Gay Hanks became an environmental activist in Kaplan in 1978 after losing her young daughter to leukemia, a diagnosis she believed was to linked to their environment.
She founded the Vermilion Association to Protect the Environment and fought to close more than 50 oilfield waste sites in Vermilion Parish, and she helped rewrite regulations governing oil and gas exploration and development.
Hanks was one of many across Louisiana pioneering environmental activism in their communities, like Clara Baudoin and Florence “Flo” Gossen. They founded a grassroots organization called Save Our Homes and Land, sued the city of Lafayette and stopped a major expansion of a municipal solid waste landfill.
They continued their environmental activism, Gossen fighting a permit for a commercial injection disposal well north of Rayne and Baudoin serving in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1996-2008. She helped revise the solid waste regulations for the state.
Their stories have been documented, archived and curated through the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) in partnership with Louisiana State University, and soon they’ll be available for use in K-12 classrooms as part of a free, open-source curriculum being created through a grant from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
LEAN was awarded the $1.2 million grant and is partnering with professors at Tulane University and a group of Louisiana K-12 teachers to produce an environmental justice curriculum over the next five years.
The grant comes from the Academies’ Gulf Research Program, which in May awarded $8.6 million for 11 new projects supporting health equity and community resilience. These awards are targeted to vulnerable communities in the Gulf of Mexico region at risk from the impacts of climate hazards and other threats, according to a release.
Climate collision:As Gulf swallows Louisiana island, displaced tribe fears the future
“These people are so inspiring,” said Marylee Orr, one of the LEAN founders. “But because (they’re work began before) Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, if we didn’t tell their stories, it would go with them. Many of them have gone.”
Telling stories to inspire change
The curriculum will build on the work LEAN has been doing since the 1980s, which can be explored in person at its center in Baton Rouge or virtually at leanweb.org.
“This center is just filled with the spirits and stories and souls of environmental justice heroes who could inspire people,” Orr said. “LEAN is the conduit for these stories.”
They’ve recorded interviews and oral histories and created a community atlas. The interactive map allows users to explore environmental challenges across the state and the work done to address them.
Having interactive elements like the atlas will be an important aspect of the curriculum, which is expected to include some gaming features that will help engage learners of all ages. Through her work with Tulane over the years, Orr said she often heard from students that college was their first time to learn about environmental justice.
“We realized there is a huge void,” she said. “The optimal time to make an impact on kids is in the fourth, fifth, sixth grade. We are living in an age where young people need all the hope and inspiration we can give them. We need to share these examples of inspiration.”
The curriculum also will be age-appropriate for different levels, which might mean incorporating an art component for younger learners to express what they are feeling as they hear about the impacts of climate change on their home.
Rebecca Snedeker will participate in this work as the Clark Executive Director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University, which works to preserve and celebrate the cultures across the Gulf South, the bioregion stretching from Florida to Texas.
A timeline of land loss:Why is Isle de Jean Charles disappearing?
“I’m excited about the ways it will help educate young people and give them an understanding of how we got where we are and celebrate the people who fought for a healthier environment,” she said. “These stories inspire us to continue working toward a healthy future.”
Change begins with understanding history and context of local environment
Snedeker understands the importance of this work from both a professional and personal perspective.
“As a Louisianan — I’m from New Orleans — I think about the impact of the petrochemical industry on our region and of climate change on our region,” Snedeker said. “I want all of us to develop a realistic understanding of our surroundings and skillsets to advocate for our future and a healthier environment.”
She gets excited when she thinks about the curriculum in action one day, when her now-12-year-old daughter gets to engage with the history and context LEAN continues to provide through resources like this environmental justice curriculum.
“I hope to see young people engage in these resources and be empowered by them, in the ability to see where they are and believe they can live here and co-create our future,” she said. “They can play a part in this.”
Playing that part requires an increased level of awareness of where they are and what got them there before they can imagine alternatives and solutions, Snedeker explained.
“It we don’t understand our current infrastructure how can we imagine the shifts we need to make?” she asked.
Tulane professors, research fellows and graduate students will help LEAN and the team of K-12 teachers on this project by providing technical, skill-based expertise on everything from visual production and data analytics to gaming techniques, professor Christopher Oliver explained.
Oliver, who holds the Glazer Professorship through the Tulane Taylor Center, is leading the university’s team on the project, under LEAN. He has worked with the organization since coming to New Orleans and was excited for another opportunity to partner.
“I always try to figure out ways we can be helpful but that my students can also learn from,” he said. “It’s one thing to take a class in environmental justice but another to get out and communicate with the community and then all of that culminates in something tangible (like a curriculum).”
He sees the grant and partnership with LEAN as an opportunity not only to get more students involved but also for Tulane to support both the local and the broader community.
“It’s important that students have a better understanding of what’s going on, which is tricky with students already in these communities,” Oliver said. “We want to relate it and make it accessible and empower them and understand this is happening within our state.”
The current timeline for the five-year project aims to have working modules by the third year with the hopes of implementing those in the fourth year, Oliver said. That would allow for reassessment and fine-tuning in the fifth year, he said.
Contact children’s issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.