Pensacola, Florida
Sunday August 19th 2018


Arts, Community and Dialogue

Gulf Future Coalition’s New Approach to Community Organizing
By Jessica Forbes

As the fourth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion approaches, one group—Gulf Future Coalition (GFC)—is looking for better ways to include the public in discussions about the challenges facing the Gulf Coast. Comprising over 60 organizations from across Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the GFC’s goal is “to ensure the Gulf of Mexico environment and communities are made whole from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.”

Working toward that end, the coalition is hosting salons—gatherings of citizens utilizing theatre, film and music as a means to start conversation—to engage residents in the affected states and also provide updates as to what’s happening with coastal restoration efforts after the 2010 BP disaster.

GFC, which is coordinated from the Gulf Restoration Network’s (GRN) offices in New Orleans, will hold salons in each of the five affected Gulf Coast states in March and early April 2014. The Florida Salon is fourth in the lineup, after Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana; the Alabama Salon will be held the weekend after Florida’s.

The salons will feature excerpts from documentaries depicting the struggles of communities along the Gulf Coast, theater and musical performances, a comprehensive workshop on the RESTORE Act and similar legislation, and breakout sessions during which participants discuss how to create a vision of a healthy Gulf.

If you’ve wanted to get a better understanding of the issues related to the BP disaster, the environmental challenges facing the Gulf Coast, and how the BP fine monies could possibly be spent, the salons are the perfect forum to do so in a setting designed to be engaging in ways that traditional meetings and committee hearings (no offense, government) typically are not.

What’s in a Name?
The word “salon” more often conjures up images of hair stylists and manicure stations these days than it does gatherings of artists and intellectuals. But that is in fact one definition of the word. In its work, the GFC is hearkening back to the old-school, arty days of the meaning of “salon,” defining each of the meetings as “a cultural gathering of individuals to creatively discuss society’s issues.”

Jayeesha Dutta, the GFC coordinator with the GRN, is at the fore of developing a new approach to oil spill recovery and Gulf restoration discussions, one that combines arts, environmentalism and civic engagement. “The idea of a salon indicates the use of culture and the arts as a launch point for dialogue and conversation, usually in a more informal setting,” she stated.

“Using a term that really indicates the arts-centeredness of the approach seemed important to me” Dutta said. “I know it’s a little different for folks, but my hope is that it can really indicate a tangibly different kind of space we’re trying to create.”

Having joined the GFC and GRN team in September 2013, her first environmental organizing position, Dutta said she immediately began seeing ways to apply her experience in arts education and social justice with education–based community organizing.

“It seemed given where the different policy processes are right now—particularly RESTORE, since right now we don’t know how much money is coming, we don’t know when it’s coming—there are so many questions, but the stakes are really, really high. For me it seemed like a natural progression to bring in the arts and culture as a way of keeping people emotionally engaged in the process for the long haul,” Dutta said.

Dutta, as she assessed where policy discussions and the public converged, saw a need to involve and interact with communities beyond traditional meetings, where citizens may only have a few minutes to address a governing body or group of officials.

“There’s no dialogue, there’s not really any place for collaborative brainstorming or people thinking together,” Dutta stated. “We wanted to show a different way of gathering voices so that when we go into the Gulf Gathering this year, it’s not just the voices of the people in the room, but also the voices of all the folks that we have been hearing from over the previous five weeks in these salons.”

Developing Partnerships
The Gulf Gathering is an annual meeting of the GFC, the event that the coalition originally formed around. “The GFC came about right before the BP disaster as an initiative between GRN and the Gulf Coast Fund to bring people across the Gulf Coast together,” Dutta said. The 2010 BP disaster galvanized the group, which has met annually since then. The 2014 gathering is scheduled for mid-April, shortly after the final salon in Orange Beach, Ala.

GRN, which plays a role in coordinating the Gulf Gathering, is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2014. While much of GRN’s original work was dedicated to door-to-door canvassing, the group has also established a presence at music festivals in the Southeast and has developed relationships with musicians and arts partners.

GRN has served as the primary non-profit partner at New Orleans’ annual Voodoo Music + Arts Experience and partnered with Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, all steps to reach a broader audience.

“The utilization of the arts as a way of engaging the public is not new to GRN, but I think it’s been in a more traditional form of a table at an event, as opposed to the actual utilization of the art as the engagement practice,” Dutta said.

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