March 14, 2016
When most people think of environmental justice communities, they envision lower-income neighborhoods and towns that suffer disproportionately from the negative effects of pollution and other environmental problems. For more than a decade, Sharon and David Gauthe have been promoting a concept of regional environmental justice communities. Through their work for Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing (BISCO), Sharon and David have seen firsthand the profound and intertwined effects of poverty and environmental crises on the people of the Gulf Coast, where incomes tend to be lower — and poverty rates higher — than the country as a whole.
In 2000, after a long career in social services, Sharon started working for BISCO, a faith-based organization working to advance social and environmental justice in southeast Louisiana. She is now the organization’s executive director. David had volunteered for BISCO since the mid-90s and was hired as a senior organizer in 2008.
Bringing attention to Gulf Coast needs
“Our interest in environmental justice peaked after Hurricane Katrina,” Sharon says. “People everywhere heard about New Orleans and reacted, but recognition of issues for people living on the coast was almost nonexistent. Ever since, David and I have worked hard to address the environmental concerns facing our community, and our story was told as the BISCO story.”
Through informal education and advocacy, BISCO builds awareness and knowledge of the role that environmental injustice plays in the negative environmental impacts faced by Gulf Coast communities. The organization helps build community capacity for addressing the systemic causes of these injustices and for building strong, just, and healthy communities for the future.
In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the hard work of Sharon, David, and the BISCO staff with a First Place Gulf Guardian Award in the Environmental Justice and Cultural Diversity Category. “All the BISCO staff works together closely, and so the honor of being named a Gulf Guardian goes to us all,” Sharon says. “The award also means a lot to David and me because of the 16 years we have spent listening to the people of southeast Louisiana and advocating for their needs. We are proud to have fought this battle and truly believe we have made a difference.”
Helping communities respond to crises
In 2010, just five years after the devastation of Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill brought the Gulf Coast yet another setback. BISCO responded immediately by organizing 14 community meetings that gave more than 1,500 residents a chance to voice their concerns about the spill. Later, the organization partnered with scientists from Tulane University and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston who studied the long-term human health effects of the oil spill as part of the NIEHS-funded Deepwater Horizon Research Consortia.
Sharon says that BISCO’s good standing in the community as a faith-based, nonprofit organization made it very easy to work with community members on Consortia projects. Through this academic-community partnership, the scientists learned the importance of organizations like BISCO in helping community members trust scientists conducting research in their communities.
“We worked directly with the university researchers to review their maps, materials, and documents and to assist them in making information easily understood and relevant to our community members,” she says. “We also connected the researchers to our local parish government leaders, as well as local and regional health departments, so that findings from the studies could be shared with them and others in our community.”
Today, coastal communities in Louisiana are still dealing with lingering effects from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill while also facing a massive coastal erosion problem that, coupled with sea-level rise, is threatening the very survival of large swaths of coastline. Thanks to BISCO’s campaign to increase community involvement in the 2012 Louisiana Master Plan, more wetland development was added to the plan and a new community focus group was formed, with BISCO holding a seat. Through trainings and monthly meetings, BISCO continues to bring awareness to issues associated with coastal land loss.
Under Sharon and David’s leadership, BISCO’s many advocacy programs have increased awareness of the significance of environmental justice for Gulf Coast communities. This awareness helped build greater political support for increasing funding for projects aimed at addressing the systemic causes of injustices experienced by people of the Gulf Coast.
“Today, the notion that an entire region can be labeled an environmental justice community has gained general acceptance and is playing an important role in the planning and funding for community rebuilding across the coast,” Sharon says. “This is the type of system change that can make a difference for thousands of coastal residents, and we are very proud to have been a primary actor in this change.”