The Gulf Coast Catastrophe: Let's Put Our Trust in Women's Solutions

Fifty-eight days. Sixty million gallons of oil. Despite BP's ongoing attempt to cover it up, there is simply no denying that the effects of the oil pouring into the waters, marshes and wetlands of the Gulf spell devastation for generations to come. The ecology of the Gulf (and beyond) has been changed forever by BP's malfeasance -- and so have the lives of the people who live there, many of whom make their living off these waters that are now closed for business.

That is no small matter to communities that are still recovering from the profound effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita -- and who continue to battle the longstanding history of economic injustice that is synonymous with the region. In the face of gross government neglect, grassroots organizations across the Gulf Coast that have spent the last five years rebuilding homes and business are now faced with the reality that entire economies may never come back. Fishermen and their families also stand at the front lines; a trade that has been passed down from generation to generation among Gulf Coast families may very well have seen its last days.

Brenda Dardar Robichaux, chief of the United Houma Nation, whose 17,000-plus members live along Louisiana's coastal marshlands, knows firsthand how ecological disasters can destroy the economic underpinnings of coastal communities. After the hurricanes, she worked alongside others to ensure the survival of her tribe. These days, as the crude continues to invade fishing waters, she sees a whole way of life on the brink of disappearing. In a  recent interview with NPR's Michel Martin, she described the economic devastation her community faces:

"People are not able to go out on their fishing vessels anymore. The season has been closed and that's the way that they earn their living. Where other people live check to check, we live catch to catch. Those fishing nets are not in the water, so they are not catching anything. And they're not able to provide for their families."

No fishing. No tourism. No jobs. Massive ecological impact. The problems propagating on the Gulf Coast are many, and multi-layered -- yet both the government and BP have proven they are sorely outmatched when it comes to taking action to save what is left of these communities and the natural environment they call home.

So what is left? Where can we turn to find the expertise needed to craft the solutions that will recover livelihoods and protect families and communities? If the aftermath of Katrina and Rita is any indication, the answer lies with women like Brenda, in communities all across the Gulf Coast.

In the days and months after the hurricanes hit in 2005, organizations led by low-income women and women of color -- who were disproportionately impacted by the hurricanes -- found ways to meet the urgent needs of their communities as few others could. They knew better than anyone the real problems families were facing -- in large part because they were from these communities themselves. They understood how disempowered and betrayed families who had lost everything felt in the face of inexcusable government neglect. They knew firsthand how the imposition of solutions and unjust policies from above further reinforced disenfranchisement in already marginalized communities. Despite their own profound losses they stayed home when they could have left and organized to ensure that representatives of their communities had seats at the table when decisions were being made about how to bring the Gulf back from the brink of disaster.

The power, expertise and leadership of women in these communities is something we put our trust in from the very beginning. Immediately after the hurricanes the  Ms. Foundation for Women created the Katrina Women's Response Fund, and over time invested more than $3 million in 40 organizations led by low-income women and women of color across the Gulf. We used that money to help build the leadership and capacity of both existing and emerging grassroots and state-level organizations to advocate for a just and sustainable recovery -- and to promote the policy solutions of women across race and class.

We continue to see the wisdom of investing in women's solutions, and are moved by the conviction our grantees demonstrate day after day, as they show up and stand up, demanding seats at the table as decisions about their communities are made. Because of their commitment, lives were changed, and saved, five years ago -- and their work continues to have enormous impact to this day.

Now, as the Gulf Coast faces another disastrous summer, we must remember how crucial women's voices have been to improving the lives across the Gulf, and include them in this new recovery process as quickly as possible. Already KWRF grantees like Dardar Robichaux and former grantee Sharon Hanshaw of Coastal Women for Change in East Biloxi, MS have stepped up and are speaking out about how the spread of oil is threatening the people in their hometowns. They are organizing a response that reflects the complexities of life lived in these Gulf communities: by bringing diverse groups of fishing families and restaurant workers together to share their concerns; by providing them with essential information that is in short supply; and by providing local children with outlets to share their fears about the oil disaster.

Fifty-eight days. Sixty million gallons of oil. That's an awfully big mess to clean up. Fixing this problem -- and ensuring it never happens again -- will require not just a little commitment from a few of us, but a huge commitment from all of us to build a new way of life that protects our environment and our coastal communities from disasters of the man-made variety. And engaging and investing in women's solutions is one sure step toward making that ideal a reality.


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