16 May 2024

Ocean Conservation Lessons from the Gullah Geechee People

Written by: Evelyn

African-Americans and Latinos are groups that honor our ancestors, whose origin, roots, and history are strong components of our identity today, and we both are groups that have been minoritized while having a strong presence in coastal regions. Today, 60% of residents in coastal areas of the U.S. identify as Indigenous or people of color. Half of U.S. Latinos live in coastal areas already facing climate change impacts such as increased flooding and more intense hurricanes, which are only exacerbated by the destruction of natural ecosystems such as mangroves and wetlands in the name of "development.”

Attending the Gullah Geechee Coastal Cultures Conference allowed us to truly connect with nature and the surrounding landscape as well as with each other more organically, and to realize that we have much to learn from the Gullah Geechee people. They are the descendants of West and Central Africans who were brought as enslaved people to work at plantations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. They have been standing up to the persecution of freedom, injustices, and environmental racism for centuries, all while keeping their cultural traditions alive. The Gullah Geechee people we know today are a mixture of African tribes that blended their cultures and languages to become stronger together. Just as they found common ground and centered around shared goals and ideals, so too should Latinos work together with other groups of color and elevate each other’s concerns to push toward action and change.

As Bella Briseño, Hispanic Access Conservation Network Member, pointed out, "We are stronger together. Practicing ocean justice requires a holistic perspective of how socioeconomic hurdles interact with our conservation efforts, and while these hurdles take nuanced forms across cultural backgrounds and local contexts, marginalized communities share commonalities that inform our paths forward."

One out of every five people in this country is Latino (and that percentage continues to increase). We are a significant group in this country, changing its demographics and contributing to its culture. Our voices matter. As a group, we overwhelmingly support ocean conservation efforts and polls show that we are more concerned about the health and well-being of the ocean than any other demographic in the country.

"There needs to be more people of color in positions of power so they can spread knowledge and information and heal our ocean and planet," shared Steffany Ruiz, Hispanic Access Conservation Network Member after reflecting on the conference.

We need to harness a sense of community and work together amongst ourselves and other stakeholders. It is our shared history, shared needs and goals, and our sense of community that gives us power and amplifies our efforts. We need people of all ages from all backgrounds and skills to take collective action for the ocean we all love and need. Remember, you do not have to be a “scientist” to take care of the ocean.

Just as the Gullah Geechee people exemplify resilience, unity, and a deep-rooted connection to both their heritage and the natural world, their lessons remind us of the power of community, shared goals, and collective action as we face the urgent challenges of climate change and environmental degradation. Let us honor their legacy by coming together to protect our ocean and build a more sustainable future for generations to come, regardless of background or expertise.

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