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

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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  • Dar Wolnik

    The days and weeks and months after Katrina were…complicated, chaotic and wild. Anything went and funders were throwing large amounts of money at people, yes often without the requisite reporting or even a sense of what was possible. The alternative food system was rife with this type of easy money, as were other sectors like housing and education of course. What is the best news for 2011 is that a few new groups have stuck it out and emerged to stand beside the standard-bearers at marketumbrella.org. The entire explosion of healthy food in this region is a triumph of creativity and deep humanity.
    Well done piece originally and this opinion is also thoughtful and balanced.

  • Dan

    Having worked in small and large non-profits, start-ups and established organizations, I have seen this same thing in the entire of our society, not simply progressive movements. Other non-profits, even (and perhaps especially) those run by white people in powerful positions raked in abundant Katrina money and spent it without any real semblance of accountability. Even when the money was accounted for, it was still wasted wholesale on out of town volunteers and program excesses. And even at well established non-profits, who treated the money not as a temporary infusion but some sort of birthright.

    As a progressive movement it would probably be better to do the serious work not only of movement building but also of good governance. None can wield money as quickly and power as decisively as the feds.

    While there are myriad problems with that, it would be refreshing to see a higher tax rate that consistently funded community projects instead of the activist cause de jour. And to do so requires many more FEMA, HUD, EPA and DOJ employees than we currently have. It especially requires that they have the time to do their jobs and are not simply overrun every time a crisis hits.

    The truth is, good and effective democracy is never sexy and easily pilloried.

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  • Mac

    “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.”

    Really? I mean, really??!? So it’s the donors’ fault? How disingenuous.

  • Donovon Ceaser

    I felt this piece was exactly what the author wrote, that he has never actually step foot at Blair Grocery.

    I studied the school for 6 months last year, and identified many elements of the school that were working very well.

    However, you are right that funding concerns, concerns around crime, and conflicts between leaders and teachers led to the staff walking out. These are serious concerns that would make any organization unstable.

    Also, i have yet to hear that Turner is packing up and leaving town. I haven’t heard from any of them in a month or so, but that doesn’t really sound like Turner’s mentality.

  • What about Step 0: Someone decides from miles away that he will come to town and ‘help’ the natives who are in trouble. Could that be a factor in the failure of these organizations to gain traction?

    It’s what republicans hate most about the left: the well meaning but ultimately patronizing and self-aggrandizing authority you bestow upon yourself when you decide you can solve a problem that you don’t play a direct part in.

    What do you mean by “movement building”? Grassroots movement building should start with the question: what are the problems that are effecting me directly? Or what problems am I contributing to unwillingly? We need to stop traveling past our block, our own selves to look for problems that need solving. Neither suffering nor celebration are unique to one race, class, gender or education level. There are problems at every level of society. If we can succeed in creating flourishing communities for ourselves, then maybe we can serve as a useful example for other communities and neighborhoods that have their own unique problems.

  • Jane

    What is truly sad is that many hard-working, less glamorous organizations in the city are running adult literacy programs for far, far less than the Blair’s Grocery project. And they account for their funds! Think what they could do with real funding. I am thinking of the YMCA’s literacy program, Delgado’s adult learning program and job training, Associated Catholic Charities, and many others who don’t have “pizzazz” but who work hard for the youth and adults in their care.

  • Marcello

    What an incredible tour de force by Mr. Casper-Futterman, whose background as both a New Yorker and a volunteer clearly make him the unimpeachable arbiter of both the decision-making processes of funders and of the recipients of latters’ largesse. Managing to blend condescesion with breathtaking ignorance (he admits to having no knowledge of Our School at Blair Grocery) and implicit racism (what a tidy little description of Nat Turner as a “glamorous honcho … male of color”), the author of this shoddy little commentary personifies the very hubris he condemns in others. Surely The Lens can do better than to subject its readers to such mean-spirited and uninformed drivel. A little less bile and a lot more substance would be greatly appreciated in future.

  • Pam

    Regarding the entire situation:”Excuses are the refuge of the defeated.”

  • Amy

    I have worked in non-profits for 15 years, in many roles, starting with Americorp volunteer through consultant. I have to agree with Jane- dishonest financial practices and failing programs are not the norm of small programs that run on 20k grants, for example. This is a nonprofit only in the most shallow sense. It is Nat Turner posing as a whole organization. Turner received a $200,000 grant. Think about what could be done in New Orleans with $200K. How many people could an organization with basically no overhead serve with so much money? He serves at most 5-6 kids. Blaming the foundations, or the nature of nonprofits is an injustice to all the honest people who are dedicating their lives to uplifting the city and the 9th Ward in particular.

    I am a parent of one of those “rumors with no proof”. I choose not to share our story publicly out of respect for my child. I am fine with not offering proof publicly. This isn’t about gossiping. This is about people who have been gamed by Turner reaching out to tell their story in order to build our voice. I have contacted WK Kellogg Foundation and told them our story and told them of the other questionable actions Turner has exhibited that they may not have heard about being so far away. I doubt he will receive a grant from them again.
    There is most definitely public proof that he put one of the youths as treasurer of his BOD without the youth’s knowledge. This is a serious action considering this $200k is now unaccounted for and a BOD Treasurer would be the first person held legally responsible. Turner premeditated to make an underage person legally responsible if the foundation’s finances were ever called into question without this youth’s knowledge.
    Individuals who commit crimes under the guise of nonprofits should not be grouped with the NPO community. The future I predict for Turner is funding will dry up, considering how he has mismanaged this enormous grant, word among local youth will spread and he will find it harder to keep the paltry 5-6 kids he can coerce, and the organization will fold. He will then move to another disenfranchised community that the broader public doesn’t care about, mythologizing his work in New Orleans and start the con again. That’s the way con men work.

  • Kyle Meador

    @Amy. Thank you, and yes, I absolutely agree that blaiming the foundations and/or the nature of nonprofits is an injustice. There are many people and organizations doing good work that is not mired by this level of corruption.

    The only thing I would correct in your comment though is that the treasurer (me) was added to the organization’s board of directors without knowledge or permission, however, I am not a youth. I am 30 years old with more than 10 years of professional experience in a variety of non-profit organizations, public schools, universities, etc. as a youth/family advocate, public school teacher, program manager, professional development provider and more.

    Yes, I do believe without a doubt that the act of listing me as the treasurer was definitely a premeditated attempt to cover his own self interest, and probably to silence me.

    I was drawn to the project based on its mission/vision and Turner’s energy and charisma, and the incredible potential the project had to make a substantial difference in the community. I left a $60,000/year job to lead the development of the school’s education programs and to provide support to the volunteer teaching staff. I chose to do this work for no pay with hopes (and promises) that once we got the school fully up and running, I would be able to recieve some sort of compensation. My wife also dedicated herself full time to the development of the project – specifically, the profitable sprouts/microgreens business – for no pay. We believed in the work. Over time it became more and more clear to me (and the rest of us–especially the students) that there was never any real intention on Turner’s part to fully develop a school. Time and time again, he would cancel school and not allow the students to be there it what is, according to the organization’s mission “a resource rich safe space for youth empowerment”. Resources were never dedicated to teaching and learning nor to providing our students with the support they need to be successful. Students were merely there to be tokenized.

    Myself and others (including students) attempted to change what was going on as long as we could in order to try to create what we believed the organization could become but were always met with dismissal, justifications or downright rage when confronting Turner on what was happening. We soon realized that with Turner’s ego spiraling out of control, zero accountability, lies, backstabbing, manipulation and a culture of negativity, Our School at Blair Grocery could never become the organization its mission says it is with Turner as the leader and no democratic system for decision making, budgeting, etc.

    It was at this point we began looking to who we believed the board of directors to be in hopes that they might be able to intervene and stop this destructive path before it was to late. It was through this process and our own investigations that we came to learn that the board of directors had been changed to include myself as the treasurer — precisely at the same time I began challenging the priorities and direction the work was taking…

    While I don’t believe either of these articles truly expose the beast for what it is, I am greatful for the opportunity they provide to begin exposing the situation for what it is through the stories of those of us with intimate knowledge of what has gone on. It’s just too bad that the “investigative journalism” didn’t take care of that for us.

    Thank you Amy for contacting the Kellogg Foundation. I am hopeful his slippery tounge isnt able to get him out of that one too.

  • Kelly Harmon

    I’d have to agree with the fact that the author has never set foot on Blair Grocery’s farm. Though it may seem to outsiders a decrepit farm that has yet to make a drastic difference, it has made a difference. A block that held 18 houses pre-Katrina, and none post (that weren’t abandoned or destroyed), is now a functioning farm making about $2,500 in produce a week. It has committed young, African American teenagers who did or did not get along with the education system to something, taking them away from many of the potential bad things they could be doing. You find a sense of community in a place where one has been lost for so long. It is small projects like this that will bring the 9th Ward back to its pre-Katrina functioning self. Yes, he is somewhat ignorant in the way he portrays aspects of society. But hell, he’s inspiring. Though he is obviously not the first to say it, he emphasized “If not me, who? If not now, when?” Sometimes there is no perfect answer, especially in the case of what to do post-Katrina. So why don’t we support these small farms and other projects that are at least trying to make a difference. It could turn into something great.
    (and seriously, visit the place and hear his story…you’ll be awe-inspiringly surprised)