Serendipitous Humanist Service Arugula Farming and Other Challenges in the Lower Ninth Ward

Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.” Serendipity. This is the word that’s stuck with me after recently returned from a service trip to New Orleans.

Christian, like me an active member of Future of Ethical Societies (a growing movement for humanist youth throughout the U.S. and an affiliate of the American Ethical Union), took the lead organizing the trip. He contacted Nat Turner, founder of Our School at Blair Grocery where we’d chosen to do our service project. I began fundraising through Gofundme and, to my surprise, I raised $1,040 in just under a week (our goal was $1,000), and Christian raised around $300. So, with the funds in place, we got a total of nine people on board to make the trip to New Orleans. Five came from Philadelphia, two from New York, and two from St. Louis, including myself.

Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) is an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans that seeks to engage and empower youth through the active and reflective practice of sustainability and food justice. The Lower Ninth Ward is a very poor neighborhood quite clearly neglected by the city and also the most directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina. This is the area right next to where the levee broke, and OSBG is mere blocks from the levee.

The main Blair Grocery building, which normally houses the farm workers and sits on the same property as the farm, needs $100,000 in renovations in order to be up to city code. So, while we were unable to stay in this building, Turner was kind enough to give us his home for a week. We were in extremely close quarters in the shotgun-style home, and there were only two beds so most of us slept on cots each night. We also shared this space with bugs, mice, and a sweetheart of a dog named Bunnie. This environment was tough to live in but brought us all very close.

With the funds we raised, we donated $500 to OSBG then each of us individually donated around $120. We ended up giving OSBG a total of $1,276 and we gave the high school kids who worked with us that week a stipend of $400. But we didn’t contribute just money.

Throughout the week, we worked on the farm completing various tasks. Waking up in the morning involved feeding the many goats and chickens (and one pig). Turner has worked out an agreement with a nearby Whole Foods to receive the food they normally throw away, so the animals are fed large cardboard boxes full of, for example, bread that no longer meets the standards for Whole Foods’ shelves. The other food they give Turner is examined and what’s still edible is distributed to the people in the neighborhood. The food that’s gone bad is thrown into the compost pile. One of our tasks during the week was to tend to this compost pile, adding the old food and wood chips on top.

One of our biggest tasks was the harvest of arugula grown at the farm—harvesting, sorting, drying, bagging, and weighing the plant so that it could later be distributed to some of the higher end restaurants in New Orleans at $7 per pound. This task could be tedious at times, particularly in the sorting process. But at the end of the week we had produced about ninety pounds of arugula.

I personally took on the job of the drying, bagging and weighing of the arugula. Shockingly, all it takes to dry the arugula, as Turner taught me, was three spin cycles in his washing machine. I bet the people eating our arugula at restaurants would never guess that it came not only from an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward, but was processed in mesh bags in a washing machine especially designated for the task. This aspect, along with the weighing and bagging, really made me appreciate the effort that goes into food production, as well as where my food comes from.

In addition to harvesting arugula we also spent time harvesting and replanting pea sprouts, which was far less tedious. Then there were the odd jobs like tilling, digging, and watering the fields. All in all, we did some pretty satisfying work on the farm.

When we weren’t farming, we moved across the street to Turner’s home for conversation. Sometimes we had heated arguments and discussions about social issues such as racism and sexism. Other times we had colloquies (dialogues without responses, just individual expressions of thought within a group about a given topic) where we included the high school kids working with us. Our colloquy topics included how where you’re from affects who you are, how relationships shape us, and the concept of food justice. Christian provided hip-hop music and poems in between dialogue as inspiration in a developing bit he called “hip-hop sanctuary.” In this context, I can really say expression inspires expression.

All these conversations not only brought us FES volunteers closer with the high school students, but also with each other. Some of us expressed our struggles at the beginning of the week in connecting with these kids and finding common ground. But by the end of the week we were all at a hug status with them and with each other. That’s not to say we didn’t have our clashes from time to time, being in such a close and crowded environment, but the bond we formed really brings me back to that word—serendipitous. The other St. Louisian I was traveling with, Carmen, said, “If I were here by myself, I think I would’ve really hated this trip. But the group is really what made it all worth it. The group made me feel so much better about everything.” What made this all even more special is that some people had never been on an FES trip before. Two attendees jumped in at the last minute despite having scant previous experience with an Ethical Society. In many ways, we all took a big risk, and what happened was so serendipitously beautiful.

Some of the interactions I had while there led to some personal realizations. For one, I experienced severe sexual objectification in New Orleans, far more than I normally experience at home in St. Louis. One of the first things Turner said to us when we arrived was that the women in our group should steer clear of certain people in the neighborhood. During our first day of work on the farm a lot of guys came around, checking out what we were doing, saying hello. Turner pulled me aside and told me that a neighbor, “Big Stanley,” who he had previously pointed out to us as safe and friendly, had asked if it would be possible for me to come over, and even offered to share some marijuana with me. Turner explained that in Big Stanley’s mind, if he got me to come over and smoke with him, I’d probably give him a blow job. In Turner’s assessment we were surrounded by sexual predators, which really made me feel uncomfortable outside by myself, so I tried to avoid it as much as possible.

A lot of the subtle realizations I had were race related. I consider myself someone very aware of her white privilege, and try to maintain a constant and present awareness. Some of the deep conversations I had with my black friends reminded me that there are still things outside of my awareness simply because I’m white and have not had the experience of being black. A question that kept arising in my mind was: How does it feel to live in a society (and world) that’s constantly reminding you that you’re different? As a woman, I can answer that question. But as a white person, I cannot. And that’s something I must always keep in mind.

I could write pages upon pages about this service trip to the Lower Ninth Ward and how it impacted me individually, as well as how I believe it impacted the individuals around me. I really look forward to seeing how we can use this experience to build our youth organization within Ethical Culture and the humanist movement. I think this was a game-changer.