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Tuesday November 25th 2014

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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.

While considering options for merging arts and policy during her early months on the job, Dutta attended a performance of the outdoor theatre piece “Cry You One” in the fall of 2013, and discovered individuals with a similar desire to merge arts and environmental dialogue in the cast and crew. Like Dutta’s vision, “Cry You One” pairs discussion of environmental issues and government policy with music and theatre to serve as a catalyst for constructive discussion.

“They wanted to figure out a way that they could take their show on the road and bring it communities, particularly their priority being frontline communities that are being highly impacted by environmental issues,” Dutta said. “As we started talking it seemed there was a natural fit.”

Arts and Policy
From Dutta’s initial conversation with the “Cry You One” team, the idea of the salons grew. In addition to performances of excerpts from the play during each salon, clips from the documentaries “Can’t Stop the Water” and “Come Hell or High Water,” filmed in Isle de Jean Charles, La. and Turkey Creek, Miss., respectively, will also be shown.

“We naturally connected through our partners,” said Dutta of the filmmakers involved in the projects, explaining that the communities featured in the documentaries are connected to the coalition.

And while defining policies is inescapable when it comes to restoration, the salon is hoping to touch on the basics without getting mired down in the mechanics. “Alphabet Soup: Decoding Restoration Policy,” is a portion of the program that will explain the various funding sources that will provide money for restoration, which will serve as a basis for discussing what individuals would like to see happen in their communities with the funds as they are made available.

Compared to the 2010 disaster’s National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process and other penalties BP has paid under plea agreements that the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) will administer, Dutta believes the RESTORE Act—or the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012—which governs how penalties BP pays under the Clean Water Act will be distributed, will allow for more meaningful public input as to projects they would like to see funded.

“With RESTORE, I think there is a true intention to build a public engagement structure that can really have the funds used in ways that communities, the most impacted folks can have a say. So that’s really where we’re focusing our energies the most,” Dutta said.

Ultimately, based on the conversations at the five salons, the coalition envisions developing a comprehensive mapping analysis that bridges social and physical science, which can be presented to guide future restoration policy and practice.

“We have been meeting with Justin Ehrenwerth, who is the Executive Director of the RESTORE Council, and with the newly appointed Director of External Relations, Bethany Kraft, who is kind of on loan to the RESTORE Council from the Ocean Conservancy. The Ocean Conservancy is one of our Gulf Future Coalition partners,” Dutta said. “We feel very encouraged by the fact that someone who is considered part of the coalition is in a role that can really help to shape the policies to truly engage the public and produce the kind of results that we’re looking to see.”

Day-Of Information
To assure that everyone who would like to participate in the salons is able to do so, the coalition has set a sliding scale for admission. “Most of our coalition members are grassroots community organizations. We wanted to make sure that this event is accessible to all of members as well as the broader public, so we did not want cost to be a deterrent for attendance,” Dutta said, who noted that the coalition also conducted a crowd funding campaign last fall through CrowdRise and raised some funds to offset costs.

Also, should people have scheduling conflicts, it is possible to attend only a portion of the day. The documentary clips will be shown between 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. “The afternoon will be the story mapping and creative visioning process,” Dutta said. “So it depends on what folks are most interested in, but people can definitely come for whatever portion of the day they’re able to.”

If possible, GFC asks for people to register ahead of the event via the online registration form.

Dutta attended the public comment meetings across the Gulf Coast in January and February for the NRDA Draft Programmatic and Phase III Early Restoration Plan and Draft Early Restoration Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. Based on the turnout in Pensacola—even with it being merged with the Panama City meeting as a result of Winter Storm Leon— Dutta is optimistic about the potential to deepen ties in the Panhandle. “Even if you doubled the numbers of the meetings that I have been to across the Gulf Coast, the Florida meeting was the most highly attended,” she stated.

“Florida seems ready to engage in this process in a way some other places could learn from. I’m excited to see who does show up,” Dutta said.

More on what you’ll encounter at the GFC salon:

Issues on Stage
Issues on Film
Mark Your Calendars

GULF FUTURE COALITION FLORIDA SALON
WHAT: An arts-based gathering to prompt discussion and develop a vision for Gulf restoration
WHEN: 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturday, March 29
WHERE: Woodland Heights Resource Center, 111 Berkley Dr.
COST: Admission is set on a sliding scale from $0—$20, based on what an attendee feels they can afford to give
INFO: For more information or to register for the salon, visit gulffuture.org.