BISCO: Building Capacity, Voice, and Power in Southeastern Louisiana

Authors: Patty Whitney, Executive Assistant / Community Organizer, BISCO

In the southeastern Louisiana bayou parishes of Lafourche and Terrebonne, BISCO (Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing) builds the voice and power of local residents to address the most pressing issues facing their communities. The disasters of the last five years — Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, and the BP Oil Drilling Disaster this year — have severely impacted our two parishes. The fallout from these disasters may seem local, but are important regionally and nationally.

The inability of the public or private sectors to protect people (particularly low-income people and people of color) from disasters, or to make them whole afterwards, is a wake-up call for the entire country. We are now the best-prepared region in America; if this is the best we get, the rest of the nation should be worried.

Here in the bayou, the two most urgent problems we face are:

  1. coastal land loss and climate change adaptations, and
  2. emergency preparedness, response, and recovery.

Since 1930, coastal Louisiana has lost the equivalent of the entire state of Delaware to the sea. We have the world’s fastest land loss, losing about a football field of land every 36-38 minutes, and taking away a natural protection from storms like Katrina.

To address these issues, BISCO has developed a new model of community organizing to address immediate needs in emergency situations while building community capacity to push for systemic changes necessary for protection and recovery. Some successes have been:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged that the unique environment, people, and vulnerabilities of the area make coastal Louisiana a "Regional Environmental Justice Community." This will play a major role in the response and recovery from the current oil drilling disaster.
  • BISCO coordinated community "listening sessions" to facilitate discussions between community members and public officials about the impacts of the oil disaster on the environment, the economy, and the people, and the responses of the responsible parties and governmental agencies thereto.
  • Nonprofits across the region have build strong and effective networks. This helps organizations with boots on the ground keep abreast of and access needs and resources across the region, as well as focus on policy advocacy and strategies.
  • BISCO has become the "go-to" voice on the ground for public officials at all levels looking for input about needs and concerns of local communities.

One of the biggest successes is the emergence of effective coalitions and nonprofit networks over the past five years. After Hurricane Katrina, nonprofits came together, uncovered the needs of our regional communities, then partnered to bring resources to the region and address those needs. Most of these collaborations continue today and have ongoing value; they are among the greatest assists built from these terrible disasters. Today, these networks of "friends" are helping the Gulf Coast survive the latest disaster to befall our beloved coast.

Looking forward to a better, safer, more prosperous future, we advocate for the growth of clean-energy jobs for coastal Louisiana. These jobs can replace seafood industry jobs lost from oil in the Gulf. They also give oil industry workers the opportunity to move to greener jobs, breaking the hold of that incredibly destructive industry on our regional economy.

BISCO is constantly looking for new and creative ways to repair our ecosystem and our economy at the same time. Our current advocacy agenda includes:

  • manufacturing wind turbines, river turbines, solar panels;
  • creating wind farms near the coast;
  • developing aqua culture industries; and
  • developing wetlands restoration and protection industries.

The biggest obstacle we face is always financial support. Sadly, many donors don’t see the benefit of funding advocacy and the building of community capacity and voice. In these economic times, it is difficult for any nonprofit to get funding, but system-changing nonprofits like BISCO find it even more challenging than direct service organizations.

With funders' resistance to supporting this work and the scarcity of time and energy we have to fundraise — as opposed to actually supporting people in the face of disasters — you can see why BISCO is struggling to stay afloat. We believe in this work, and want to continue. Our hours get longer, while our paychecks get smaller.

If you are interested in supporting BISCO and the communities we serve, please consider making a donation on our website, www.bisco-la.org, or by phone at 985/227.9042.

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