Audacious Water: The Podcast with Guest Amy Lesen
Episode #4: Lesen on the lasting impacts of Hurricane Ida on BIPOC communities
Researcher and activist Amy Lesen on why Ida is the most destructive in memory for the region’s most vulnerable communities, what’s being done (and can be done) to help in the aftermath, and how working with these communities has changed her as a person
Listen to the full episode here or on your favorite podcast platform.
- Amy’s bio as Research Associate Professor at the Tulane ByWater Institute
- Dillard University’s Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center, where Amy is a professor and researcher
- Pratt Institute, the art and design school in NYC where Amy taught in their science department
- Boat People SOS — the community-based organization that Amy trained while involved in a study about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
- Some of the communities Amy works with: Terrebonne Parish, LA; Lafourche Parish, LA; Plaquemines Parish, LA; Jean Lafitte, LA; and Jefferson Parish, LA
- Ironton community of Plaquemines Parish — the community Amy works with that has a sinister history of white supremacy
- More on Hurricane Katrina
- More on Hurricane Ida
- More on the differences between Hurricanes Ida and Katrina
- Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe, Theresa Dardar of the Pointe-au-Chien and Shirley Laska of the Lowlander Center, some of the people Amy’s been working with on relief efforts
- Lowlander Center, the NGO Amy is affiliated with
- First Peoples Conservation Council, another tribe Amy works closely with
- The announcement of Amy’s appointment to the Louisiana state task force on COVID-19 and health equity task force
- Julie Olsen, the director of the Plaquemines Community Care Center — the only provider of mental health services in Parish of Plaquemines
- More on the toxins in people’s drinking water after Hurricane Katrina
- Kristina Peterson, Amy’s mentor and founder of the Lowlander Center
- More on Hurricane Sandy
- Some organizations Amy recommends donating to to support relief efforts: First People’s Conservation Congress, First Peoples of Louisiana Hurricane Ida Recovery, Lowlander Center, and Lowlander Center Hurricane Ida Response Fund
JOHN: Welcome to the show Amy. You started out as a biologist, published a lot of research on ants in San Francisco Bay. Now you’re an associate professor at Dillard in that university’s Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center. And your scholarship is focused on health inequities, the interrelationship between environmental and human social dynamics along coastal communities, as well as questions about how people learn about and engage most impactfully with science, including through art, which is fascinating. It’s a big shift, and you and I have talked about this before. What prompted you to move in these directions with your scholarship?
AMY: Yeah, it’s a big shift. So first of all I studied marine protists in grad school, not ants.
JOHN: Oh, right.
AMY: I guess I would say that I’ve always been somebody who was — I’ve always had an affinity for the humanities, for creative writing and the arts, but I always wanted to be something that had to do with biology. And those two things didn’t seem to me when I was very young to be able to be — there was no way to solve that problem except to just become a biologist and then still be interested in the things that I was interested in. I did minor in philosophy in college. I almost double-majored or made myself major in the history of science — I mean, sorry, the philosophy of science. And the thing that really pushed me over the edge was a couple of things. One is realizing when I was in graduate school at a very prestigious research — one university that that — being a professor at that type of university was not my path, and that I wanted — I really enjoyed teaching and I wanted to be at a smaller more liberal-arts-focused school. And then I ended up getting a very strange job, which was at a science department at an arts school in Brooklyn called the “Pratt Institute,” which is similar to Cooper Union in New York as an art school and a design school that used to have an engineering school — or that has an engineering. Pratt used to have an engineering school, and then it became a smaller science department. So in essence, to boil it down, I got a job teaching science to artists, designers, and architects. And it really allowed me to see a way to start to combine all the things that I was interested in, and I got really interested in social science, and history, and policy. And then when I moved here to New Orleans from New York in 2007, after having met my significant other who’s from here, a month before Katrina and kind of vicariously going through all of that with her, and already had been interested in the conundrum of cities on coasts under climate change, it just was so clear to me that one needs all of these different disciplines together in order to start attacking these — what we call these “wicked problems.” And I happened to be interested in a lot of different things. And it was a really hard transition in the sense that it was not clear to me how to continue to do all of these different things. There are not a lot of departments in New Orleans that are cross-disciplinary in nature. And so I was lucky enough to find a job at Dillard University where I still teach pretty traditional science, but they’re very interested in my way of looking at things. And now I’m able to be in the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center. And when I was at Tulane full-time working for the Bywater Institute, that — one of the reasons I wanted to be there is because it was a cross-disciplinary environmental center. So I’ve managed to create situations for myself where I can do the things I do. And it turns out they’re important, I find them fascinating, and other people seem to agree. So that’s a very short way to answer that question, but…
JOHN: That sounds like [CROSSTALK fortuitous, right? I remember at IB — at (Integrative) Biology when we were grad students together, talking to (Terry Chapen) about his path, and asking him if he always knew he was going to be where he was. And he said, “Absolutely not. I’ve gone down many blind alleys in my career and I’m better for it more or less,” which I thought was a great answer as a grad student to hear, right?
AMY: It is. And what’s super cool is that (Terry Chapen) ended up at Alaska, and now does stuff more like what I do. So, yeah, you never know.
JOHN: Exactly. So let’s shift gears and let’s start — I’ve got a long list of questions to ask you because you have such an interesting and varied background and also focus. You’ve written on a “tension that environmental scientists face in producing rigorous research that’s also civically-engaged, and that involves benefits for communities.” What’s a good example of that tension from your own career and how did you resolve it?
AMY: You know, it’s interesting. I don’t know if I’ve had to worry as much about that tension other than the fact that I needed to find a department that was willing to embrace the kind of publications that I turned out, which were not traditional biology publications, although I have a number of those. But, you know, ever since I — I don’t know, ever since, like, 2007, ’08, ’09, ’10 maybe I haven’t published really hardly any traditional biology. So I guess one tension for me was just finding a place for myself where I could honestly, just to be, like, candid, get tenure and be able to do these crazy things. Because I do — well, that’s really — this isn’t true. I was involved — a good example of this is I was involved in a more social-science-oriented study about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, doing interviews and surveys with people in the coastal communities seven years after. And we trained a community-based organization that serves the Vietnamese community in Bayou La Batre, Alabama called “BPSOS, Boat People SOS,” to do the work. And I’m a member of this — it wasn’t Citizen Science because they were our partners, but I’m part of the Citizen Science Association, which is this organization that cropped up a few years ago to deal with citizen science in particular. And one of the things it’s talked about a lot at those meetings and in their publications is people being very suspicious of data that’s collected by whatever we mean when we say “non-scientists” — and, you know, that’s a whole philosophical conversation we could get into — but, like, what makes an expert, who is a scientist? And so it was interesting to me because of the way I approach citizen — the way I approach community engagement, I had to learn some things about how to train my community partners to do research because I actually was not giving them enough training. And so it was really interesting to me, like, you’d find yourself on this nice edge of not wanting to be this — at the time I was at Tulane, this, like, fancy university — you know, professor coming in and telling people what to do. And yet it was also necessary for me to make sure that people were trained properly to, like, do what we needed. And these folks already had some experience doing things, but we wanted — doing research, but we wanted things done a certain way. And so it was — I had to kind of fight my own community engagement proclivities or my own personality in being a little bit more detailed and firm about training. So that’s a really interesting example for me, because, like, I almost had to do the opposite of what I really wanted to do in order to make sure that I myself felt like we were getting [CROSSTALK].
JOHN: That’s interesting. Let’s flip that on its head and I want to ask you a question about that same experience. And one of the things that in the work that I do with my colleagues at ASU in our convergence work is think about community-based science, participatory science that’s non-extractive. And so there’s the flip, mistrust right, of the community that the scientists are actually doing something that’s going to be meaningful. How does that play into what you do?
AMY: Well, it plays into what I do in the sense that I’ve decided at this point that, you know, there’s — as you know, like, there’s a bunch of different ways to get involved in research. One is to develop it yourself, and the other is people invite you to be part of their studies. And I get invited to be — I think because I have this kind of interesting background people invite me to be part of their projects a lot. And I’ve learned I have to be really clear with people and I’m migrating more towards just doing the work that I want to be doing because I mostly want to be doing work where I go to a [quote, unquote] community. I mean, I’m part of the community that I study, which is another, like, kind of philosophy of science issue. Like, I live in New Orleans and I study this system. But I go to people and I say, like, what do you want to do? Like, here’s this grant proposal. Like, is there anything this grant — RFP — like, is there anything that we can do that’s actually useful to you? Or I get approached by people. And that’s what I’m starting to do is just literally not do research that’s just my idea. And I can’t imagine… I mean, you know, like, some of the work that I was describing to you earlier… Sometimes I have an idea and I’ll go to people, and I’ll say, “I think this is important. Does it affect you?” And if they say, “Yes, that’s actually a huge problem,” you know, then I’ll say, “Well, what can we do together to attack this? These are the ideas I have.” And so I guess what I’m trying to do in my own work is, like, be extremely collaborative with my target collaborative participatory partners who are outside of academia, and just not do anything that they think is worthless or dumb, I mean, honestly.
JOHN: So it’s, like — I mean, co-production starts with ideation.
JOHN: Yeah, that’s super cool. Let’s talk about the communities that you work with. You mentioned the Vietnamese community in Alabama. I know you’ve worked with tribes and African-American communities on the fringe of, you know, habitable land. So just describe the communities and what they have at stake.
AMY: Yeah. I mean, I work with communities. I work with folks, neighborhood groups, and organizations and communities here in New Orleans, largely people who are underserved in some way, be it (BIPOC) communities and/or communities that are underserved socioeconomically, or all of the above. And I work with tribes on the coast and other communities on the coast. And, I mean, I think it’s interesting because it’s easy to look at Louisiana and say, like, coastal communities period. And the folks I work with down in coastal Terrebonne and (Lafourche) Parish think they have very little in common with folks in New Orleans, which I think is probably true for the most part, except for the fact that we are in an existential crisis about living on the coast, and the fact that most people that I’ve met who’ve lived on the coast of Louisiana, or really most other gulf states, for their whole lives would like very much to continue to live here. And I’m starting to feel that my job is more about how to help them figure out — how we can all help each other figure out how to live here at the same time that we also are addressing the potential possibility of having to leave. But I would say, you know, the communities that are more rural in Terrebonne and (Lafourche), Plaquemines Parish, largely fishing communities, largely Native American communities, are certainly where traditionally subsistence, fishers and hunters, have faced, you know, huge changes in their physical and ecological — their physical environment and ecology, and, you know, huge social changes. All the communities I work with, including African-American, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian communities, and Native American communities have historically been the targets of institutionalized racism here. For example, I’m working with a neighborhood — it’s a community named “Ironton” right now in Plaquemines Parish. Plaquemines Parish has a really sinister white supremacy history. And this community, as far as I understand, is right next to the river and it’s on a former plantation, and it was founded by former slaves that worked at that plantation. And there’s only I think about thirty houses there. And the community there still feels that they’re fighting against forces from the Parish of Plaquemines that don’t really want them there and would rather see some industrial site where they are right on the river. So, you know, there’s a legacy of a lot of history, discrimination. Most of the communities I work with are working-class or poor and are hugely impacted by environmental change. And so it’s really about how to try to work with people who are experts on their own environment, and they’re experts in their own lives, and have some pretty good ideas about how they want to do things and what they want to actually be able to have the capacity to bring that to fruition. Because they usually know a lot about what they need to do and are just needing help to try to actualize that, and often have a lot of science and a lot of information that they really want. And so those are the kinds of things that I can help them with.
JOHN: Interesting. Tell me what Ida did to these sorts of communities. And a second question is — and this is one in a series of many disasters. I mean, you mentioned the oil spill, you mentioned Katrina before, there were two other cat. 4 or 5 storms right before Ida. So first question is, what did Ida do? And second question is, has the mentality changed or evolved at all such that it’s viewed as a normal, as a stress — you know, a press instead of a shock?
AMY: Yeah. Yeah, that’s interesting. Well, I will say that much to my surprise every person who lives in coastal Terrebonne, (Lafourche), or Plaquemines, or Jefferson — because we’re working with people in Jean Lafitte and Jefferson Parish as well — have said that this is the worst hurricane that they can remember in their lifetime, including Hurricane Betsy, which was a really, really bad hurricane for them.
AMY: You know, for those people who are listening who don’t realize this, like, where you are on the coast and where a hurricane hits, and the strength of the winds, all of those things are so variable that, you know, an 85 mile shift, or a 15 mile shift to the east or the west right before it hits land, or windspeed… For example, you know, Hurricane Katrina did not — most people don’t realize — didn’t hit New Orleans head on. It — the eye didn’t go straight to New Orleans, it went to the east to Mississippi. And there’s, like, a dry side and a wet side of a hurricane. And so you get to learn these things. And so it really just depends on where a hurricane ends up how it’s going to affect any particular community. And so, like, last year Laura targeted, you know, Lake Charles and that area. And they still have — there are still people with blue tarps on their roofs a year later. And it just so happened that — I mean, this was a very, very strong storm. It was a category 4. And it just happened to end up landing in western Terrebonne. And so that was shocking to me because there’s been an increase in — or a change, depending on how the infrastructure of the coast has been modified. Like during Hurricane Isaac in 2012 some places in Plaquemines Parish flooded that had never flooded before. And some people were wondering if there were changes in the levee protection system that had caused that kind of pattern. But what I will say is everybody says it’s the worst hurricane they’ve ever experienced. When I went down there it looks — most of the houses look to me like they were doll houses put in a wind- a very strong wind tunnel, or doll houses made of matchsticks that were put in a strong wind tunnel. I mean…
AMY: And what’s interesting is a friend of mine who works with me in the same kind of fields, and she’s a disaster studies expert, she’s from here and she lived through Katrina, and she said it’s so much more violent — even though, like, the effects of Katrina were extremely hard to see and it was hard to see that stuff on TV and the level of the water, seeing — and I’m not minimizing any of that — but seeing the destruction that a wind event, as opposed to a flooding event wrought, it’s a very different look. And it’s neither — it’s, like, no worse or better. But, you know, what happened in Katrina is that the lake ended up — I mean, there wasn’t as much a wind event. It didn’t hit the city head-on. What happened is the levees failed and then Lake Pontchartrain ended up in the city. And that’s a flooding event, it’s a water event. This was a wind event and a rain event. And it stuck over — it stayed at the — Southern Louisiana Hurricane Ida stuck around for 12 to 16 hours. And when you have a category 4 storm that’s just sitting on top of you raining and blowing that level of wind, things get really badly damaged. And so to answer your second question, I think people are determined, some are optimistic, some are gritting their teeth. I think people are determined and exhausted. And people that I’ve spoken to, especially — well, actually any community… It’s hard to — again, like, if you’re not from here and you don’t live here for a long time, and it’s easy for people who’ve moved around a lot, or who are urban, or whatever, to think, well, why don’t you just move? People here are so attached to place that people I speak to who I’m calling on the phone to find out “how are you?” and “do you need clothing? And do you need toothbrushes? And what can I do?” they don’t even want to be twenty minutes or a half-an-hour away at their son’s house. They want to be on their property. They just want a trailer that they can be at their property. They want to be by their house. And, you know, we have to remind ourselves I think in this field how badly people want to be home. Like, this is home. It’s a part of their identity. And I see people being determined and tired.
JOHN: Wow. So you started getting to the relief piece I think, and I wanted to know, like, what… You’ve been directly engaged in relief in some of these communities. What does that look like? What have you and others been doing to make it better?
AMY: Yeah, it’s a combination. I mean, this is the thing that happens when you do, like, very deep community engagement, which is that the folks — some of the folks I’ve been working with, Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe, Theresa Dardar of the Pointe-au-Chien — she’s an elder of the Pointe-au-Chien Native American Community — they’re my friends. And so these are my friends and my colleagues that are being affected. And so I belong — I’m affiliated with this (inaudible) that was founded by Reverend Chris Peterson, who also has a PhD in Urban Planning from UNO, and Shirley Laska, who was — who’s an emerita professor at UNO in sociology, called the “Lowlander Center” that’s based [BACKGROUND NOISE] where Chris lives in Terrebonne Parish. We have a tiny team where it’s a pretty underfunded organization and we’ve just, like, literally — almost every day I text or call all of the tribal leaders of five tribes plus another couple of communities that aren’t tribal — “What do you need?” “I need garden hoses today. We need food. We need bread.” And I try to find a way to get them what they need either that day or the next day. And we’ve also gotten pretty good — I think this is, like, a sweet spot that we have because of the kind of folks we are and the kind of organization it is — actually we’ve been partnering with churches and all sorts of organizations to get, like, the phone numbers of people who are kind of slipping through the cracks, and… Or like in Ironton the Reverend (Johnson) there, he gave me 46 names and numbers, and I have volunteers, and we called everybody. And I have volunteers. So it’s, like, literally, “What do you need?” “I need clothes. I need sneakers.” I mean, some people evacuated with the clothes on their back or in a little tiny backpack, and now they literally have nothing. And so one of the things we do is try to make people comfortable and give them what they need in terms of hygiene and clothing. We give — we get donations to, like, the kind of pickup centers or the tribal centers or churches where our tribal partners are. And they have these elaborate kind of staging areas now where they will give out food and all sorts of supplies. People need cleaning supplies really badly. And we are also helping folks try to navigate — we have a couple people we’re working with to try to navigate the FEMA claims process and their insurance, so if they’re turned down by their insurance we have somebody that I can give her their number and she can call them and talk to them about their FEMA claim. We’re trying to get some funding. We’ve gotten a lot — we’ve gotten donations which are fueling all of this, and we’re working on partnering with SBP, which used to be called the “St. Bernard Project,” and they’ve been helping us out a huge amount. I have a really close partner that’s a mutual-aid organization that I think just kind of cropped up, and they’re working out of a Unitarian church here in New Orleans. And so, like, I get a request, I call my people, a lot of — there’s a huge amount of donations out there, or we go buy it and I reimburse my volunteers with donation money through Venmo, and they bring them down there. And then I have some volunteers who’ve now formed these really close relationships with some of the individual households, and they are — they just go off on their own and they’re calling these folks every day to find out. And so one of my volunteers will day, you know, “Miss Judy needs this really badly,” and, you know, “Miss Monica needs her medication,” and “How do we get that done?” And I just try to get it done. So that’s what we’re doing. And now we’re moving towards how do we try to find people temporary housing, which is actually really hard when…
JOHN: I’m sure.
AMY: …[CROSSTALK] don’t have FEMA trailers coming.
JOHN: Well, and I think the thing that strikes — as a newcomer to New Orleans the thing that strikes me is that for the rest of us in the United States who hear about hurricanes, that hurricane is over in three days. And from my experience, only one, I know that that’s just the beginning and maybe not the scariest part in many ways. And so, you know, what you’re describing to me resonates because, you know, it suggests that there isn’t an organized, centralized, federalized method for bringing people out of additional poverty that’s caused by these sorts of events. It’s all grassroots and underfunded in a lot of ways. And so can you tell me the name — you said that there was a — you belong to — you’re part of an NGO. What’s the name of that NGO?
AMY: Oh, the NGO I’m affiliated with is called the “Lowlander Center.”
JOHN: Oh, you said that, right, the Lowlander, okay great. We’ll have to get information about that center for the end of this show so that people can make donations if they [CROSSTALK] so happen to do that.
AMY: Yeah, I also do work with — there’s an organization that has a 501(c)(3) that’s a collaboration of the five tribes that I’m working with and one other tribe called the “First People’s Conversation Council,” which donations go directly to the tribes as well. So I’m working with those, and those are (inaudible).
JOHN: Let’s see — okay. We’re going to transition to a different — slightly different topic, and it will connect to another podcast that we have on the series. But you’ve written a lot about health justice in the U.S., about historic inequalities in U.S. healthcare system and how they produce health disparities for black as well as for poor communities. And of course COVID has just magnified that, right?
JOHN: And so now you’re serving on a state subcommittee in Louisiana on health disparities and COVID. This is a water podcast; it’s not a COVID podcast. But one of the important linkages that we need to look at between clean drinking water and/or hazard management, and COVID and other comorbidities, you know, that might be associated with stress.
AMY: Yeah. I mean, this is a terrible time to be having this crisis with the hurricane because, number one, you’re forcing people — the more… So having a deadly pandemic that’s droplet and/or spread through the air — we’re still trying to figure that out, not me personally — and having to, like, have families all shove themselves into the same house, like, you have your family, you have to go stay with your sister now, I mean, all of these — like, it’s a terrible time. So one thing is just straight up the risks involved with doing relief work and having to be in close quarters with each other during a pandemic is huge. Stress and mental health issues are really huge. And, you know, the more stress you have the lower the cortisol and stress lowers your — it impacts your immune system. And so that’s a concern, chronic stress or these pulses of stress. That’s a concern. The kind of food that you can eat when you’re recovering from a disaster. You know, we’ve actually just recently — we’re trying to get produce down to communities. Because, I mean, honestly, like, MREs are great, you know, military emergency meals are great to have, but, you know, people need fruits and vegetables and that’s hard when you have no electricity and no refrigerator. I mean, so there’s just those things. And then we’re also talking about communities that historically either because of historical institutionalized racism in medicine, because of actual abuse that’s been visited on communities by the medical field, because of distrust that in many cases is earned, because of a lack of health insurance, a lack of money, a lack of resources, all of the above, a lot of these communities have existing health disparities that are exacerbated by stress, make them more vulnerable to COVID, and, you know, it’s just kind of like this really terrible storm of all of these things. And there’s not a lot of — you know, there’s a hospital in Houma. There’s a — which is in southern Terrebonne. There is — well, middle of Terrebonne, northern Terrebonne. There’s a medical center in southern Plaquemines Parish called the “Plaquemines Medical Center.” In Port Sulfur. I’m not — there are some clinics in (Lafourche). But, like, again, all of these places were themselves impacted. Just as one example, Plaquemines Parish — I’ve done some collaboration with Julie Olsen who is the director of the Plaquemines Community Care Center, which is the only provider of mental health services in the entire Parish of Plaquemines. As far as I know the last time I spoke with her there is not a single psychiatrist that has a permanent office in the Parish of Plaquemines. There are people who come — there are psychiatrists who come from New Orleans and do, like, a day a couple of times a week. But, like, I think for other people in other states or other regions it would be shocking to understand — like, come to understand the lack of access. So it’s — I could go on, and on, and on.
JOHN: Yeah, that’s…
AMY: It’s plenty.
JOHN: …heartbreaking to hear. Let me ask you a follow-up question about access that might tie back to the podcast that we have with Catherine Flowers from Alabama. What does drinking water and sanitation look like in these communities and how has the hurricane affected that?
AMY: Yeah, that’s really interesting. People are drinking a lot of bottled water. You know, people are on their town or local water sources. You know, people are on septic. A lot of people, you know, have been having a lot of issues and concerns about… Another thing that happens when there’s a — because of the infrastructure here is there can potentially be a lot of issues with toxics if you have — I hadn’t heard as much about that happening with Ida, but for Katrina it was a huge issue, and for some other storms. If you [LAUGHTER] have a state that is simultaneously riddled with, you know, oil pipelines — oil and gas pipelines and oil and gas refineries and chemical plants, and then you add hurricane vulnerability, it’s a recipe for some pretty terrible things to happen in terms of toxic pollution. That’s not something I’m told right now. I don’t think that that was such an issue with Ida that I’ve heard; I could be wrong. But another thing that a lot of these communities deal with is toxics due to the fact that we’re the receiving end of every chemical that ends up in the Mississippi River starting in Minnesota. So, you know, and I know, you know, folks might know all about the dead zone, but that also — like, those kinds of issues affect people’s drinking water and the aquafers. People are drinking a lot of bottled water. And, you know, I think that there’s a general sense of — you know, mosquitos are an issue after a storm. You know, there’s just a general sense of concern about contamination, concern about, you know, the septic systems. These are very, very — excuse me — rural communities. So I think that that’s a problem. A few years ago — a bunch of years ago one of my colleagues who’s a chemist at Dillard was working with some of the tribes down in these areas looking at arsenic. Arsenic, as far as I know, is a pretty big issue down there, which comes from up in the watershed. So, yeah, these are all issues we worry about.
JOHN: Wow. Okay, a couple questions just to close up. One is, how has working with these coastal communities impacted you not just as a researcher but as a person? You mentioned these are your friends before, and I think that’s very powerful. Like, tell me how it’s affected you as a person.
AMY: Yeah. I mean, I have learned a huge amount from working with everyone I’ve worked with who’s not an academic, who lives on the coast. From just talking about concerns and trying to solve problems, and hearing the situations people are in… People in southern Louisiana are really fun to hang out with, they’re funny, they’re determined, people have great senses of humor, they’re kind, you know, if you’re trustworthy. And so I’ve had a lot of fun hanging out with them. I’ve learned a huge amount about the environment of Louisiana from these folks. They know more than I do, for sure, about where they live. I’ve learned what’s important to people that might be the same or different from me. I’ve learned that sometimes being a friend is more important than being a collaborator. Chris Peterson, who’s my mentor, who’s the founder of the Lowlander Center — I remember I used to go visit Chief Albert on a regular basis and just hang out with him and talk. And one time I went with Chris and we left, and we were in the car together. And, you know, we used to write a bunch of grants, and very often, like, almost never got any. And I was, like, “I feel like I’m not helping.” And she just looked at me and she said, “You’re his friends.” Like, “I think he appreciates that.” And it just blew me away to realize… And that’s another thing that is very — it’s unique about community-based work is that it — it’s very hard to pick apart what’s your work and what’s your personal piece because you’ve become part of these people’s families. And I’ve learned a lot about I do not like — you know, the word “resilience” is really overused often. But, like, I’ve learned about grit and determination, and I’ve learned when to check myself, I’ve learned when I’m offering things that I shouldn’t offer, I’ve learned when I should talk and when I shouldn’t, when I should step back. I’ve learned a lot from doing this work.
JOHN: I think that’s epic. Perfect place to transition to I think the last question, which is how can people listening or reading a transcript of this help communities that we’ve been talking about?
AMY: Well, I think people certainly need donations. And I can help you find that information. I think one thing that people need is to understand that saying those people shouldn’t live there is, number one, incredibly unhelpful, and number two, many of the people who say these things live in places that are, if not vulnerable right now, will be vulnerable very soon. And I think Hurricane — Superstorm Sandy, I mean, it’s — many, many, many places are equally vulnerable as Louisiana or will be within our lifetimes. And so to tell people you shouldn’t be living there is not only callous, but unrealistic. You know, I’m not going to tell everybody in Canarsie, Brooklyn to leave because of what happened in Hurricane — in Superstorm Sandy. So — or, you know, we’re not going to clear out south of Canal Street in Manhattan just because it flooded so terribly in lower Manhattan. So, you know, I think trying to understand that just because you’ve moved around a lot or have a different idea about what place may or may not mean to you… Place means different things to different people. And ultimately no matter where you live in the world — be it in the desert, or on the coast, in a rainforest — we’re all right now dealing with environmental change. And so I think, like, really imagining — understanding that we’re all facing the same problems and to see us as a group of people trying to solve this together rather than pointing fingers at people and where they shouldn’t live, I think that’s something I really — it’s a message I really want people to hear.
JOHN: It’s a great message and I think Ida’s a great case in point. And maybe if there is any silver lining from a huge storm it’s that the effects were felt all across the country and that brought us together probably in similar ways like COVID has. And yeah, so I think that’s an excellent place to land for the ending. And I think we’ll get some follow-up websites from you that we can post at the bottom of this podcast for folks to reach out if they want to make donations. And just want to thank you because, you know, like I said 10, 15 minutes ago, I think, you know, most people think without experience that when the storm’s gone it’s over. But we’re, as you said, still recovering from previous hurricanes in some of these communities with tarps on roofs and whatnot. So the work goes on, and appreciate your work, and I appreciate your time on the podcast today.
AMY: Thanks, it’s been really meaningful to have this conversation. Thank you.