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2012 Spring Issue 8 (May 25, 2012)

Carleton Alum Works with New Orleans Youth for Sustainable Growth

May 25, 2012
By Ellen Levine

Carleton alumnus Nat Turner ’93 has worked with the youth of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward for the past few years, transforming a former grocery store into an urban farm. A documentary called “You Are God” is currently being made about Turner and others working for change in effective, unconventional ways.

Turner’s organization, Our School at Blair Grocery, works to empower high-risk youth in New Orleans who have dropped out of the mainstream education system, while providing sustainable social and environmental development for a struggling community. Students work to engage meaningfully with their local food system, as they plant and harvest organic produce to sell to restaurants in New Orleans, including Emeril’s Delmonico.

“Isn’t school supposed to be a vehicle for social change?” asked Turner.

Turner works with students who are mainly ex-offenders, and Our School at Blair Grocery provides both manual labor in the garden and indoor educational experiences, such as writing “Choose your own adventure” books and discussing the Theatre of the Oppressed. He described his work as, “growing the growers to grow a food revolution.”

Future goals of the organization include increasing food security and more sustainably grown food for the Lower Ninth Ward, as well as more composting. He also hopes to help to organize an Alternative Spring Break program for Carleton students to work at Our School at Blair Grocery.

Turner described the kids he works with as “thrown away, abused, ignored,” and said that he sees his work as a valuable opportunity to educate them and turn them around.  “These kids have a better shot at becoming a pro basketball player than going to Carleton,” he said.
He spoke of institutionalized racism and the failing public education system in New Orleans, as the major challenges that face the youth he works with. 

“A lot of people really don’t understand the depth and complexity of the problem.  It’s not that there’s kids falling through the cracks in the sidewalk.  There’s just no sidewalk,” he said.

Turner was born and raised in St. Paul, MN and graduated from Carleton as an African American Studies major.  He feels that his interdisciplinary work and his work with Professor Harry Williams, in particular, have prepared him well for his current work.

“In retrospect, Carleton is a top-notch school.  If you can handle Carleton, you can handle just about everything,” he said.  “You got to know your history.  You got to know your social-historical context for why these things are happening.”

After graduating, Turner went on to teach at The Beacon School, a public high school in New York City, where he was the subject of controversy after encouraging his students to boycott Starbucks and after visiting Cuba with some students and parents.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he decided to move to New Orleans to work. 

“I thought, I wish I could find a way kids in New Orleans could have the same kinds of opportunities as my kids here in New York,” Turner said.  “If not me, who?  If not now, when?”

Filmmaker Ian Midgley is creating a documentary that follows Turner and other individuals who are working against economic, environmental and social problems in the country.

Watch the preview at www.youareagodmovie.com.

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