In 2001, Greta Gladney was finishing her MBA studies at City University of New York–Baruch College when she heard the siren call of her hometown New Orleans and its Lower 9th Ward. She returned and started The Renaissance Project, a nonprofit that develops integrated programs for poverty alleviation with a focus on increasing access to fresh, healthy food; celebrating arts and culture; improving education opportunities; and catalyzing economic development.
What’s the change you are trying to make in the world?
I’m trying to set an example of commitment to collective and shared responsibility among fellow human beings for overall quality of life and hoping a few others who think it’s a good idea will get some other folks on board.
Which of your programs at the Renaissance Project (economic development, education, food access) has proven to be the most challenging and why?
Economic development is hard because of class distinctions and related priorities. Folks with the strategic and or financial wherewithal to acquire good food and quality education for themselves and their families don’t mind my helping low-income communities of color eat better or access a few educational or arts and cultural opportunities. There’s likely some shame and/or pity involved because poor folks are just so far behind and the vast divide is in plain sight.
But economic development?
But economic development—affordable housing, small business development, advocating for living wage—is contentious because everybody wants both control of resources and better access to resources to improve quality of life for themselves and their families including higher earnings, self-employment, and home ownership.
Why do you think that is?
People live in a scarcity mindset, don’t believe that there’s enough pie to go around, and want to make certain that their slice is big enough. For them it’s a given that some will go without and that’s just the way it is. I disagree. Far too often, groups of people are willing to turn a blind eye to inequity and justify taking more instead of equitably sharing resources in the interest of raising the bar for and improving the quality of life across an entire community or city.
What’s the biggest obstacle to establishing access to low-cost, healthy food in impoverished communities?
Household earnings at a living wage are the barrier to healthy food access. There’s plenty of healthy food around. You have to be able to get to the food (one must be able to) or it (the food) has to be able to get to you (transportation), and you need (one needs) enough money to purchase it (living wage). People in rural and suburban areas often have to travel significant distances to access healthy food. If they have money for both private transportation and purchase of healthy food, they thrive. IMHO, low-cost food, across the board, requires government subsidy of farmers, distributors, and retailers. Is that not why junk food, i.e. corn, wheat, or sugar-based products found in low-income communities, is so cheap?
What’s one belief you held to be true when you started the Renaissance Project—but has surprised you to find out it’s not that way?
Likely because I had fallen for the hype, I thought that quality of life in the Lower 9th Ward was lower than in other neighborhoods only to learn that it was a working class neighborhood with greater than 60% homeownership. My family has lived and owned homes in this neighborhood for over a hundred years, but I believed how outsiders stereotyped the neighborhood as primarily dangerous, crime, drug, and poverty-ridden. I also believed that by virtue of my education, intelligence, and ability, data-driven decision-making—in the absence of simply asking people what they think, want, and need—was superior to following their direction. Personal experience is what we know and how we know the world best.
Does corporate social responsibility or progressive business play a part in the Renaissance Project?
Yes, I’m working on that. We set an example of paying a living wage. Our fifty summer youth employment program interns earn $10 per hour, the lowest wage we pay across the organization. Our employees are typically scheduled to work no more than 30 hours per week because they need time to spend with and take care of their families during the week, not just on weekends. “Corporate social responsibility” is the basis of our work to improve quality of life in New Orleans’ communities of color. We work with people through partnerships with businesses, nonprofit organizations, and social service agencies to improve living conditions.
It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina. How did Katrina affect the Renaissance Project’s efforts in the community?
Renaissance Project was established four years before Hurricane Katrina. My efforts through the organization were largely ignored. Katrina placed New Orleans in the global spotlight and money followed. Suddenly, my ideas were good enough to warrant financial support.
What’s the value of having an MBA in running a nonprofit?
I am still paying for the MBA, so I’m not so sure. My undergraduate science and liberal arts degrees have been most helpful in shaping my work. The MBA provides a framework for managing my projects. All disciplines, I find, provide models, tools for approaching and working through various challenges.
What are your favorite three things about New Orleans?
History, spirituality, climate.
What’s the biggest change you’ve made in your professional life?
Having a baby at 51 and redesigning my professional life around motherhood and family.
Change is hard—do you have any tricks you’d like to share for making it easier?
A sense of drama helps take the edge off. Have the meltdown, pray for death, cry yourself to sleep, then wake up to a new day with new possibilities.
How do you get people around you to embrace change?
I don’t usually get folks to do anything, they do it on their own. I present my vision of the future and one or more potential pathways. Typically most of them don’t see it, or me as leader, and disagree. Some attack my work and attempt to assassinate my character. That’s when I back away to allow things to run their course while beginning the next project. One to three years later, with a new set of players in place, I’m invited back to the table.
What’s your biggest frustration with change making?
It takes like forever and my time is limited.
If you could change one thing in the world right now, what would it be?
Mosquitos. I’d probably get rid of mosquitos saving about 1 million people each year and then creating other problems no doubt as a result.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My teeth—no cavities—and I would like to have two that were extracted back in perfect condition.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
I had a 12 ounce medium roast coffee with whole milk and sugar substitute (only drank about half of it) with a slice of lemon pound cake during a debrief meeting about yesterday’s summer youth employment program host site reception.
Do you have any pets?
I have four children and four grandchildren plus my mother that I claim. On the other hand, the wildlife in my neighborhood: cats, dogs, squirrels, raccoons, opossum, rabbits, lizards, and geckos seem to claim me, my home and yard, but not vice versa.
What is your secret vice?
I have a dark, wicked sense of humor in which I indulge, often.
Any guilty pleasures?
Knowing where to find great food in New Orleans and eating out more often than I would like to admit.
What scares you?
Apathy generally frightens me. Also, my vivid imagination is frightening at times. I have to be careful about my sensory consumption because I’ll daydream about things or have nightmares that are composites of whatever I saw, heard, or read.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be Batwoman or a starship captain or an astronaut. I thought Batgirl was lame. Uhura (on Star Trek) had great quadriceps and was black, but I wanted to wear boots with the tight pants and Kirk’s gold v-neck shirt with the wrap front and side closure. (Ok, I wanted to be the boss and explore new galaxies.) While clearly making a fashion statement, Jeannie was so ditzy, but Tony Nelson had the fun job at NASA (I Dream of Jeannie).
What are you reading right now?
The Agricultural Act of 2014, Kartusch (Cosgrove), The Success Principles (Canfield), 48 Laws of Power (Greene), Restoration Hardware Sourcebooks, and Southern Living.
My son Stephen’s tune “Niyah Learns to Swim.” He’s practicing on his sax right now and we’re working on tunes together—he writes tunes and I do lyrics.
Watching and re-watching too many TV series. Elementary, Grey’s Anatomy, Blacklist, Scandal, Homeland. This is how I relax.
Who inspires you?
My first three children have boldness and integrity that inspires me. They each know who they are and make no apology for it. John Scott, New Orleans sculptor, former teacher, mentor, and friend who told me that art is a lifestyle and my dreams are my responsibility; make them real. Herlin Riley, drummer, who has only had one job in his life, drummer. They all grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward. (Kel Smith, an outlier—not from the 9th Ward through no fault of his own—restores my faith in human nature.)
That changes from time to time but usually orange and I don’t know why.
Rock, paper, or scissors?
I want to say scissors because my roses need pruning and there are situations and people that I would be better off cutting out of the picture; or rock just in case I need it to inspire patience, shell nuts, hold down my files or whack somebody upside the head; but actually paper because I’m a writer: letters, journals, grants, plans. Note: I didn’t grow up playing rock, paper, scissors and learned the game as an adult. I don’t like zero sum games in general, unless I’m the winner.
Who are you following online?
I’m not following anyone intentionally online although some folks repeatedly cross my path or computer screen. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, founder of Isha Foundation—I keep track of what he’s saying and up to in hopes of informing my work. And civil rights attorney john powell, who founded the Haas Institute, I’m still figuring out how we are going to work together.
Who is the most progressive nonprofit or business leader you know?
What’s one question you’d like to ask yourself—and answer?
Why are we doing this again? Oh that’s right, to help people help themselves and each other.