where I can hire them. Yet.”