Driving on Claiborne Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward you notice the Magnolia Corner Store, Martin Luther King Elementary School, and a gas station. North of Claiborne, the view resembles a jungle. Thousands of lots remain vacant and hundreds more are neglected, overgrown. A mere 10 percent of the neighborhood population has returned since Katrina demolished New Orleans in 2005.
In this landscape appears an oasis. Tall banana trees tower and lean into the street, a golden sun made of plywood scraps hangs on the fence. Flowers and green edibles abound. In the face of neglect, a handful of teachers and students have constructed beauty, growth, and potential.
Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG), founded in 2008 by Nat Turner, is located in the old Blair Family Grocery. Turner came to the neighborhood with a black dog, a blue bus, and $12 in his pocket. He saw a need for a safe learning environment in a unique neighborhood that had one of the highest poverty and highest homeowner rates in New Orleans.
Our students, ages 13-19, face serious life challenges, learning difficulties, and educational obstacles. Terrance had not been to school since the storm. He lived with his aunt and sold crack to survive. Josh was arrested for driving without a license when he took his mother to work one day. Duke told us that when he was arrested outside of school, administrators told him not to come back, although they never issued any official suspension or expulsion.
Most of the students at OSBG would not be in school otherwise. With these young people, there is less room for emotional distance and disengagement. The most significant difference we, as teachers, can make is to teach values of goodness, honesty, love, and service. We recognize multiple levels of learning and use different techniques to reach them. Students may learn construction skills, analyze the racial and economic history of New Orleans, and study English through hip-hop lyrics in the same day. But, we’ve found the most effective way to engage our students is by immersing them in sustainable community development activity.
Local situations become the lens through which we work with students to understand larger lessons about education, society, environment, and economy. Our main initiative is the Food Justice Project, a holistic attempt to remake the food system in our neighborhood and city. OSBG’s campus is home to a highly productive urban farm, which is used as a mechanism to achieve the larger goal of just and sustainable redevelopment. The farm’s also an open and safe place for neighborhood kids to play after school. Otherwise, there would be nowhere nearby to go and nothing else to do.
OSBG’s farm is a live, cyclical model of sustainability through action: We get food waste from Whole Foods; turn it into soil by composting; use the soil to grow plants; and then sell the produce we grow. Staff and students rotate the opportunity to peddle sprouts around the city. Peter, a renowned New Orleans locavore, puts our sprouts on his salads and sandwiches. Susan Spicer, John Besh, and Emeril Lagasse tell their head chefs to support us as much as possible, and their commitment makes Blair School exist.
Last Thursday, Brennan, Ryan, Vincent, and I raced to cut as many sprouts as we could—pea sprouts, sunflower, sango purple radish, and more—for delivery. I reminded Vincent to look the chef in the eye, shake hands firmly, and introduce himself because we're guests in the chef’s kitchen. It was hard for Vincent, but I told him to be proud of what he was doing. Growing and selling our own food is not only how we transform the food system and advocate for environmental justice, but also how we educate, shift paradigms, and create meaningful jobs. We’re in the business of teaching people–students, chefs, foodies, and our neighbors–what is possible.
Kaleb and Josh ran their own workshop on food justice and organizing at a national conference on transformative, grassroots education. They came back talking about themselves as “organizers.” Within a month of returning, Josh went to the Beehive Collective and Kaleb to a farm in Maine to “network and learn.” Success doesn’t always happen at the school or on the farm. I like to see our students seize outside opportunities.
Critics and die-hard supporters question whether OSBG students are getting a “real” education or “meeting standards.” To pretend we do not constantly think about this ourselves, as teachers, would be false, pretentious posturing. Our students’ experiences, life struggles, and worldviews influence our goals and methods. Any standards assigned out of this context are irrelevant to them.
I know OSBG is working when Duke calls a meeting with staff and students, rather than threatening to fight someone. When Vincent agrees to attend a training on economic justice in rural Tennessee, and ends up enjoying it. When Kaleb asks me to take him to Clark Atlanta University, a prestigious and historically black university, “just to see it.”
The crab in a barrel story—one crab is getting itself out of the barrel and all the other crabs try to pull it back down—is often told around here because we feel like we’re that one crab. OSBG is about building resilience, the skills and capacity to deal with stressful and unforeseen situations. Crisis surrounds us, whether in the Lower Ninth Ward, rural Missouri, downtown Detroit, or suburban LA. We have a choice to meet these crises with open eyes and a humble heart. For the Lower Ninth Ward and the students at Blair School, there is much to gain. And we are all implicated in their struggle. As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”