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As the South Goes; Organizing, Healing and Resilience in Gulf Coast Communities

We need folks to value our difference and to value our uniqueness and to say that there just might be something as innovative as jazz to come out and solve this climate change problem.”

An Interview with Colette Pichon Battle by Marcy Rein and Jess Clarke

This interview was recorded at the Our Power Convening in Richmond, California in August 2014. The meeting drew community organizers, scholars, and activists from all over the nation together to consider new approaches to ecological restoration, social justice, and paths towards ending the extractive economy. Listen to the podcast at reimaginerpe.org.

 

Colette Pichon Battle: I am from Slidell, Louisiana. I’m the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. We work with communities of color throughout the Gulf Coast, from Houston to Pensacola. We take a regional approach to building community and we specifically work with what we call frontline communities who are often people of color and low-income folks living on the coasts.

Our job at the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy has really been to bring the subject of climate change to the community level and say, listen, when our 90-year-old matriarch has never seen this and when oil is washing onto our coast for five years straight, something is going on.

We are in the frontlines of climate disasters, of disasters by extractive industries. Meanwhile, the recovery for those industries in disaster is very quick and the recovery for the communities that we serve is very slow. Something is going on. There’s an imbalance, and it’s not about Republican or Democrat, it’s not about white or black, it’s about something that we’ve lost around our humanity and we’ve got to get that back.

Black Brown Unity

That’s what everyone talked to me about. “Colette, where’s the black-brown tension?” In my neighborhood it was really funny because I remember going home and my Uncle built a fire. There were some Latino folks who had moved into the neighborhood, and my Uncle can hardly speak great English. He can’t speak a lick of Spanish, but it was a holy day. It was a Catholic holy day that in my community is celebrated with fire, good conversation, good food, some beer, a lot of laughter, and a lot of love. It happened that these Latinos who were visiting were also Catholic. They come from a Catholic tradition, I’ll say like that. So they knew to celebrate this day, we knew to celebrate this day, and it turns out that the Vietnamese community also comes from this Catholic tradition. So here we have these folks who don’t speak the same language, but they come from a religious tradition that is familiar to each other. On top of the religious tradition, regardless of what you think about that, they come from cultures that really value family, they value joy and laughter, and they value food and a good time. These are people who sit under trees to talk and exchange stories. These are people who make music from limbs and grass blades. These are people who understand and love the environment they live in. Even through language barriers they had cultural connections that you couldn’t make up if you tried. You couldn’t teach that. These were people who had been rooted in something and there was a connection that they all could find, and we do our work based off of those connections. We don’t feel like we need to go create new connections for you to engage in.

Listen, if you celebrate All Souls Day, and I celebrate Día de los Muertos, and we all got to go to church and have a feast afterward, well, let’s have that feast. Let’s celebrate together and let’s also talk about what’s happening in our community and how we’re all being impacted. This is how we build those alliances. We can’t build those alliances because I like you and you like me. It rarely works like that. It usually works with: I identify with what you’re doing and who you are and you can identify with what I’m doing and who I am—that’s a little bit of trust. We can go from there.

Marcy Rein: Can you talk a little bit more about having established that trust and some of the work that you did together in this alliance?

Battle: Sure. Well, I want to be honest and say there were a lot of attempts. There had to be a lot of learning. Our first attempt was getting everyone in a room and having everyone talk about the issue as we saw it. Well, that doesn’t work even when you have the right translation. People don’t know each other. They have to know each other. We found that the folks most willing to get to know each other were actually women. So we pulled together African American women, Latino women, and Asian American women, mostly Vietnamese, into a room and literally used some of their leaders and had those leaders talk about their communities. When women talk about their communities it’s sort of like women talking about their children. It’s pride, love, and some sadness and tears in a way that women can exchange with one another. It turns out women actually play very large roles, especially in Southern households, despite popular opinion. So a lot of the moral fabric and the moral movement of a family and of a community is done through the women. So we’ve worked with bringing these women together to just really sort of talk with each other and to each other. Then, from there, we actually used a People’s Movement assembly format. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but it’s basically a format that says, listen, we are experiencing our lives. What you experience is your truth. Let’s exchange and learn a little bit more about each other’s truth and let’s set an agenda. Let’s set a collective agreement together to move forward so that we can reach a collective vision.

We have some women coming together next week to talk to a senior senator in Louisiana who needs the people of color vote to win. So we’re actually going to talk to her about climate change and extractive industries as women, as mothers, as value holders in a community to say we need you to shift the economy from this oil-based economy that’s killing us, that’s poisoning our sand, our beaches, and our waterways, that’s hurting our seafood industry, that’s causing these storms that make us lose everything, including our traditions that we’ve held for generations. We need you to switch your viewpoint to an economy based in renewable energy and in energy that can make us stronger. I won’t be saying anything. These are women who have all the stories. They’ve got everything they need. The only thing I did was coordinate a ribbon. That was my job: coordinate the ribbon and let the women speak for the community.

Jess Clarke: Is this a state senator or a U.S. senator?

Battle: This is a U.S. senator.

Clarke: So what do you think that Senator could help move within Louisiana?

Battle: I live in a state where all of our elected officials still deny climate change. Louisiana is full of elected officials whose main contributors are the oil companies. So we recognize that she’s in a predicament. She needs the money to win the race, and a lot of her money and a lot of her opponent’s money will come from the oil company and the Koch brothers, apparently. So all I ask is for her to actually reconsider her position specifically on the Keystone XL pipeline. She came out recently, just before they came into their recess, with the big Keystone fight. One of the only democrats voting for the Keystone pipeline to go forward was the democrat from Louisiana, and we know why but we have to tell her that’s not acceptable. It is said that people of color don’t care about environment and climate issues. It’s not true. Factually, that’s not how we vote. It’s not true, but we need to show her, and we will show her next week. A group of 50 women of color who care about the climate issues, who care about the environment. The specific ask is to acknowledge the climate crisis that the coastal communities are going through; to reconsider an economy based on oil to an economy based on renewable energy; and to make and stand up for policies that make Louisiana stronger, as opposed to making Louisiana weaker. They seem a little broad but we have a broad cross-section of folks.

Rein: Where have people taken their concern about jobs and education into actions? What are the obstacles to organizing in the Deep South?

Battle: I was asked yesterday to speak about a campaign I was working on, and I was like, “Oh, there is no campaign. I’m just working to get people to acknowledge climate change. That’s all I’m doing.” Over the last 10 years, there is an undercurrent that stops all progress, which is trauma. I think we’re not like some other communities where something bad is happening, and the response is “let’s all galvanize.” We’re actually in a different place: “Something bad is happening, let’s deal with everyone’s trauma first.” This trauma is something I’ve never experienced before.... I actually had a few Vietnam vets tell me that this was a lot like having to deal with some of their comrades after a really traumatic experience. It’s really hard to move. The first several years of our work have been to really kind of get people unstuck and to get people to really grieve. This is a mourning process and it’s a regional mourning process, so more than specific campaigns to get things done, we’ve been working on people’s trauma. There’s a broader trauma that the Deep South holds, which is around race. It’s been really interesting to try to address generations of race trauma on top of Katrina trauma, on top of BP trauma, and to get folks to sit in a room and trust each other and trust that there’s something we can do to stop this. Our work hasn’t really yielded what I would call “campaigns.” Instead, it’s yielded alliances. We know that more storms are coming. That’s the one thing that coastal communities know for sure. The question is: what are we going to do to get ready for them? What are we going to do to survive them? So, I would offer that ourdisaster planning work has really been, again, rooted in a lot of women, but rooted in these different coastal communities.

Survival Comes First

How do we communicate during a storm? How do we get fresh water during a storm? We’re working on a project now to get communities to harvest rainwater because it’s a storm and we’ve lots of wonderful rain coming down. It turns out people need water after a disaster so why not get these folks who are impacted to harvest the rainwater so that people who need it can have water? After Katrina, people went without water for days, and what was most sinister is that the nation was sending billions of dollars, donations, and they were going to churches, but these churches and other institutions go down race lines. So there were communities that got water and there were communities that didn’t get water. Those communities that didn’t get water were browner and poorer. The storm did not make that distinction, let me be clear. The storm was equitable. It hit everyone. But why can’t we get water to old people, to people who couldn’t get out of their homes because their wheelchair hasn’t been fixed in 20 years? So, little projects like: what do we do when the next storm comes? How do we communicate? How do we get water to people? How do we know who’s left and who’s not left? We’ve established lots of disaster preparedness strategies, tactics. We haven’t had to use them, thank God. Hopefully we’ll never use them, but the problem before was that they weren’t even there. They weren’t even there and we live on the coast. The climate is changing and we live on the coast. We’ve got to start getting ready for that.

Clarke: So you’ve made this progress in building these kinds of coalitions. First, your challenge has been to break through the climate denial but also break through the racism denial. Then the process of healing people’s trauma actually ends up being at the front end of all the constructive work. So, as you wrap it up, just add a little more about how doing positive self-reliant engaged activities is actually kind of a reciprocal building tool for trauma reduction.

Battle: When Hurricane Katrina hit, there was this very interesting fight around what to call the people impacted by Katrina. First it was: you’re a victim. Then it was: a refugee. That was crazy. You should’ve seen the people react to being called a refugee. Then it was being called a Katrina survivor. I think survivor stuck the longest. What struck me the most was the first one was the victim. The first name we recognized and understood for our region was the victimization. I think a lot of our livelihoods, not just our social livelihood but even the extractive industries that operate within our world, really lend itself to this victimization paradigm, and you have to be healed from that. You have to heal to switch from victim to survivor, and you have to heal in a real way to not pass that along to other generations. I think the race trauma in the South hasn’t actually been healed, so it just passes onto generation and generation. To see the Katrina trauma, I think for many of us, especially those of us who work directly around race, we came to value those who were working around the physical healing and the traumatic healing. The best remedy for healing, any doctor will tell you and so will my grandmother, is sunshine, movement, water, and happiness and laughter. These things are actual remedies. I know we take them for granted and we don’t think of them as such, but they’re actual remedies. We had to find reasons to laugh and reasons to love that water that destroyed our home again. I grew up loving that bayou. It wasn’t supposed to swell the way that it did and so I had to learn to love it again, to love it so much I’ll fight for it now.

So I think the trauma had to be healed, has to be healed, and the aggregate trauma has to be dealt with at some point. It’s going to take real mental health professionals to come in and do some real work. It’s going to take social structures like churches to allow their congregations to acknowledge their own trauma and what that does to your body and your mind to survive something like that. Then I think it’s actually going to take us to be gentle with each other a little bit. A lot of the organizing is: you should be here protesting and yelling! Everyone’s not ready to do that and so you have to be gentle with folks. When folks get strong enough they’ll stand up for themselves. So I’ve come to appreciate healing and the art of it in a way that I don’t think I ever had before. There’s this murder rate happening in New Orleans right now and this crime rate. What they’re finding out is it’s basically all these children who went through Katrina. They are now of age. They are now adults in our society who have never healed form this, who have never healed from this really awful thing that nobody even wants to talk about anymore. They don’t even say “Katrina” anymore, by the way. They say the “storms of 2005 in the Gulf Coast.”

Anyway, I would say the healing is something that I think I didn’t recognize was going to be so prominent, but it is there and it has to happen. Any community that experiences what we experienced in the Gulf Coast--twice--is going to have to heal twice as long. In closing, I would say I think we get thought of last. The South gets thought of last. We get laughed at, we get mocked, and we get no respect. But somehow, we’re the place people know to go for fun, for laughter, for food, for music, for the things that we really value as beautiful in our communities. I would say the kind of leadership and the kind of innovation that you see in food and music; it exists with the people in the Gulf Coast. I think the minute we lift that region up is the minute we change the world. The congressional leaders in the United States Congress are from the South. They’re a little ridiculous sometimes but they are ours and they’re from the South. Those policies that they enact impact the world, and we elect them. Why aren’t more folks engaging with the Southern constituencies who put these people in office?

The oil industry—it would fail if not for New Orleans and Houston. It would fail. The military industrial complex—you could take it down by taking down the Gulf Coast all at one time because of the military bases that we have there. We play an important role in the future of this nation and the future of the world. We can’t continue to be thought of as last, insufficient, or, “They talk too funny to put on the microphone.” We need folks to value our difference and to value our uniqueness and to say that there just might be something as innovative as jazz to come out and solve this climate change problem. So that’s what I would say. I would say the leaders are in the South. There are a million Colettes out there who didn’t have the opportunities that I had, but they’re still there. They survived that storm. They survived that oil disaster and they’re still there. I think with a little bit of help from our friends we could really lift up some real leadership and change the world. n

 

Marcy Rein is a freelance writer and Reimagine RP&E contributing editor. Jess Clarke is editor and project director of Reimaigine! Transcribed by Daniel Salazar.