Sunday, November 28, 2010
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Students Work With Farm-Focused School in New Orleans
The lower ninth ward in New Orleans looks shockingly the same as it did just months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Houses remain empty and run-down, sidewalks have not been repaired, and the area is sparsely populated. There is only one charter high school in the neighborhood and many area children are homeschooled by their parents or have dropped out of school altogether. Yet one school is beginning to recreate community in the ward by teaching students life skills, creating an urban farm and becoming a community center for the area.
This winter break, ten Wesleyan students will have a chance to travel down to New Orleans to visit and work at Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) in what will be the third community service trip of its kind.
“We will probably be doing a lot of different things—it really depends on what they need us to do for them at the time,” said Cory Meara-Bainbridge ’13, the founder of the Wesleyan branch of OSBG. “One of the main things is that we will be sharing a curriculum with students from different places and learning together.”
Student volunteers will live at the school, where they will help with daily farming tasks, building projects, and any other workshop development projects in conjunction with students that live there.
“We work on what needs to be built or planted as well as community outreach,” said Natalie Fine ’13, who visited the school last May and is planning on going in January again. “We also work on canvassing, and we ask the neighbors what they need help with. When we were there last time there was a big barbeque and we met everyone in the neighborhood. We will probably be working with the sprouts that they sell for salads to big fancy restaurants, which is where the school gets most of its money.”
Started in 2008 as an alternative education school by teacher Nat Turner, it has been transformed into a multi-level learning environment, with greenhouses and a chicken coop on the premises, as well as a farm stand and a community center. Turner, who used to teach at The Beacon School in the Upper West side of Manhattan, decided not to return to New York after spending multiple summers working on rehabilitation efforts in New Orleans. He bought the rights to the building, which used to be an old grocery store, and started the school with 12 dollars in his pocket.
“It’s built in an old house and it’s based on experiential learning,” Fine said. “The students learn business skills, urban planning, and farming skills. The goal of these kids is not necessarily to go to college but to have a successful trade because that’s just the reality of where they are from.”
While the number of students who attend the school fluctuates, all of them live within the ninth ward. The school is allowed to exist under Louisiana home school laws, which were created after the desegregation of schools in order to allow families to keep their children out of mixed-race schools. Although not used for the same purpose now, the laws have created a very flexible learning curriculum that the Turner school is utilizing.
“All the classes are around rebuilding their community,” Meara-Bainbridge said. “They are learning all these things through writing grants, running a farmers’ market, growing food, going to workshops and national conferences and planning community events. Plus, they learn electrical skills and building skills from local contractors and electricians who have come in to teach them. They also have food justice classes where they go around and examine the food accessibility and see what they have available.”
Like Wesleyan, Turner’s school teaches students to look at issues in an interdisciplinary framework within the local community.
“OSBG deals with so many issues at the same time and rather than working in New Orleans in a top down approach it works at the grassroots level with a holistic approach,” said Maggie Cohen ’12, a member of the chapter who went on the trip last spring. “The school looks at institutionalized racism, incarceration, food justice, environmental problems, and education problems. They are also really working with the needs of the community in a grassroots way.”
The group will also spend a few days in Hammond, Louisiana, on a rural satellite farm. The farm started this summer as an urban farm, healing center, and cultural center. The students from OSBG are hoping to visit the farm once a week to establish urban-rural connections among young people.
“A lot of people come to Our School at Blair Grocery for help,” Fine said. “When I was there we worked on the last female black dairy farm in Louisiana. People go to Turner for help because he has access to a vast network of college and high school students.”
OSBG sees continuous visits from college students across the country. After Turner left The Beacon School, his old students from New York continued to visit during the summer break and created a network with other high schools throughout the city. When the students graduated, they created a national organization called the Youth Coalition for Community Action, which now has 13 chapters across the country. The first trip with the Wesleyan chapter was run last January and the group has plans to lead a Student Forum next semester with a trip to New York City over Spring Break.
The planned Student Forum for the spring will focus on community organization, urban farms, and social justice work.
“Part of the trip is supporting Our School at Blair Grocery—which is a really incredible project—and part of it is also learning about community organizing and looking at the project as a model for creating change and creating alternative forms of community building,” Meara-Bainbridge said. “These New Orleans trips are a way to get people involved. One of the points of the trip is to get people politically conscious and involved in things wherever they are.”
Interested students can find more information on the group’s blog at youthcoalition.webs.com.