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Growing Opportunity in New Orleans

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This week, my alma mater, Tulane University, joined with the NCAA to host a Final Four community event at the Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans City Park. It was a special day for our farm -- for one, we planted our first citrus trees -- and I wanted to take a moment and reflect on why it was so much more meaningful to me than one would expect from an event that involved lots of logistical details and PR strategies.

The big theme of Thursday's event was how Tulane and the NCAA are promoting opportunity, for their members and the broader community alike. As I was welcoming the fifth through eighth graders who had come to Grow Dat from a nearby charter school that morning, I told them about the kind of opportunities we offer to high school students in the city. I wanted to get them excited about the important work they were about to do and let them know that there were many opportunities awaiting them in the future. I asked the group how they defined opportunity. One of the boys raised his hand and said, "An opportunity is a chance."

I have had a humbling amount of chances in my life. When I graduated from Tulane in 2003, the world was my oyster. I had received an excellent education, was inspired by what I had seen and learned, and eager to contribute to my beloved adopted city. Years later, I found my way back to Tulane. I came back not as a student, but as a Tulane Urban Innovation Fellow, given the opportunity to work with multiple departments to start a project that would create systemic change in New Orleans.

Together with passionate leaders from various departments at Tulane, I developed a vision for an organic urban farm that would employ a diverse group of high school students in New Orleans. The mission of Grow Dat Youth Farm is to nurture young leaders through the meaningful work of growing food. Currently, we employ 20 high school students from all over the city to work on our brand new one acre farm. In addition to farm work, youth participate in a wide array of workshops on our gorgeous campus, which was designed and built by faculty and students from the Tulane School of Architecture.

At Grow Dat, we are in the business of giving young adults a chance: a chance to be employees at a job that simultaneously expects a lot out of them while supporting their personal growth, a chance to work in teams with students from different schools, neighborhoods, race and class backgrounds, and a chance to grow and eat food many of them cannot even find in their neighborhood. This year our teenage employees will grow 10,000 pounds of food for their community.

Through an innovative partnership with Tulane University, Grow Dat has quickly become an organization known for its rigor, integrity, beauty and quality. We are cultivating a project that simultaneously addresses multiple social problems. Thirty-three percent of teenagers are overweight or obese nationally -- and the percentage is higher in New Orleans. We have a 35 percent unemployment rate for black teenagers in our nation. New Orleans is also one of the nation's largest food deserts. Only 10 supermarkets serve a population of 340,000 people. Grow Dat is a response to all of these challenges. We believe in the ability of young adults to be change agents who improve the health of their community and their environment. We help young people develop both the leadership and job skills necessary to do just that.

The fruit trees that we planted with the middle school students and Tulane athletes during the "Growing Opportunity" event will provide around 1,000 pounds of fruit each year at peak production, 60 percent of which we will sell and 40 percent of which we will donate as our "Shared Harvest" local, sustainably-grown produce distributed to residents who can't find or afford it. I am very proud to have returned to Tulane University as a community leader who is helping define ways the university can bring its expertise and resources to the community where they are most needed. Together we are creating "first chances" for young adults who often do not get a second one.