The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is just around the corner, and many people have forgotten the devastation caused by the storm as well as the injustices it exposed in New Orleans. The residents of the Lower Ninth Ward have not forgotten—because they can’t. The effects of Katrina are still visible everywhere you look in the community. “The social fabric of our community is in shreds, indicated by the physical and mental health epidemic we face: we have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, some of the highest high school dropout rates in the country, and the highest incarceration rates in the world, to name only a few.”
A project called Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) encourages people around the country to acknowledge the remaining challenges this community faces and address them head on. According to OSBG, “Officially, our mission is to create a resource rich safe space for sustainable community development and youth empowerment. That means working with young people to create a new community-based economic landscape, where matrixes of opportunities exist and spaces for young people to discover their role in bettering their community are ubiquitous.”
In order to achieve this lofty goal, OSBG has taken the strategic approach of food justice and youth empowerment. They recognize that “food is a central pillar to any thriving local community: the sustenance on which people come together, exchanges are made, and relationships are built.” Our School of Blair Grocery operates a one-acre urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Aside from seasonal produce that is sourced primarily within the neighborhood, a large portion of the land is dedicated to growing arugula, which is in high demand in upscale restaurants around New Orleans. The farm is legally zoned in the city limits and has 20 goats, 20 chickens, and a beloved pig, Rupert. They grow chemical free in self-composted soil, and they deliver the same day they harvest. As a result, the quality of their arugula is considered the best, and selling it generates considerable financial support. With this, they funnel the money back into the project to pay youth in the neighborhood to work and learn with them in a weekly afterschool program and subsidize the cost of the produce they sell to the neighborhood to compete with the prices of nearby grocery stores.
Unfortunately, OSBG is currently unable to run its afterschool program in full swing due to a recent building closure. The building that served as their headquarters, classroom, and living space is in need of major renovations. Changes in zoning variance, along with the general deterioration of the building, have put them out of compliance with zoning laws, disallowing use of the space in any way. Until the renovations are completed, which are estimated at around $70,000, OSBG is largely crippled in its ability to function on a day-to-day basis, let alone expand, scale, document, and replicate their model. In addiction, pursuing funds to complete renovations in the nonprofit sector has proven to be extremely difficult. Aside from the bad grant climate, there are simply next to no grants with the purpose of improving organizational infrastructure, let alone for something as seemingly un-miraculous as renovating a building.
The news is not at all bad though. OSBG is looking at the current lack of development in their neighborhood on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Katrina as an “opportune moment to commemorate the past and look opportunistically to the future.” By happenstance, they met internationally famed artist Swoon, who saw the transformative potential of their project. According to a press release from OSBG, “she believed we could organize a gallery event in New York to raise funds for our project; showcasing her art and the art of others during hurricane Katrina’s 10th birthday while verbally committing to donate artwork if we could organize the event. Several of our staff members are from New York, along with many of our supporters.”
So on Friday, July 17th, an art sale and auction featuring unique art donated by Swoon will be held at Superchief Gallery in Brooklyn. All proceeds will go to expanding Our School at Blair Grocery. With help from the auction, OSBG “can build a space even better than we had before: one that encourages students to think creatively, and one that gives them access to the important physical infrastructures of empowerment.”
Images via Our School at Blair Grocery
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