Problems at Blair Grocery's farm/school follow a familiar pattern

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By Evan Casper-Futterman, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

I was saddened by Ariella Cohen’s feature on problems at Blair Grocery’s urban farm and school because, without ever setting foot on the property or meeting its leader, Nat Turner, I felt an intimate familiarity with the situation Cohen identified.

As a volunteer with another post-Katrina non-profit back in 2007, I watched it  go through the syndrome that has led Blair Grocery to its current crisis.

Step one is leadership built around charisma rather than common sense. Foundations and the media are suckers for a colorful or glamorous honcho (being a male of color helps a lot) – and along with funding come feature stories and invitations for the leader to sit on panels.

Step two is the arrival of volunteers and indentured Americorps workers. The colony (which has yet to become an organization) begins to grow.

Step three: The leader is more and more often absent, as invitations to conferences and other promotional opportunities prove more tempting than the day-to-day burden of actually running a non-profit.

Step four: The trappings of organizational capacity are established, but they are largely illusory. Money starts to go missing; funds cannot be accounted for. Programs are initiated and disbanded with few tangible results proportional to the funds received.

Step five: Disaffected volunteers and staff begin to leave. The colony falls into decay. The leader blames the staff; former staffers blame the leader. Accusations and rumors swirl, but there is rarely proof – except, as Cohen’s piece demonstrates, a lack of certifiable programming results, which speaks for itself.

On the sixth anniversary of Katrina, as a “new normal” supplants fading memories of the disaster, those of us who have seen the mistakes of inspiring but unaccountable leadership are surprised only that foundations and private donors still fail to provide the oversight that might result in their funding being put to better use. Yes, emergencies require swift action, but when the dust settles, there comes a period of reckoning in which lessons must be learned.

Three years after Katrina, when Our School at Blair Grocery set up shop, what excuse was there for the funders who so eagerly thrust money into Turner’s hands? Did they see any evidence of community support or buy-in? Or were they simply dazzled by yet another charismatic man with a missionary zeal to solve the abundant problems of a Southern city struck by disaster?

I have no reason to doubt that Turner was an excellent teacher back in New York City, a hometown we share. But as Cohen’s feature suggests, what’s really at issue are his learning skills, not his teaching skills. With the hundreds of thousands of dollars heaped upon his program, youths could have received full tutoring and mentorship, or attended a sustainable program able to deliver real results. From all appearances, the actual outcomes achieved at the Blair Grocery school might have been financed for a few thousand dollars and maybe an additional $5 in late fees owed the public library.

Perhaps Turner has learned a (very expensive) lesson. What’s dismaying is that those who funded his  ambitions don’t seem able to acknowledge their mistakes, learn from them – and start to hold project leaders more accountable for their performance.

Our progressive movements suffer from a muddled  understanding of what it means to be accountable not only to funders but to the communities in which we work.  We perpetuate and even encourage arrogance and an internalized sense of superiority that transcends skin color. A progressive movement that prizes charisma over the unglamorous work of movement building will continue to produce these frustrating and disappointing outcomes.

The irony is that, though the failure of charismatic leadership is rooted in its ignorance of the community context, all of us are collectively held accountable for these failures. They metastasize outward from one individual and a few foundation program officers to an entire community of social justice activists and advocates. Ultimately they impair the reputation of the city itself as a place where progressive work can happen. Rather than blame themselves, foundations will conclude, as have some in Congress, that New Orleans can not be trusted to execute programs responsibly.

As earnest as he is in his desire to rectify errors and regain standing as part of a movement for economic and racial justice, Turner’s mistakes likely will not stick to him. They will, however, stick to New Orleans. When he moves on to his next project here or, like the prodigal son, returns to New York City, he’ll be able to dine out on the myth of what he attempted to do with Blair Grocery. The failure  will be left behind to sink slowly into the muddy soils of the Lower 9th Ward like so many toxins released during the Great Flood.

Even Casper-Futterman, who came down from New York to do post-Katrina volunteer work, is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of New Orleans.  

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