I fell in love with coastal Louisiana as a young girl. My dad was a scientist for Wildlife and Fisheries, and I spent my summers at wildlife reserves and coastal camps. That love continued as I entered my master's degree program in Environmental Sciences where I worked with a Native American fishing community, driving every week to lower Plaquemines parish to spend time with the water residents of Grand Bayou.
To really understand the importance of place and culture, you should just take a trip down the bayou where the accents are strong and the art of storytelling is a staple. This is who we are. This is what we have to fight for.
I am inspired by the coastal people of Louisiana for their ingenuity and their salt of the earth hospitality. It reinforces why we have to work so hard to fight for this cultural survival. But I wondered what does Louisiana's coastal future look like to the young people growing up in these communities today?
I sat down with people who work closely with youth in these areas -- Summer Skarke, an eighth-grade teacher at Lacache Middle School and Louisiana's 2016 Middle School Teacher of the Year, and Jonathan Foret, executive director of South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center, to talk about what it’s like to work with the children and adolescents of Louisiana’s coastal communities and what we can learn about resilience from them.
How are kids from these communities dealing with the changes to the coast? Are they invested in trying to save their communities?
Jonathan Foret: I think they are. We host a Wetlands Youth Summit every summer for high school students. It’s a strategic planning session that deals with coastal issues like sea level rise or storm surge. The students identify a problem that they think they can address, like planting marsh grass in vulnerable areas.
But one year, the kids came to me and said, "We want to do something that could potentially have a much larger impact than just planting marsh grass. We want to do something on a bigger scale." And so they did.
They have since presented Coastal Wetlands Planning and Protection Restoration Act (CWPPRA) projects on multiple occasions. And their projects have gotten millions of dollars in federal funding. Our students have worked with the USGS and the EPA on these projects because they’re not engineers. But they identified the need and they worked on the project, they really drove it. The first project they ever presented was the Bayou Dularge Bridge Restoration Project. The planning funding for the project alone was $5.2 million.
And these students were juniors in high school. When you're 17 years old and you secure $5.2 million for a restoration project, you feel like you could pretty much do anything you want from that point forward.
It gets them in that change mindset at an early age because this is the world that they live in, and we hope that they stick around and they're able to continue to be educated and passionate about these critical issues.
What’s it like for kids growing up on the Louisiana coast today? Are they aware of the changes that are happening to the land, to their communities?
Summer Skarke: For them, I think it’s just the life they live now, it’s just what they’re used to. In my speech class, I have students interview the oldest person they know in our community of Chauvin and ask, "How has our community changed over time?" Everybody said the reason that they loved this community was that we are close-knit. You can just walk over to someone's house. It feels like family.
But some of the older people said that Chauvin had changed, that people don't visit as much as they used to. Back in the day, people would sit on their front porches and drink coffee and anybody in the neighborhood would come and have a little cup of coffee on your front porch. And they’ve started to notice that over time, that is starting to fade away.
And the kids are noticing these things too. The kids said, "Yeah, so-and-so used to come over all the time when I was younger, but I notice they don't come over as much anymore." They are noticing a shift in the community they love so much. People are moving away. Maybe they used to go to grandma's house all the time, but now that grandma lives somewhere else, or maybe their cousins have moved away.
Half of our culture is moving away. I think the close-knit-ness that people love so much about the town, while it's still here, it has faded some. That's what the older people felt in their interviews.
The kids that I teach aren’t trying to solve the problems of the world. They just want the town they love to still be here.
What lessons can we learn from the next generation when it comes to dealing with climate change and coastal loss?
Jonathan Foret: The kids that we work with have the knowledge they need to understand these problems. They know the science behind the situation that we're in. They know the facts. They won’t be able to be misled about their environment, and they're going to be able to say, "I've been learning this stuff since middle school."
The people that live in these communities, they're aware of the changes that are happening and the challenges they face. They are aware of the problem, they're not apathetic. I think the problem is that they just don't know what to do to solve the problem.
So we need the kids. We need the next generation to understand these issues intimately, to be able to know if what the next generation of public officials does will be beneficial for the community, for the environment.
Peoples sometimes ask me, "Do you teach the kids to stay or do you teach them to leave?" But we don't teach them either. We teach them the facts. We give them the information and the tools they need to figure that answer out on their own.