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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

THREAD: Meaningful Community Engagement


so here's the situation. we've got to approach our work with the mindset of facilitating engagement and participation from local people. let me give you two examples:

this weekend, the masterplanner held a meeting for everyone interested in the future of the lower ninth ward. 100 people came to the meeting and only 10 came to the follow up meeting. my question is: can we create a public education campaign to engage folks to participate? why can't we have a participatory budgeting process like they do in brazil?

second, so how do we write the tangipahoa plan to anticipate the challenges in gaining community participation? what will that community review process look like so that while we hear all the voices we also set ourselves on the path toward sustainability guaranteed?


my experience at the meeting with the grocery store developer and at other meetings is that people will be critical but will appreciate being informed and valued and will also understand the necessity for "profitability" probably even better (cuz we're about sustainability in more than simply profit) than we do. it will take a long process that will need the right start, the right initial footing. we'll probably need input from a few individuals about that before we begin inviting everyone in (some anthropological work), but we have to make all feel as if being brought in at the beginning (good "organizing").

in the conversations themselves, we'll need to employ "good facilitation" jaimie cloud talked about last night: utilizing power and benefits of being together (What can we get together we cant get apart? decisions, information, dividing up action steps, etc.), results/action-oriented discussion (less venting and criticizing), etc. I think we should get her partner down here soon to train us in those methods, maybe even in a "train by doing" sort of process.

We were actually talking about that in our little group for a bit today. I raised the question, what will be the perception of us coming into this little town and building all these fancy things without community input from the beginning. As with here, we can't just go in and hold community meetings without a promise of something actually hitting the ground because of the disillusionment part. We also can't leave people out for too long. But the point isn't just having community meetings--a "community review process"--it's finding opportunities to genuinely get the community involved. We need to make it explicit that the people of Tangipahoa are the ones to benefit from it in very tangible ways--jobs, quality/affordable food, training, etc.

The other thing is that, sure, we're about sustainability--woohoo--but without developing literacy as to what that means is like talking to a wall. The wall just wants you to paint it because it doesn't feel pretty. Yes, the wall talks enough so that we know that's what it wants. It doesn't necessarily know what low-VOC paint is or why it is necessary. People are used to having a Wal-Mart or Jimbo's grocery store coming in and going through the city council, but since the average citizen isn't engaged with the city council those meetings don't mean anything. There's a difference between pretending and actually doing.

Maybe we begin by trying to create a farmer's market before the process even starts. Let's be realistic, though we may have the money (say in two months) it might be a year before we can even break ground. That's all unknown at this point. Maybe we meet with the people who own land up there and try to get them to band together to make an affordable farmer's market before we even get there. One risk is that if it is successful we've shot our own foot by creating a market that we look like assholes to compete against. To add to that, we don't create an educational program by simply starting a farmer's market (necessarily).

Somehow we use the mayor or his mother to initiate that process. It could be a community survey that we design in which volunteers from Tangipahoa go around and ask about issues that are relevant to our program. Then it follows up by beginning educational things at the local elementary school in the cafeteria. If our friend is moving up there before we can even begin the building, maybe we use her.

So, admittedly these few bits i've thrown out are only speculative solutions to creating genuine community empowerment and acceptance. I think the real question is, how can we engage their youth before we even begin to build what we're planning on doing? My solution to that is to create a school partnership (sister schools) between MLK and the school(s) up there. Find ways that we can engage the youth of the two places together. When they are engaged and doing meaningful stuff then their parents are going to be interested. So, what does that look like?

In relation to David's comment, the development of our capacity as popular educators and facilitators is the focus of our app to the highlander center's year long intensive organizing school. The app is for david brandon and meand johanna from noffn. As part of the program, we participate in four weekend long organizing schools with highlander and develop/implement an economic justice project. What if we think of Highlander's THREADS program as the GrowingPowerCUAF of popular education?

I'm asking cuz they've extended their deadline til the end of this month (we submitted an app 12 31 09). im planning on checking back in with them anyway with some info and thoughts that are missing from the hurried application.

1. Identify community stakeholders in Tangipahoa who are receptive to the OSBG vision and invite these stakeholders to a community visioning process
2. Begin the process by inviting these stakeholders to OSBG for workshops on food justice and the work of OSBG and organizations like it, and work together in the gardens and the neighborhood, to create a shared understanding of the context, and a shared experience of the kind of work we're talking about.
3. Conduct a series of community visioning meetings in Tangipahoa based on this shared experience and understanding. Phil has a model of this from Heifer International that we employed at Added Value.
4. If these folks are down for having ongoing roles in the project, develop roles for them in the project and the organization - on the board, as volunteers, staff, as assessors, partners, etc. Make the community visioning process a key aspect of a 3-5 year strategic plan process. The strategic plan will act as a guide for the project at all levels.
5. Hold a town meeting with a slide show presentation. Feature sustainable agriculture projects from around the world. Show examples of things we don't plan to do in our wildest dreams, as to widen the frame of reference for the un-initiated.
6. Throughout the visioning process, employ popular education techniques, which value local knowledge and participation, nurture that participation, and gives people an experience of participation. Create an accessible process that is attuned to and can activate the participation children, the elderly, and those who don't read or write.
7. Create a report of findings from the community visioning process that can be referred to during staff and board planning processes and is handed out to visioning participants and made freely available at the mayor's office. Also create materials for the non-literate.
8. Make it explicit that project decisions will be made by the staff of the Tangipahoa Food Justice Project, a project of Our School at Blair Grocery. Define the relationship between TJFP and the town of Tangipahoa. Use a tool similar to "Planning for Youth and Adult Partnerships," to define what TFJP brings, what the town of Tangipahoa brings, and who will make what decisions about how TFJP runs.
9. Present our completed 3-5 year strategic plan at another town hall meeting or community visioning follow-up meeting, relating it to the findings of the community visioning. Make this plan publicly available.
10. Hold regular meetings (quarterly?) with the community visioning team to get feedback and to hold TJFP accountable to the community visioning findings.
11. Conduct another Community Visioning process in 3-5 years.


Teenagers of Tangipahoa who want summer jobs
People who like eating delicious food
Store owners
People who like eating healthy
Old-timers who reminisce about Tanigpahoa's agrarian past
Old-timers who know how to farm, and have made a material and personal investment in that very soil
People who want to see "more going on in this town"
People who know and love the streams, fields, and forests and want to see them nurtured, not razed by a box-store
Parents of children in Tangipahoa who want their kids to have something to do
Parents, teachers, and administrators of local schools who want good food served, and programs for the school
Town historians who like to tell stories about the place
People who have pride in the town

In my mind, it makes sense for those key community members Phil speaks of to initially be the landholders we're working with, and folks they identify. What if they're the people running the farmers markets too? What if once we've got the business plan ready and once LISC gives us a greenlight we (OSBG, mayor jackson, our community partners in Tangipahoa and LISC) go about this community engagement process real upfrontlike? As in what if we get started by holding a good old fashioned town hall meeting?

We begin a community input/ design process by bringing to the public what we believe can be accomplished. Presenting it in terms that are real and exciting and tangible, that speak to what we understand to be folks' wants and needs. More than just inviting community input and participation, we need to make obvious our valuing of local
knowledge and participation. Turner, I agree, community budgeting will be super valuable.

we need to be mindful of the ways we engage the young people, both within and outside of the school context. We need to be effective in creating opportunities for urban and rural students to empower each other. When we empower and develop the capacity of tangipahoa youth to work side by side L9W youth to lead much of the popular community education program, that builds our community support.

We certainly build this group of communtiy stakeholders, and as corey said, these are the landowners and others idetified as critical community capacity builders (like envirenew), and build a visioning process that is participatory and inquiry based, and moves them to action. If the young people take leadership in this process, and are effective in developing the communication skills to carry that vision into the world, we build community support from there.

Wayne's Farm: A letter from Jim Bremer

Hi y'all,

Sorry I missed the meeting today, but totally jazzed about Wayne and Cheri Stevens and farm, 102 acres (80 are cleared pasture and plantable dirtfarm, the remainder is piny and hardwood scrub and forest where we will forage blackberries, dewberries, huckleberries, wild asparagus, cresses and fungi, wild sorrel and goodness knows what else). And a 2 acre pond sporting prolific Bass and Perch.

Patrick Hamilton, Lester L'hoste's organic orchard manager and James Foster, an old friend with eclectic organic agronomy background, were along for the adventure. We walked and talked and drove perimeters and had Cheri's pastured meatballs and spaghetti and green salad with Wishbone Italian Dressing and Garlic Texas Toast. Lunchtime was a good lesson in not talking with your mouth full. I discovered as if for the first time that chewing is a good time for listening.

The available cabin will easily accommodate two permanent residents and three more in sleeping bags, if everyone are friends. The woods are happily disposed to camping.

We laid eyes and feet on beautiful slopes with long-maintained terraces, critical for soil erosion management. Here's a snapshot of the animals involved in the vision we hammered out, totally doable by Wayne, Cheri, a fruit orchardist/rowcrop manager and a fulltime crew of 4-5 interns:
  • 40 mama cows with 40 calves
  • a couple of bulls
  • 100 chickens(Wayne likes the idea of converting an old schoolbus minus engine to a rolling coop)
  • 20 nannygoats
  • 1 good billy
  • ducks, rabbits, turkeys and pigs have rolls, too, in time...
One missing piece is USDA slaughter and butchering. I'll be researching the feasibility of scheduling time with a mobile facility(self-contained in an 18-wheeler). Presently the local slaughterhouse must label it's meat "Not For Resale". Wayne is certain his neighbors would line up for this service if it is affordable.

The vegetable plots are 2 or 3 acres ready to be tilled, rowed up and planted. Now. We all agreed that peas and potatoes should be planted first and soon. (Okra and other items should go in by March 15 or so.) All necessary equipment and compost is in place. Fencing is on Wayne's drawing board and easily laid out.

Also, let us not overlook the educational bits around forestry and wildlife. It's all around.
Both meat and vegetable operations will require refrigeration, more homework for me, and a packing shed. Wayne will be costing out inputs.

We discussed the teaching farm notion and will be researching liability issues and possible State of Louisiana assistance with insurance for you-pick farms which may extend to teaching farms.

We discussed the relationship between OSBG, the farm, and the emerging entity in Tangipahoa which we agreed all would work together under a common umbrella in a harmonious understanding aimed at educating, employing and feeding peeps.

We all gave each other checks for $3.5 million and hope they won't bounce. Just to tide us over till some creative grant drafting kicks in.

I hope the results of the research we've tasked ourselves with will give realistic costs for this engaging piece of our exciting project.

There are many more peripheral and detailed notes.

See ya soon,

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A plan to build "Our Village"

Since September, in the classroom, around the neighborhood, and at meetings with our friends and allies around the city, the students and faculty at Our School have been learning, dreaming, and strategizing ways to put youth and children at the front of sustainable and just community revitalization. We have put this vision into practice by engaging young people and members of our community on our urban micro-farm, as part of our soil building enterprise, at our weekly farmers markets, in our monthly film screenings and workshops, and in a growing conversation about sustainable community development.

The next logical step in this process is to restore housing in the Lower 9th Ward and facilitate the return of vital community capacity builders. The vision of "Our Village" was articulated over the past four months in conversation with our community and organizational partners. Our Village seeks to foster sustainable community development around Our School at Blair Grocery and MLK Charter School, at the center of the Lower 9th Ward.

The Salvation Army's EnviRenew program presented a timely opportunity to move forward in a decisive way toward making Our Village a reality. EnviRenew offers $2 Million gap funding to neighborhoods who build 25 new, green single family homes for community capacity builders by August 2011.

Our Village articulates redevelopment as an opportunity to build community capacity through engagement, education, and employment. Present and former community members are invited to participate in the planning and development process. Our students will facilitate workshops and brainstorming sessions within our neighborhood, offering everyone a chance to learn and contribute vital knowledge toward sustainable development. Small, local contractors will build the 25 homes, with the help of our students who will gain valuable skills in green building. Homes will be energy efficient, healthy, affordable, and safe–we are also trying to make them all float in the event of a flood. Our Village will safely and sustainably mitigate storm water, improve food security, increase walkability and decrease our carbon footprint, and foster a sustainable human interface with nature. Small businesses will be incubated, trained, and supported, out of the Blair Grocery building, through our school curriculum, and throughout the neighborhood. Our Village further realizes our "school without walls," and will foster a learning community committed to environmental justice and local resilience.

Our Village facilitates a strong community of action with the energy and optimism of youth leadership, by nesting important recovery efforts into an interconnected and mutually beneficial system, by helping our organizations and community members build our capacity, and through providing opportunities to leverage additional resources for further development.

You can read the full proposal here:

Please post comments here or send them to

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Help us Create a Resource-Rich Urban Farming Library

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation of any of the following books, or the funding to buy them. Any support helps! Gifts can be sent to:

Nat Turner
Our School at Blair Grocery
1740 Benton Street
New Orleans, Lousiana 70117

French Fries and the Food System, The Food Project

Growing Together, The Food Project

 Academic Year Program Manual, The Food Project

The Worm Cafe: Mid-Scale Vermicomposting of Lunchroom Wastes, Binet Payne

Worms Eat Our Garbage: Classroom Activities for a Better Environment, Mary Appelhof, Mary Frances Fenton, Barbara Loss Harris

Brother, Sister, Leader: The Official Curriculum of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol

Teaching Students to be Peacemakers, Johnson and Johnson
Economics Education: Building a Movement for Social Justice, The Praxis/Economic Justice Project, American Friends Service Committee

Co/Motion: The Guide to Youth-Led Social Change, Alliance for Justice,
Leigh Dingerson and Sarah H.Hay

Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Almost Everything Going On Right Now: A New Year’s Update

We’re wrapping up an exciting semester here at Our School. It’s pretty amazing how quick time flies when there’s so much going on. Since September, we’ve moved from a staff of one, to an all-volunteer staff of five full-time (including three Louisiana Delta Service Corps members) and four part-time teachers. With this increase in staffing, we’ve been able to expand on some of our projects and get some fresh ones off the ground. We’ve been able to expand the resources and opportunities we’re able to offer our students.

We’re growing more food, building more soil, offering more classes, spending more time with neighborhood children, reaching more community members with our farmers market and workshop series, and collaborating with more partners from across the city and country to create a resource rich safe space for youth empowerment and sustainable community development. We’re super grateful to all the folks – our neighbors, partners, and supporters – doing all you can to push this work forward, to bring whatever resources you can to the neighborhood and our students. To all of you, from all of us at Our School at Blair Grocery, here’s to our first year working together, and the New Year that’s just begun.

Our Curriculum

Kirk, Brandon, Josh and Cory, our Food Justice teacher discussing the benefits of our new partnership with Hollygrove Market and Farm, and what it could mean for the future of food security in the neighborhood.

With more staffing we’ve been able to expand and refine the coursework we’re offering to our students. Our weekly schedule now includes Spanish, Public Health, Urban Planning, New Orleans History, Food Justice, Farming, Reading, and Community Organizing. In Spanish class, our students are working towards brokering a deal with one of our local taco carts, to sell them cilantro, tomatoes, lettuce, and whatever they’d like us to grow. Our Public Health teacher Dani
Levine, a MPH student over at Tulane, is working with our students to create a public health based master plan for the Lower Nine. Our history class offers a pretty great example of “city as school” in practice: class generally takes place at significant sites in New Orleans and United States history (the Chalmette Battlefield, Domino Sugar Refinery, the spot where Homer Plessy was kicked off the train, the Desire Projects, and so on).

Stephanie Anders, our literacy specialist and PhD student at UNO, is helping with GED prep, developing an individualized reading plan for each of our students, and helping the rest of our staff incorporate literacy work into our coursework. This literacy work can be seen in final projects for Community Organizing class, where students prepared grant proposals for their own programs. Josh submitted a proposal to the Gulf Youth Action Program to implement a community mural project as part of our afterschool program; Brandon submitted a proposal to the Captain Planet Foundation to convert a vehicle to run on biodiesel as part of our afterschool program.

Our Farm

Our farm is a productive outdoor classroom with 3 new goats, 47 chickens, an orchard of infant fruit trees, seven growing piles of compost, and rows and rows of greens ... mizuna, collards, onions, arugula, kale, cabbage, red lettuce … the list goes on. Since this past September, we’ve built over 100 cubic yards of soil. Between the daily food waste from Whole Foods on Magazine, our weekly load of coffee grounds from NOBrew on the West Bank, horse manure from the Kelly’s (Mrs. Kelly is a teacher at MLK, Mr. Kelly a local contractor) stables, and mulch and wood chips from local tree clippers, we’re producing a whole lot of soil.

At this point, we’re using our soil on our own farm, but we’ve done the math and know that this is a city hungry for excellent soil to grow excellent food. With the necessary resources to expand our soil building initiative (staffing, equipment, some funding) we could triple our current production rate, create a part time paying job with dignity for a couple of our students and a revenue stream to continue our work.

Our Market

Every Sunday morning, on a rotating basis, we operate our market outside of a different neighborhood church. On the first morning with a new church, our students and staff speak with the congregation during service. This semester, we’ve worked most closely with St. David’s Catholic, Greater Little Zion, New Testament Baptist, and All Souls Episcopal. Each Sunday afternoon, we set up the market outside of Our School where, more often than not, our youngest neighbors help us staff the tables. They tend to be excellent salespeople. Hollygrove Market and Farm is supplementing produce from our own farm with produce grown by Louisiana and Mississippi farmers. We’re excited about our first three months operating the market, and are looking forward to what’s ahead, as we continue to grow more healthy, delicious, fresh food and continue to offer our neighbors local and regional produce at the most affordable price in town.

Our Afterschool Program

Albrian enjoying a salad with the rest of the crew after one Sunday market.

It was children from the neighborhood – Albrion, Dorian, Albert, LaDarryl, all of ’em – who essentially forced us to start our afterschool program. In our section of the neighborhood, there aren’t really any safe, constructive, educative, or even fun options for young people once school lets out. A lesson we’ve learned is, when you’re an urban community school with a farm, with fruit trees, chickens, dogs, and folks who are excited about spending time with children, you tend to attract the youngest of young people. Like our older students, these children deserve a safe space where they can learn, play, and make mistakes, we started our afterschool program. This past semester, our after school kids tilled the soil and built the beds in the newest section of our garden, played a lot of freeze tag, and were some of our most effective salespeople during our markets.

Our Village

Representatives of organizations from across the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans (from left to right, Christine Robertson of LISC, Daniel Winkert ofJohn Williams Architects, Jordan Jones and Phillis Jordan of Good Work Network, Lester Kelly (local contractor), Mary Fontenot of All Congregations Together, JO of FutureProof, Brandon (OSBG student) Monica Gonzales from Enterprise Community Partners)participating in a charette with staff and students of OSBG, discussing their roles in the Our Village EnivRenew Sustainable New Homes development plan.

Our fledgling school is becoming a powerful anchor for community redevel opment that aims to empower youth, create local jobs, bring residents back, and use green, energy efficient, and healthy design. We’ve assembled a team of partners to plan and implement—with our students—neighborhood redevelop ment around the school, where until now only 10% of families have managed to return. With our Build Our Village curriculum, OSBG will train youth in areas of construction, trade skills, urban planning, and sustainable design.

“Our Village” is driven by the mission of Our School at Blair Grocery and establishes a model where development acts as a local economic engine, em­ployer, and educative opportunity. Our Village is a safe, low-impact community which fosters a sustainable human interface with nature. Designed to increase food security, mitigate stormwater, and integrate capacity builders and safety responders into the neighborhood, Our Village cultivates a secure educational environment beyond school walls. Built by small, local contractors and students at Our School at Blair Grocery, Our Village expands economic opportunity and mentors the next generation of stewards for sustainable community.

Within “Our Village,” we are preparing a proposal for EnviRenew’s Sustainable New Homes Grant Program, where we plan to develop 25 sustainable homes between the OSBG campus and the Dr. King Charter campus. The plan would offer incentives for teachers, first responders, small contractors, and other community capacity builders to pur­chase the new homes, bringing more families back to the neighborhood.

Our Upcoming Year

Volunteers from Occidental College unloading soil on New Years day. The soil was composted on our farm. The land is our newest lot, located right across the street from Our School. We'll start growing in just a bit.

There seems to be more to mention here than is appropriate for a single blog post. We could have spent time talking about our new monthly movie and workshop series. Or the grant proposal we submitted to the USDA’s Community Food Projects program to purchase more land, expand our workshop series, open a community kitchen, and pay our youth for their work. Or our field trip with Louisiana Bucket Brigade to the oil refineries in Chalmette, where residents living on the fenceline of big oil are fighting for their community’s health and livelihood. Or the rural land in Tangipahoa, where with the mayor and the city’s Weed and Seed program, we’ll be growing more food and building more soil on what is going to be a big ol outdoor classroom for our students and the youth of Tangipahoa. So, please keep in touch, stay tuned, and continue offering all your support. More is to come.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Growing Growers

Our Food Justice curriculum involves hands-on urban farming as well as in-class discussion to grow skillful and knowledgeable Urban Farming Ambassadors.

Students work on our third-acre urban farm seeding, nurturing, harvesting, an selling the produce that they grow. Compost and and growing food serve as practical application of science. Operating the farmers market allows students to put math economics and public speaking to direct use.

In-class discussion with our Food Justice instructor is focused on economics, food access and food security. This year students have been examining the local and global food system to understand the importance of sustainable farming practices and to understand how seemingly small events can have global impacts.

Students study Public Health in another course focusing on issues related to food security as well as other environmental and social factors.