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

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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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