Schools
 

Pioneer of urban farm and school learns lessons of his own, hopes struggles lead to success

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

It was almost time for dinner and no one had a ride home. Nat Turner unhooked a key from his belt and ordered a trio of grimy teenagers to follow him to the Volvo station wagon parked outside the Lower 9th Ward farm where they had been working all day.

“Last ride out,” he said with a stern smile.

People typically listen when Turner speaks and this was no exception.

“You know Mr. Turner is about to be on you, when you better do what he say,” remarked Aaliyah Brown, 15, a student at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School who has, on and off for the past year, attended an afterschool program at the urban farm operated by Turner.

In New Orleans, it’s a rare conversation about urban agriculture in which Turner, 39, doesn’t get mentioned. A former New York City public-school teacher with a commanding presence, Turner (who shares the name and radical spirit of a19th century slave rebellion leader) moved to New Orleans in 2008 with the ambition of building a farm that would provide job-training skills and an education for young people in the flood-obliterated Lower 9th Ward.

He bought a former corner market and added an inclusive flair to its name, creating Our School at Blair Grocery

A student who goes by Brian X is a 19-year-old high school dropout. After learning about Our School at Blair Grocery from an ad in a Black Muslim newsletter, he began working there in May. He stopped showing in July, before beginning a program of study that he hoped would end in a high school equivalancy degree. Photo by Ariella Cohen

“I want to work with young people who don’t know how to plug into the opportunity matrix,” he told Majora Carter, a MacArthur Award-winning environmental-justice activist who, last winter, featured the farm on her radio show, The Promised Land.

With uncommon speed, Turner’s dream began to be realized. During its first two years, Our School at Blair Grocery attracted hundreds of volunteers, hundreds of thousands of dollars and a small but passionate core of student workers. In 2010, the operation took in more than $500,000 in donations and grants from foundations, as well the federal government, records show. The largest grant of $299,600, more than half of which remains unspent, came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The farm earned another $75,000 selling sprouts to high-end restaurants, Turner said.

Though there are several older youth farming programs in the city, Blair Grocery quickly became a darling of the movement, attracting attention from influential organizations, such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which gave $50,000 in 2010, and The New York Times.

But media attention and money don’t guarantee a successful program. Turner, has struggled with finances, staffing, and the management of an education program that aims to connect high school dropouts with equivalency degrees.

He admits that he must shore up his operation and meet the goals he set for himself – and the promises he made to the people who gave him money and put their faith in him.

“What I learned is that it’s really, really hard to go from composting, to a conference call with a foundation to being in a classroom, teaching kids,” said Turner, who sleeps on a mattress on the second floor of the Blair building and earned a $34,000 salary in 2010, according to USDA documents. “I was hoping we would be in a position to do all that last year. We weren’t.”

“This year, he added, “we are in a better position.”

BARELY GETTING BY

Blair Grocery barely survived 2010: Money was short, he suspended the education program, his entire staff quit on him and he couldn’t say for sure how he spent $200,000 in donations.

At one point in Carter’s radio piece, listeners hear Turner admonish staff for failing to make enough money from produce sales. Pleading with his AmeriCorps-funded employees to work harder, he explains that he doesn’t have “two nickels to rub together.”

“We need $750 in the bank account to pay students by Monday,” he tells a silent staff before taking off to tour the neighborhood with Carter.

It’s difficult to understand why the federally recognized nonprofit has struggled. Financial documents submitted to the USDA show that in 2010, the program’s budget was roughly $268,000, about half of which was dedicated to paying students. Although the program’s budget is comparable to other youth farming programs, it serves fewer students on a daily basis, and last year, many attended irregularly or dropped out before the season was over.

This past winter, Turner angered his staff and a handful of dedicated students when he abruptly closed down an innovative work-study program he established as a way to help dropouts earn money while getting educational credits for a state-recognized diploma.

“I’m angry,” said Anthony Johnson, a 16-year-old who stopped attending 10th grade at George Washington Carver High School last year in order to attend the Blair Grocery program. “I dropped out of school. I put everything on the line because something was promised and then it fell apart.”

In March, the farm’s entire staff resigned after Turner rebuffed their call to restart the education program and be more open with the financial records.

“There was no transparency on where the money was going, how it was being spent or who was eligible for reimbursements,” said David Ferris, a 25-year-old AmeriCorps member who earned a $10,500-a-year government stipend to work at the nonprofit.

In May, Turner filed for an extension of the organization’s 2010 taxes because he couldn’t find records of how he had spent more than $200,000, he said.

“Now I am going back trying to redo everything,” he said earlier this year. “It’s a lot of work going through 365 days of receipts, especially on top of everything else we have going on.”

The IRS extension expired on Monday. Turner, who says he suspects one of his former staffers stole the hard drive where the nonprofit stored its financial data, is still not done. Kyle Meador, the nonprofit’s former director of educational programs, and its treasurer, according to Secretary of State records, disputes Turner’s accusation.

“There was a giant garbage bag of receipts,” Meador said. “Those were the financial records and they were there when we left.”

Complicating matters is the fact that Turner’s job includes a fair amount of travel to conferences, training sessions and volunteer recruitment opportunities. Instead of submitting receipts for reimbursement of business expenses incurred while on the road, Turner spent money directly from the nonprofit’s bank account and neglected to maintain clear records.

“Part of what I do is spread the word about what we are doing, what is possible,” Turner explained. “If you want to take a look at the kinds of things I was spending money on while doing that, I have a bag of unsorted receipts right here.”

FAST GROWTH, FEW MODELS

When Turner found the gutted former Blair Grocery on the corner of Benton and Roman streets, the street was dark. The city hadn’t repaired streetlamps. Grass was growing in place of houses, and on lots where the structures hadn’t been demolished, roofs were caving in.

These days, the lush Blair Grocery functions as a kind of urban ag-themed community center serving 5 to 50 New Orleans youth on any given day. Blair Grocery has the laid-back feel of a hippie summer camp, but instead of middle-class kids from the suburbs, the students are drawn from the blocks of modest, working-class homes that surround the school. Adding to the summer camp effect is the fact that Turner, his co-director Shawn Rob Huffman and a revolving cast of semi-permanent staff and shorter-term volunteers live dorm-style in the no-frills building that serves as the farm’s classroom, test kitchen and mess hall.

Teacher Qasim Davis, a former student of founder Nat Turner's, moved to New Orleans from New York to teach kids "who look like me" he said. The 25-year-old resigned from Our School at Old Blair Grocery because he no longer trusted the organization's direction, he said. Davis now teaches at an after-school program run by the nonprofit Rethink. Photo by Andy Cook

Work at Blair Grocery involves a mix of sweaty manual chores and more cerebral tasks intended to teach the kids about the heady, buzz-wordy topics that underlay the farm’s social-justice bent. Some days, the lesson is cooking a meal with just-picked produce and herbs. Other times, kids watch as Turner or one of his instructors don masks to tend the bees making honey in an apiary nestled behind neatly planted rows of lettuce.

On a recent Thursday in a kitchen overlooking piles of fresh compost, DeRonta Laugand experimented with a pasta recipe incorporating herbs from the farm. A senior at O. Perry Walker High School, Laugand is one of 35 youths working at Blair Grocery for the summer.

“I just stumbled on this place. There were kids cooking so I went in,” Laugand said.  “I was hesitant at first, but I’ve been coming back ever since. If I wasn’t here, all I’d be doing is probably watching TV or getting into trouble.”

The program’s structure is simple enough: participants between the ages of 13 and 18 earn $50 in cash for eight hours of work at the farm. Students must show up for scheduled shifts to get paid, though cash-flow problems mean that sometimes they have to wait on a week’s pay. On one Tuesday in May, a student asked Turner for the prior week’s pay. Turner said he didn’t have the money on him, and he asked the Lower 9th Ward high schooler if he could survive without it another day or two.

“We’ll get to the ATM and run it by your house later on,” he promised.

The use of cash reflects organizational differences between Blair Grocery and other programs that offer similar activities within more established institutional frames. Johanna Gilligan runs Grow Dat Youth Farm, a project of Tulane University City Center, the New Orleans Food and Farm Network and City Park. Now entering its second year, Grow Dat pays its 20 student farmers on the same day every month with a tax-deducted paycheck, Gilligan said. Unlike Our School, where it is common for a student to disappear for a while and then return to the program, Grow Data participants lose their position if they repeatedly fail to follow attendance policies.

“It has to feel like a job to prepare them for jobs down the road,” explained Jabari Brown, 23, the AmeriCorps-funded teacher who leads Grow Dat’s 19-week afterschool program.

Though loath to conform to a model that anyone could confuse with corporate, Turner has come to see the need for better financial controls and management. This year, he plans to uphold a stricter attendance policy, though, he explains, that is difficult and requires some lenience because many of his students lack consistent access to transportation. Paying the kids in cash, however, he said, makes life easier for them because there are no banks in the Lower 9th Ward and many do not have access to financial institutions.

“These are the facts of the world our kids live in,” he said.

Concerns from a friend who is volunteering help in  accounting, however, may force him to make a change.

“The accountant really doesn’t like the way we’ve been doing it,” he said.

One possible solution, he said, is paying the kids with reloadable Wal-Mart money cards that don’t require access to a bank but would leave an accounting trail.

CAN A FARM BE A SCHOOL TOO?

The school for high-school dropouts Turner started within Blair Grocery is the only one of its kind in the city and other examples are rare. While programs such as Growing Power in Milwaukee and Added Value in Brooklyn offer young people who have left high school informal tutoring and support for the GED, they do not call themselves schools or represent themselves as academic centers.

“The school component is where Turner has put that intersection of school justice and food justice,” said Erika Allen, director of a commercial urban agriculture training program run by Growing Power. That nationally renowned urban agriculture nonprofit is credited with developing the prototype for urban agriculture programs such as Our School at Blair Grocery.

Students have no excuse to say they don't know the rules of the school, which are prominently posted on a piece of plywood. Photo by Ariella Cohen

Turner’s program began as a simple idea: Provide young people for whom traditional schooling hasn’t worked with an alternative to court-mandated GED courses, or the streets. In 2010, Turner and three young employees he enlisted through AmeriCorps told potential students that if they enrolled in the education program at Blair Grocery, they could eventually be eligible to receive a high school equivalency diploma recognized by the state of Louisiana and its colleges.

That is possible through a 2010 state law giving the same weight to degrees from approved state-certified home-schooling programs as diplomas from private schools. The law establishes few guidelines beyond a general provision demanding that the curriculum’s “quality at least equal to that offered by public schools at the same grade level.”

To become a certified home-schooling program, Blair Grocery would have to apply for approval by the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Though Blair Grocery likely doesn’t resemble the home schools envisioned by Walsworth, a conservative Republican, it would likely meet the criteria established by his law as long as a portfolio showing student progress was submitted to BESE annually.

Through relationships with individual schools and the juvenile justice system, Blair Grocery recruited about a dozen students to learn literacy, math and business skills through growing, and marketing and selling produce.

By last winter, the mismatch was clear. All of the students had spent time in jail, Turner said. The AmeriCorps-supplied staff was new to New Orleans, under 30 and had little prior formal teaching experience. The staff couldn’t handle the students. Turner canceled the program before a curriculum was even submitted for the BESE approval it would need for any students to be recognized as graduates.

Marquelle Taylor attended a summer program at Blair Grocery. Now she is considering a career as a vet, she said. Photo by Ariella Cohen

“Our students wanted to be in school, they were supposed to be in school and in some cases, they were mandated to be in school,” Cory Ashby, 23, a former instructor said. “They needed and deserved committed teachers and mentors. We couldn’t provide that in a stable way.

“OSBG’s mission was to create a resource-rich safe space. It was never as resource rich as it should have been. We weren’t adequately prepared to provide those resources,” Ashby added.

Turner agrees with his former staffers and said that is why he stopped the school program.

“We were driving to the kids, picking them up and giving a few hours of instruction,” he said. “They needed much more.”

As the movement for non-school education options grows, charter schools are also getting into the action – and building accredited programs that are a hybrid of Blair Grocery and schools like it, and a typical public school. This fall, a high school program for hard-to-reach students opened at Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School in Treme, run by FirstLine, a local charter-school-management organization.

Known as The NET, the ungraded year-round school offers an alternative to dropping out for students who were struggling in traditional schools, said Jay Altman, founder and CEO of FirstLine.

Like Blair Grocery and other home-school programs, The NET focuses on learning through experience and gives students the freedom to individualize their course of study.

“The difficult part,” Altman said, “is that at some point you have to be results-based. Are there measurable outcomes? Are there the resources to reach those outcomes?”

Turner plans to restart his education program in October. Giving him the confidence to try again is his new teaching team, a trio of young men he recruited to New Orleans through Growing Power or his own personal network. (One of the three, a recent art school graduate, got to know Turner as his high school pupil in New York City.) While none of the new employees has much familiarity with the city, their experiences working with urban youth in Milwaukee and New York make them more prepared than his previous staff, Turner said.

“They know more. They are more comfortable,” he said, adding that the staff learned how to teach as a group this summer, working with the cadre of 35 participants provided by the city’s JOB1 summer job program. “Now we have a curriculum, and lesson plans are in the computer. The teachers are better teachers, and I’ll be doing more professional leadership.”

Turner, however, again will be balancing his duties as a fund-raiser and financial manager with those of a school leader and live-in counselor. No one on the staff has experience in business or finance, and Turner has not hired an accountant or bookkeeper. Instead he’s relying on volunteers to help him.

“All that fun stuff will still be mine to do,” he said ruefully.

New Orleans social worker Darrin McCall says that without more structure for students, Turner’s program is likely to continue to struggle.

“There will always be those few kids who stand out and succeed whether they have structure or not, but for a lot of kids, there is no structure at home and a clear set of expectations really benefits them,” said McCall, who works with New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth, a tutoring program.

LOFTY GOALS, AND A STEEP LEARNING CURVE

Turner’s experience, particular as it may be, provides a valuable window into the world of challenges that face urban agriculture start-ups as they move out of their seedling phase and enter a reality where the people in charge often lack business backgrounds, and egos sometimes grow faster than the crops.

In New Orleans, the urban farming movement has grown into a burgeoning micro-economy — a revenue-generating loop of farmers, buyers and eager students, many of who are paid to work on farms through grants from foundations or the government.  These grants play a critical role in cities like New Orleans where the market for fresh, local produce is not yet large enough to sustain the farms that grow it.

During the past six years, the Greater New Orleans Foundation has given at least $143,000 to urban agriculture programs, records show. If current trends continue, money will continue to flow, said Ryan Albright, metropolitan program officer for the foundation.

“Foundations are taking a more holistic approach to urban problems, and a lot of urban issues stem from a lack of fresh food,” Albright said.

Yet with such lofty social-justice goals, it is very difficult to quantify success, and in a new field like urban agriculture, there are few measures of accountability to make sure that programs are accomplishing what they set out to do.

“Everyone is pretty new at this. There are very few models that have been tested and there is a real need for mentorship,” said Allen.

Turner, who, along with several of his present and former staffers participated in Growing Power’s training program, counts the Milwaukee-based organization’s founding CEO Will Allen – Erika’s father – as an important ally.

The growing pains at Blair Grocery, Erika Allen said, may trace back to the one element that also defines its charm — the summer camp ambience.

“He has way too many volunteers hanging out there,” she said. “There is something really beneficial to provide a space for collegiate white kids to come in and have a space, but there must be a balance between that and a distinct leadership.”

She said her father came to New Orleans for a visit and “was impressed but saw a need for mentorship.”

FREEDOM COMES WITH CHALLENGES

Johnson, the 16-year-old who is angry with Turner, talks about the drama of the past year at Blair Grocery in terms of betrayal typically used by teenagers after a hard breakup.

“I never thought I would stop being part of OSBG,” he said. “For a few weeks after it ended, I would wake up and put on my clothes and then I would think, ‘Oh, I am not going there.’ It was hard to get out of bed at first.”

It’s difficult to imagine the bookish boy with a fondness for vampire novels as a troublemaker, but that is exactly what he was, he said, before stumbling into the farm. He left George Washington Carver High School last winter after a teacher cursed at him and threatened to hit him, he said.

“Before in school, it was like if you didn’t play football you didn’t have a voice, you didn’t matter. Teachers didn’t like me. I would always be getting into trouble for stupid stuff,” Johnson said. “Walking into the gate at OSBG, it was different, different than anything I had ever seen. They put us in the shoes where we could become leaders and all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Yeah, college. I can do that. I can self-educate.'”

Anthony Johnson, 16, dropped out of the 10th grade to attend Our School at Blair Grocery. He was crushed when the school closed but says that after his experience there, his education has never meant more. Photo by Andy Cook

Johnson has continued to learn according to the experiential model he discovered at Blair Grocery. Earlier this month, the would-be 11th grader traveled to Washington, D.C., with a former Blair Grocery teacher, Qasim Davis, 25.

Johnson and Davis participated in a Save Our Schools march and a conference at American University. Johnson, who would be the first person in his family to graduate from college, spoke on a panel at the university about empowering students. Since returning, he has kept busy working on a greenhouse he is erecting in front of his Lower 9th Ward house.

“I have more opportunities than I’ve ever had,” Johnson said, “and I’ve never wanted education in my life as much as I do now.”

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  • Kyle Meador

    I was added to this organization’s Board of Directors as registered with the Secretary of State as Treasurer without my knowledge or approval and in violation of the organization’s bylaws. Upon learning of this in the days leading up to our collective resignation in April I promply notified both Mr. Turner AND the office of the Secretary of State to ask that my name be removed from any association with the organization. This was all told to the reporter and can be verified by email records. This is but one of the several discrepancies in what and how this story is presented.

  • sholtry

    so wait … Mr. Turner doesn’t know where more than $200,000 went, the kids he was supposed to help left his program because they weren’t getting anything out of it, and his staff left because they didn’t trust him?

    i’m confused. where did the money go? what happened to these teenagers?

    and why are we supposed to trust him?

  • J. Longwell

    This is the same guy (Turner) who was booted out of New York City’s Beacon School for providing illegal field trips to Cuba, and otherwise indoctrinating his students into communist ideology.

    I know that comment makes me sound like some crazy conservative, but it’s true, he admitted to it, and was fired. So..yeah, weird guy, that one.

  • Kyle Meador

    i should also mention that Qasim, myself and other former staff of this organization remain in close contact with all of the students even after leaving the organization. We are continuing to provide homeschool education (without any money) to Anthony and hope to expand to be able to serve more students. http://www.liberationacademy.blogspot.com

  • Kyle Meador

    Only 2 of the 6 former staff + 3 interns who walked away were funded by Americorps. 1 was to be paid for the year through the grant from USDA, but the money disapeared… The rest of us went unpaid because we believed in the mission that guided our work…even while skeptisism of our leadership grew. Not all of the students had been in jail. At most, the school served 6 students. Turner did not “cancel” the education program. Rather, he pushed away all of the students in order to bring in out of town volunteers who he said “bring money and do work”. The former staff had worked hard to develop meaningful relationships with these students providing the foundation for powerful learning experiences to occur. The former staff was and is incredibly competent with years of experience working with youth in a variety of contexts including but not limited to formal classroom teaching and experience in school development. Resources were never dedicated to teaching at learning. The framing of the article, and the chosen quotes from Turner allowed him to continue the slander of all of the former staff who had the courage to stand up to his wrongdoing. This has been his strategy for diverting the attention and responsibility away from himself since before we all left. Where did all that money go?

  • John Huggings

    Turner was not fired from the Beacon School he resigned from the position after deciding to start his work in New Orleans, and whoever you are indoctrination? why is that when american history is taught for 4 years of high school that is not seen as indoctrination, but when a black man decides to teach alternative curriculum and have strong view of it then we start to label it as indoctrination. in response to this article shit happens, movements fracture, thats the genealogy of movements and to believe otherwise means you’re living in the fantasy land of utopia. i think instead of responding to this people should just handle their business and continue their work with the youth of the lowa nine; leave the bickering to jon stewart and bill o reilly.

  • Phil Bildner

    It’s very interesting listening to former Beacon High School kids speak about Turner. While students, they were enthralled. But now, well, with hindsight and age comes wisdom. It’s hard to see the picture when you’re in the frame.

  • Carlos Salazar

    Seems like investigative journalism is anyone’s label now since all you need is a wordpress blog and someone willing to write anything on the net. This guy is crooked. The writer seems to ignore plenty of facts. This isn’t investigative journalism but just lazy journalism.

  • J.A.P.

    This is the only article I’ve found that discusses the total lack of accountability of Turner and his organization (if it can be called that). How can this organization get hundreds of thousands of dollars with absolutely no accountability, no accountant, a garbage bag of unsorted receipts while well-organized, accountable local organizations struggle constantly for grants in the tens of thousands? This makes no sense to me. $200K missing? Should this man not be audited, charged, and tried? Not to mention that he encouraged a young high school student I know closely back in 2008 to quit his very good high school in NYC (he was a native New Orleanian displaced after Katrina) in order to come down and join this program. Is that really in the interest of the student? Really?

  • J. Longwell

    @John: Did you really just pull out “but when a black man…” as an argument? I do not care what race Mr. Turner is, and he “left” beacon the same way Nixon “left” the Oval Office. Sending kids (illegally) to Cuba can’t really be compared to learning about Spanish American War in a classroom. There’s a difference between teaching something one hour a day and bringing kids with you somewhere for 24/7 booot camp.

    if you want to think there’s some white capitalist conspiracy against the guy, go ahead, but that’s not what I was saying. I jut think he’s a crap teacher.

  • John Huggings

    Uh you must be a white guy or just too dumb to understand the social phenomena that are occurring around you to not understand what i just said Mr. Longwell. Illegally? Why don’t you ask yourself why it is illegal, ever heard of the Bay of Pigs, or for that matter the Cuban revolution? Maybe you have, maybe you also understand that anyone that fucks with America is a threat and is sanctioned or overthrown with a coup, so why don’t you look at why it’s illegal before you speak. Additionally all the students that went with him knew what they were doing, they could have said no or turned the man in… i wonder why they didn’t. Oh that’s right he put a gun to their head and told them Cuba or bust. You’re the kind of person that wakes up in the morning opens their New York Times and sips on their free trade coffee as if shit is all great and dandy in the world. And sending kids to Cuba can’t be compared to learning about it in a classroom? What are you a Nazi informant for the DOE? Experience trumps all fucking textbook knowledge, under your logic kids also shouldn’t go to Gettysburg to understand how the civil war worked. So Mr. Longwell i suggest you sit back and reflect on your many years of experience and think why do i say the things i say which make no sense, unless of course that gated community in your mind doesn’t like negroes. And yes it is the fucking black card cause you’re talking about a person who identifies as a black man and most of the world would see him that way. LIKE I SAID BEFORE, the man fucked up , maybe this is therapy to a lot of people if so good for you, but please just stfu and feed an starving African or something like more work needs to be done.

  • Kyle Meador

    We’re not talking about Cuba here. We’re talking about a man who has profited (and continues to profit) off of the disaster and poverty of New Orleans at the expense of kids. Let’s forget about the Cuba trips for a moment and concentrate on what’s happening right now. Mr. Turner is a poverty pimp coming into a poor community not his own and playing at being the savior to folks. He expects these folks to be grateful and happy and do all that is recommended. Poverty pimps do this in place of supporting real community organizing of the people who live in these communities to solve their own issues. Poverty pimps then directly benefit financially from pretending at saving people and communities. To be raising this issue as a concern is completely justified if you care to stop more young people from being manipulated for his personal gain. Its not something to just leave alone, ignore or stfu about. Yes, he did fuck up. Lets play the “black card” then. At whose expense was (and is) his fuck up. At the expense of a black community, and of black youth.

  • Amy

    I am astounded that the author points out serious allegations against Mr. Turner – not paying the youth for their work, missing money; yet breezes over them as struggles of a growing nonprofit. These are signs of theft, not grassroots organizing. Mr. Turner’s greatest strength seems to be manipulating lazy journalist and foundations who are willing to believe the kids are the problem, not him. I have heard about Kyle’s experience with the school, which is shameful and should be investigated. I am a parent of a child who came in contact with Turner and while it is a private matter, I will confirm that this man is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is using this personae to manipulate and take advantage of young, struggling people, and he is apparently stealing money. It is even more disgusting to me that someone would move to New Orleans in order to take advantage of a traumatized neighborhood. New Orleaneans need to run him out of town. I have also tried to get the word out on Turner, but most press on him seems to be his own releases that journalists just reprint, glorifying his work in such a devastated area with no area for comments. There are plenty of people doing excellent work, rooted in the community, who would never think of harming the children they serve. This man is sick, believe me. I don’t know how we can get rid of this guy, but I advise anyone who has concern to alert the foundations that fund him first. No foundation wants to fund questionable organizations. Given that all this money has disappeared already, I doubt funding will continue.
    Good for you, Kyle, for being brave enough to stand up against this. I heard what happened to you and am so sorry. Keep your head up and take this as a lesson in human character – the lesson being that you are of strong character.

  • Kyle Meador

    @Amy – Thank you! None of us could have done it with the collective support we got from each other and our students in making the tough decision to walk away from the project we had given so much of our selves to.

  • Susannah

    @Kyle- Turner did not “illegally take kids to Cuba.” Every child had parental permission, and there were numerous parental chaperones on the trip as well. The school system on NYC did not approve, and therefore his dismissal. You should at least listen to Majora Carter interview him on NPR before you jump to conclusions.

  • Kyle Meador

    @Susannah – Yes, I know this very well. I did not say that Turner “illigaly took kids to Cuba” and in fact don’t personally disaprove of the Cuba trips at all which is why I suggested that others not even bring it into the conversation because what is really relevant is what is happening now. And yes, I also know the Majora Carter interview very well too. I was the one arguing that we need to put the needs of the young people we had commited to working with first and foremost, and not spend every waking minute focusing on bringing in money. Its unfortunate because at the end of the Majroa Carter interview she stated that she had attempted to contact the former staff but was not successful. The unfortunate part is that none of us recieved a phone call or email.

    I believed strongly in Turner and the project when I first met him, and for a while afterwards. Unfortately, things changed…he has either hidden his true motives and intentions very well all along, or changed as time went on, or we all just really wanted to beleive that it was going to get better; or more likely a some sort of blend of all three…

  • Jason Lacoste

    Our School at Blair Grocery offers a great idea at the right place, at the right time. Food justice issues in the 9th ward and surrounding area have never needed more attention.

    That said, and giving whatever due respect for opening OSBG, I will admit that my dealings with Turner have thus far not been exactly pleasant.

    Earlier this year, OSBG put out a call for donated vehicles on their blog. I inherited a car a few months ago and decided to offer mine up for what seems like a good cause. The process of donating a car to them was laborious and deeply unsatisfying. It was put to me to research and gather the necessary documents, organize a notarization, and they still have yet to register the vehicle (making me wonder if it’s doomed to rust on the street).

    I have only met Turner once (Usually, my dealings are with Rob, his #2), and he seemed like an intelligent, driven man. However, my personal focus is democratic education, and he had very little interest in that conversation.

    Further, I was put off by certain peculiarities. On two occasions they asked me to send a text an hour before our scheduled meeting, “so [they] dont forget.” I thought this was a bit unprofessional.

    Also, I once asked where all the kids were. Apparently, they were having trouble getting students to do any work in the garden, saying some of the kids would come and do nothing yet still want to be paid. Of course, I don’t know what really happened. I considered offering advice about encouraging student interest through systems of empowerment besides money, but decided against it.

    Summarily, I do frankly hope OSBG succeeds in a way that is transparent, professional, and beneficial to the community. I’m not close enough to have a solid opinion of the operation or the leadership there. I do know it’ll be a while before I reach out to them again.

  • J.A.P.

    While I appreciate the opinions that the mission of the Blair Grocery is a good one, please do not disregard the feedback of people in these comments who have actually had personal experience with Turner, with his students and potential students, and Blair Grocery. This organizaton IS Turner – there is not much more to it at this point – and he is at the least an irresponsible leader with little or no board of directors. From all experiential accounts, he is more dangerous than just that.

  • anonymous

    I’m going to simply say, that I’ve personally been down to OSBG from Colorado. I worked directly on the farm for a week and it was an experience like I’ve never had before. I very positive experience! Working with these kids was beautiful, rewarding and a little crazy at times. To me, it seems that Turner needs to look for some guidance and get things back in line with his true objectives for the school. I believe there is truly great potential as the Lower 9th Ward is in much need of assistance all around.

  • John Huggings

    I see no difference between white liberals and poverty pimps, both are in a position of privilege that exploits the black community in some way. Any movement with a white head at the forefront ,or tries to pretend that they are not controlling, is an attempt to tokenize black bodies and somehow maintain the dominant status quo. How? Because neither of these agents are seeking to destroy the racial antagonisms present in civil society. This forum is saturated with haterade, and false assumptions of how to destroy the inequality imposed upon black people. The only alternative I see arising out of this situation is another school that really has no foundation besides some powerfully empty rhetoric that relies on old models of “proletariat” revolution which seek to unite the working classes in an attempt to overthrow the capitalist system. I could be completely off, but I would say from what i see thats not the case. This ruse of multiculturalism is the largest bulwark in the struggle for liberation of Lowa Nine Youth, cause it ignores a genealogy of racial subjugation in which the black is foundational to the sustenance of the world. Long story short, white people leave New Orleans, and haters fall back.

  • Amy

    It is shocking that these comments don’t seem to be focused on the real threats here. Discussions of Cuba,race and the program model are red herrings and irrelevant. And it is lovely that people who know nothing of New Orleans can have a rich 1 week volunteer experience, but in no way does that negate local kids being used as props and patsies for Turner’s financial gain. Turner is misappropriating large amounts of money and taking advantage of the youth that come to him for an education and job. PERIOD. Whatever his theory, whatever his words to the outer public, his actions are abusive to the youth he pretends to help. Whatever you think about Cuba- like Kyle, I have no problem with his Cuba work- That is irrelevant. Sadly, what we are dealing with here is a very smart man who sees a good mark- A historically neglected and recently devastated community, desperate for ANYONE to open a damn school. He has made money, taken advantage of youth and no one cares, as is evident from the comments above.

  • Kate

    It pains me to see what a scam this man is running. I worked with him at RUBARB in early 2008, right after he arrived in New Orleans. I found him a sexist and judgmental person who was grasping at straws to what he was doing in New Orleans (at that point he had just shown up with a school bus, and wanted to run volunteer work btwn NY and NOLA). He is a con man through and through and seems to have conned himself into thinking he is doing good.

  • JAP

    A man who claims to be helping students who have dropped out of high school but is actually encouraging successful students in good high schools (this is not a rumor, as you’d realize if you talked to enough local people who have worked with Turner) to drop out in order to join his school is NOT righteous. Yes, that IS a con, no matter what good experiences others had for brief periods of time with Turner. Then there’s the MISSING $200K!!! I have worked (and still do) for small nonprofits in N.O. We are putting in many many hours with very little financial resources. A $200K grant for us would be massively transformative and I promise you every organization I have worked with could track and account for what they’d spend it on. That is an amazing amount of money for a small nonprofit and Turner’s irresponsibility is unconsciounable and EXTREMELY discouraging to those of us working long hours with very little money!