Note: Our School At Blair Grocery received extensive damage from Hurricane Isaac. To learn more, visit their website.
Hurricane Katrina not only changed the landscape of much of southern Louisiana and Mississippi, it affected entire communities. The hurricane separated families, and made communities already struggling all the more desperate.
"Hurricane Katrina had a pretty severe impact on this neighborhood... Outside our building there would have probably been about fourteen feet of water," says Nat Turner, Founder and Director of Our School at Blair Grocery.
'Turner', as he is known by community members of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, started life as a teacher for a premier New York City high school. For two years following Katrina, Turner worked in the Lower Ninth and became attached to the people, all the while aware of the problems that affected many in the community, especially young people. "All the kids I met down here were cool and fun, and I thought they needed more opportunities."
Started simply as an idea for an 'Experimental Hands-On School,' Our School at Blair Grocery provides a place for young people in the Lower Ninth Ward to learn, as well as a space to explore their interests. OSBG is primarily a sustainability education center that revolves teaching students about urban farming and the business sphere that surrounds it. Young people learn not only about the importance of sustainability in a broader sense, but Turner and his team bring the lessons down to a micro-level.
With regards to teaching about the importance of good food, Turner explains, "we don't have the people to grow the good food. And so we were trying to figure out 'how do we grow the growers to grow the food?'" By teaching about food security, students learn not only about planting and compost, but about business and viability. Students participate in everything from calculating ratios for dirt and sand mixtures to selling produce to high-end French Quarter restaurants.
The challenges are numerous. As someone coming into an already fractured community, Turner quickly found opposition, despair, and disbelief on the part of locals that an initiative like this would work. "A lot of people said to me, 'There's no reason for you to go down to the Lower Ninth Ward, they don't want that down there.'" The idea of educating young people and establishing urban farm programs in any region could already be described as difficult, but OSBG focuses on a community decimated by one of America's worst natural disasters.
Though the challenges are daunting and the progress is slow, Turner is hopeful for the future. After getting the project off the ground, it is the little things that bring satisfaction to his day. Seeing the positive reactions from the young people reinforces the strength of the program.
Turner and his team see Our School at Blair Grocery as an economic engine and a safe space for the community. "It's about skill building and figuring out how to empower people to do things for themselves."
Staff Member Jamie Katz points out, "There was a whole bunch of energy that came to New Orleans after Katrina, but it was all very much emergency relief." Unlike rebuilding efforts, OSBG focuses on developing the infrastructure to empower young people to focus on their own future and nurturing skills they can take to better their lives in every way.
Our School at Blair Grocery operates in the Lower Ninth Ward. If you would like to find out more information, visit their website and twitter. If you are interested in supporting OSBG, find information on donating here.