How does climate change threaten your neighborhood? A new map has the details.
If you’ve been wondering what climate change means for your neighborhood, you’re in luck. The most detailed interactive map yet of the United States’ vulnerability to dangers such as fire, flooding, and pollution was released on Monday by the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University.
The fine-grained analysis spans more than 70,000 census tracts, which roughly resemble neighborhoods, mapping out environmental risks alongside factors that make it harder for people to deal with hazards. Clicking on a report for a census tract yields details on heat, wildfire smoke, and drought, in addition to what drives vulnerability to extreme weather, such as income levels and access to health care and transportation.
The “Climate Vulnerability Index” tool is intended to help communities secure funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate law President Joe Biden signed last summer. An executive order from Biden’s early months in office promised that “disadvantaged communities” would receive at least 40 percent of the federal investments in climate and clean energy programs. As a result of the infrastructure law signed in 2021, more than $1 billion has gone toward replacing lead pipes and more than $2 billion has been spent on updating the electric grid to be more reliable.
“The Biden Administration has made a historic level of funding available to build toward climate justice and equity, but the right investments need to flow to the right places for the biggest impact,” Grace Tee Lewis, a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.
According to the data, all 10 of the country’s most vulnerable counties are in the South, many along the Gulf Coast, where there are high rates of poverty and health problems. Half are in Louisiana, which faces dangers from flooding, hurricanes, and industrial pollution. St. John the Baptist Parish, just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, ranks as the most vulnerable county, a result of costly floods, poor child and maternal health, a list of toxic air pollutants, and the highest rate of disaster-related deaths in Louisiana.
“We know that our community is not prepared at all for emergencies, the federal government is not prepared, the local parish is not prepared,” Jo Banner, a community activist in St. John the Baptist, told Capital B News.
Similar maps of local climate impacts have been released before, including by the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, but the new tool is considered the most comprehensive assessment to date. While it includes Alaska and Hawai‘i, it doesn’t cover U.S. territories like Puerto Rico or Guam. The map is available here, and tutorials on how to use the tool, for general interest or for community advocates, are here.
To fight teacher shortages, schools turn to custodians, bus drivers and aides
MORGAN CITY, La. — Jenna Gros jangles as she walks the halls of Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana. The dozens of keys she carries while she sweeps, sprays, shelves and sorts make a loud sound, and when children hear her coming, they call out, “Miss Jenna!”
Gros is head custodian at Wyandotte, in this small town in southern Louisiana. She’s also a teacher-in-training.
In August 2020, she signed up for a new program designed to provide people working in school settings the chance to turn their job into an undergraduate degree in education, at a low cost. There’s untapped potential among people who work in schools right now, as classroom aides, lunchroom workers, afterschool staff and more, the thinking goes, and helping them become teachers could ease the shortage that’s dire in some districts around the country, particularly in rural areas like this one.
In two and a half years, the teacher training program, run by nonprofit Reach University, has grown from 50 applicants to about 1,000, with most coming from rural areas of Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and California. The “apprenticeship degree” model costs students $75 dollars a month. The rest of the funding comes from Pell Grants and philanthropic donations. The classes, which are online, are taught by award-winning teachers, and districts must agree to have students work in the classroom for 15 hours a week as part of their training.
“We have overlooked a talent pool to our detriment,” said Joe Ross, president of Reach University. “These people have heart and they have the grit and they have the intelligence. There’s a piece of paper standing in the way.”
Efforts to recruit teacher candidates from the local community date back to the 1990s, but programs have “exploded” in number over the past five years, said Danielle Edwards, assistant professor of educational leadership, policy and workforce development at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Some of these “grow your own” programs, like Reach’s, recruit school employees who don’t have college degrees or degrees in education, while others focus on retired professionals, military veterans, college students, and even K12 students, with some starting as young as middle school.
“‘Grow your own’ has really caught on fire,” said Edwards, in part because of research showing that about 85 percent of teachers teach within 40 miles of where they grew up. But while these programs are increasingly popular, she says it isn’t clear what the teacher outcomes are in terms of effectiveness or retention.
Nationwide, there are at least 36,500 teacher vacancies, along with approximately 163,000 positions held by underqualified teachers, according to estimates by Tuan Nguyen, anassociate professor of education at Kansas State University. At Wyandotte, Principal Celeste Pipes has three uncertified teachers out of 26.
“We are pulling people literally off the streets to fill spots in a classroom,” she said. Surrounding parishes in this part of Louisiana, 85 miles west of New Orleans, pay more than the starting salary of $46,000 she can offer; some even cover the full cost of health insurance.
Data suggests not having qualified teachers can worsen student achievement and increase costs for districts. An unstable workforce also affects the school culture, said Pipes: “Once we have people here that are years and years and years in, we know how things are run.”
As Gros walks the hallways, she stops to swat a fly for a scared child, ties a first grader’s shoelaces and asks a third about their math homework. Her colleagues had long noticed her calm, encouraging manner, and so, when a teacher’s aide at Wyandotte heard about Reach, she urged Gros to sign up with her.
Gros grew up in this town — her father worked as a mechanic in the oil rigs — and always wanted to be a teacher. But with three children and a salary of $22,000 a year, she couldn’t afford to do so. The low cost and logistics of Reach’s program suddenly made it possible: Her district agreed to her spending 15 hours of her work week in the classroom, mentoring or tutoring students. She takes her online classes at night or on weekends.
Current employees are also in the retirement system, meaning the years they’ve already worked count toward their pension. For Gros, who has worked for 18 years in her school system, that was an important consideration, she said.
Pipes said people like Gros understand the vibe of this rural community — the importance of family, the focus on church, the love of hunting. And people with community roots are also less likely to leave, said Chandler Smith, the superintendent in West Baton Rouge Parish School System, a few hours’ drive away.
His district is the second-highest paying in the state but still struggles to attract and retain teachers: It saw a 15 percent teacher turnover rate last year. Now, it has 29 teacher candidates through Reach.
In West Baton Rouge Parish, Jackie Noble is walking back into the Brusly Elementary school building at 6:45 p.m. She’d finished her workday as a special education teacher’s aide around 3:30 p.m., then babysat her granddaughter for a few hours, spent time with her husband, and picked up a McDonald’s order of chicken nuggets, a large coffee and a Coke to get her through her evening classes. Some Reach classes go until 11 p.m.
Noble was a bus driver in this area for five years, but she longed to be a teacher. When she mustered the courage to research options for joining the profession, she learned it would cost somewhere between $5,000 to $15,000 a year over at least four years. “I wasn’t even financially able to pay for my transcript because it was going to cost me almost $100,” she said.
When Noble heard about Reach and the monthly tuition of $75 a month, she said, “My mouth hit the floor.”
Ross, of Reach University, said he often hears some variation of: “I had to choose between a job and a degree.”
“What if we eliminate the question?” he said. “Let’s turn jobs into degrees.”
Brusly Elementary is quiet as Noble settles down in a classroom. She moves her food strategically off camera and ensures she has multiple devices logged in: her phone, laptop and desktop. Sometimes the internet here is spotty, and she doesn’t want to take any chances.
It’s the night of the final class of her course, “Children with Special Needs: History and Practice.” Her 24 classmates smile and wave as they log on from different states. They’ve been taking turns presenting on disabilities such as dyslexia, brain injuries and deafness; Noble gave hers, on assistive technologies for children with physical disabilities, last week.
Reach began in 2006 as a certification program for entry-level teachers who had a degree but still needed a credential. It then expanded to offer credentials to teachers who wanted to move into administration as well as graduate degrees in teaching and leadership. In 2020, Reach University started the program focused on school employees without a degree.
Kim Eckert, a former Louisiana teacher of the year and Reach’s dean, says she was drawn to the program because, as a high school special education teacher, she saw how little opportunity there was for classroom aides in her school to boost their skills. She started monthly workshops specifically for them.
In growing the Reach program, Eckert drew from her teacher-of-the-year class, hiring people who understood the realities of classroom management and could model what it’s like to be a great teacher. She shied away from those who haven’t proven themselves in the classroom, even if they have degrees from top universities. “Everybody thinks they can be a teacher because they’ve had a teacher,” she said, but that’s not true.
The 15 hours a week of “in-class training,” which can include observing a teacher, tutoring students or helping write lessons, is designed to allow students to test out what they’re learning almost immediately, without having to wait months or years to put their studies into practice. Michelle Cottrell Williams, a Reach administrator and Virginia’s 2018 teacher of the year, recalls discussing an exercise in class about Disney’s portrayal of historical events versus the reality. One of her students, a classroom aide, shared it with the fifth graders she was working with the next day.
Noble says she’ll carry lessons about managing students from the bus to her classroom. She was responsible for up to 70 students while driving 45 miles an hour — so 20 in a classroom seems doable, she said.
She can’t wait to have her own classroom where she is responsible for everything. “Being with the students approximately eight hours a day, you make a very, very larger impression on their lives,” she said.
In May, Reach graduated its first class of teachers, a group of 13 students from Louisiana who had prior credits. The organization’s first full cohort will walk across the stage in spring 2024.
There are promising signs. Nationwide, about half of teacher candidates pass their state’s teaching licensure exam; more than 60 percent of the 13 Reach graduates did. All of them had a job waiting for them, not only in their local community, but in the building where they’d been working.
But Roddy Theobald, deputy director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research and researcher at the American Institutes for Research, says far more research is needed on “grow your own” programs. “There’s very, very little empirical evidence about the effectiveness of these pathways,” he said.
One of the challenges is that the programs rarely target the specific needs of schools, he said. Some states have staffing shortages only in specific areas, like special education, STEM or elementary ed. “Sometimes they result in even more teachers with the right credentials to teach courses that the state doesn’t actually need,” he said.
Edwards, one of the first researchers to study “grow your own” programs, is investigating whether teachers who complete them are effective in the classroom and stay employed in the field long term, as well as how diverse these educators are and whether they actually end up in hard-to-staff schools.
“States are investing millions of dollars into this strategy, and we don’t know anything about its effectiveness,” she said. “We could be putting all this money into something that may or may not work.”
Ross, of Reach University, says his group plans to research whether its new teachers are effective and stay in their jobs. In terms of meeting schools’ specific labor needs, Reach has agreements with other organizations such as TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and the University of West Alabama to help people take higher-level courses in hard-to-fill specialties such as high school math. But while Reach staff look at information on teacher vacancies before partnering with a school district, they don’t focus on matching the district’s exact staffing needs said Ross: “Our hope is the numbers work themselves out.”
In Louisiana, Ross said he believes the organization could put a serious dent in the teacher vacancy numbers statewide. Some 84 percent of all parishes have signed on for Reach trainees, he said, and 650 teachers-in-training are enrolled. That amounts to more than a quarter of the teacher vacancy numbers statewide, 2,500.
“We’re getting pretty close to being a material contribution to the solution in that state,” he said.
His group is also looking to partner with states, including Louisiana, to use Department of Labor money for teacher apprenticeships. At least 16 states have such programs. Under a Labor Department rule last year, teacher apprenticeships can now access millions in federal job-training funds. Reach is in talks to use some of that money, which Ross says would allow it to make the programs free to students and rely less on philanthropy.
A straight-A student since her first semester, head custodian Jenna Gros expects to graduate without any debt in May 2024. She expects to teach at this same elementary school. At that point, her salary will almost double.
She said she loves how a teacher can shape a child’s future for the better. “That’s what a teacher is — a nurturer trying to provide them with the resources that they are going to need for later on in life.
I think I can be that person,” she said. She pauses. “I know I can.”
This story about grow your own programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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As climate change erodes land and health, one Louisiana tribe fights back
Devon Parfait steers his truck into the parking lot of what used to be a firehouse on Shrimpers Row in Dulac, Louisiana. He tries to get his bearings in a landscape both familiar and strange. He spies a bayou down a side street, so we walk in that direction, searching for traces of the home his family fled as Hurricane Rita barreled in. Back then, in 2005, Parfait was a second grader who collected Ranger Rick Zoobooks. Today he’s a 25-year-old coastal scientist with a mop of curls, a nose ring, and a puzzled look in his brown eyes.
“I’m scanning through the memory of all my old neurons,” he tells me. “Maybe this is it. Maybe it really has just changed so much I don’t even recognize it.”
Parfait’s January 2023 visit isn’t just for nostalgia. He’s the new chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, and he’s getting reacquainted with his community. The 1,100-citizen tribe has traditionally fished and hunted along this fertile edge of the Gulf of Mexico. But human engineering and extreme storms have reshaped Louisiana’s coastline, swallowing up 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s. Many of the land patents granted to the tribe’s ancestors in a 19th-century treaty are now largely or wholly underwater. Land loss has chiseled away at tribal livelihoods and traditional diets, exacted a toll on citizens’ mental health, exacerbated chronic illnesses, and displaced families.
The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band and its neighbors also serve as harbingers of a climate crisis that threatens more intense high-tide floods on every U.S. coast by the mid-2030s. Unless protective measures are taken, rising waters could displace up to 13 million Americans by century’s end—“a magnitude similar to the twentieth century Great Migration of southern African-Americans,” wrote the authors of a 2016 University of Georgia analysis.
As we stand alongside the bayou, overshadowed by tall dry grass, a car pulls up to a nearby house. An older couple gets out and Parfait approaches them. “I’m trying to figure out if this is the place I used to live,” he says, naming his grandparents.
“I’m a Parfait,” the woman volunteers.
“Oh! Hey! Give me a hug then,” the chief says.
The couple lead Parfait to the footprint of his old home, now a garden bed that, later in the year, will produce mustard greens, speckled butter beans, and tomatoes. A fig tree Parfait remembers remains, but the rope swing of his childhood has vanished. The couple, who have lived here almost 50 years, say the land has eroded so much that the backmost six feet of their property has crumbled into the bayou.
Parfait understands the changes he sees represent both an existential crisis and a leadership burden. He prepared for this moment by leaving Louisiana to study geosciences. Now he’s back, crafting a plan to hold his tribe together, and shaking the hands he needs to get it rolling. Still, he’s cognizant of the obstacles ahead.
Coastal land loss has upended life in South Louisiana—for Cajun, Black, and Creole residents, for Vietnamese refugees and their descendants, and in particular for the half-dozen Indigenous tribes that rely on the abundance of its wetlands. Some 11,000 Native Americans live in the four coastal parishes (counties) with the highest Indigenous concentrations—flat expanses of two-lane roads that parallel bayous lined with oaks, elevated houses, and shrimp boats, and occasionally converge on small, industry-thick cities.
Cleveland “Coco” Rodrigue, a 61-year-old shrimper and citizen of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band, says he used to walk into the woods near his house in Dulac and hunt ducks and rabbits—“live off the land.” But those woods are gone, replaced by water. “Now, you step out your back door,” he says, “you’re going to sink.”
These losses stem from vast projects that altered the Mississippi River and its delta. The building of flood-control levees, according to many scientists, has prevented sediment from reaching and replenishing wetlands that naturally subside. The dredging of 10,000 miles of artificial canals by oil and gas companies altered the delta’s hydrology. Shipping channels allow saltwater to penetrate inland. Until recently, climate change was a minor factor, but now accelerating sea-level rise threatens even more inundation. Fewer wetlands mean less protection from hurricanes, which lately have intensified. The storms themselves erode the coast—a feedback loop of destruction.
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Land loss impedes not just hunting and trapping but also raising livestock. Vegetable gardens face higher flood risk. Fishing and shrimping have become dicier, partly because the wetlands serve as nurseries for aquatic animals. Loss of natural food sources mean tribal citizens now have to rely more on grocery stores than in the past. But historic discrimination, like being kept out of public schools until the 1940s, has created barriers to wealth that have spanned generations. In the parish that includes Dulac, the poverty rate is 30 percent for Native Americans and 12 percent for non-Hispanic White people.
“When you don’t have the funds to purchase foods that are healthier, or better quality, you’re going to get what you can get [to] fill your stomach,” says Shirell Parfait-Dardar, Parfait’s predecessor as chief. Alongside this shift toward less healthy processed food, she has seen a rise in heart disease and diabetes.
Parfait-Dardar’s anecdotal observations square with national figures (local data are hard to come by). Native Americans, for whom diabetes was once rare, now have twice the rate of White Americans. Obesity and cardiovascular illness run rampant, too. A key culprit is the shift from traditional to Western diets, whether because of forced migration, environmental degradation, or government policies like the mandated thinning of livestock herds.
Beyond dietary disease, tribal leaders describe crushing stress from living in a place that’s increasingly uninhabitable. “Everyone here is suffering from PTSD, myself included,” says Parfait-Dardar, whose home Hurricane Ida leveled in 2021. Researchers studying the Gulf Coast have seen domestic abuse and substance-use disorders spike after hurricanes. The former chief has seen similar patterns in her tribe.
Health experts call the psychological and dietary tolls inseparable. “Stress triggers hormones that let you eat more, and eat more junk,” says Maureen Lichtveld, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, who has researched and collaborated with Indigenous people in the Louisiana bayous. “Stress also triggers sleeping less. A short night’s rest actually increases obesity. So, the physiological consequences of stress feed into the social consequences of stress. And that, I think, is a cycle very difficult to break.”
Julie Maldonado, an anthropologist who has studied Louisiana’s tribes and is now working with them on issues like climate adaptation, says contemporary stresses are intertwined with a collective trauma that stretches back centuries. European colonization set the stage for the altered coastal landscape, the pollution, the hurricane damage, the growing untenability of commercial fishing, the scattering of neighbors.
“What people often talk about is a legacy of atrocities, or these cascading effects as these disasters are layered upon each other over time,” says Maldonado, associate director of the non-profit Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network and a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Now, as these climate-driven events get closer together, become more intense…you’re still recovering from one when the next one hits.”
That’s a lot of history to place on the shoulders of a Generation Z chief. But Parfait is in an unusual position: He knows firsthand how environmental changes can affect a community’s health, and he has done the academic work to help him address the underlying causes.
The summer of 2005, when Parfait’s family was forced from its home, was especially bad for land loss: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone claimed 217 square miles. After Rita destroyed the house and ruined his grandfather’s shrimp boat, the three-generation family uprooted three times. They traveled a 200-mile circuit before settling into the New Orleans suburb of Marrero. Parfait’s mother, Dana, wanted him to have a male mentor, so she sent him to live with her brother. But his uncle was also struggling, and eventually committed suicide.
Already diagnosed with ADHD (a condition linked to childhood trauma) and depression, Parfait retreated into himself. “He rarely came out of his room,” says his mother. He failed his freshman year of high school.
But Parfait’s curious mind caught the attention of his mother’s cousin, then-chief Parfait-Dardar. As early as age 12, he watched her try to gain federal recognition for the tribe, a cumbersome, elusive, ongoing process that could bring financial benefits and self-governance rights. He asked questions and offered to help, and over time Parfait-Dardar identified him as her eventual successor. (Each chief names the next.) “When I recognized that it was him—and I still get chills today—it was like the ancestors spoke,” she says.
To face the tribe’s issues, Parfait needed a specific kind of education. It happened that the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band has a relationship with the Williams-Mystic Program, a collaboration of Williams College and Mystic Seaport Museum that runs a coastal field seminar in Louisiana. Rónadh Cox, a geosciences professor at Williams and seminar instructor, invited him to a scientific meeting in 2017, noticed his drive and curiosity, and wondered if her school might entertain a transfer from his community college. “This could be a moment where we can do something,” she remembers thinking, “to make a difference, to give back to the tribe.”
Admissions officers at Williams, a competitive liberal arts college, looked at Parfait’s grades and declined his application. After another year of academic preparation, he reapplied to Williams and this time was accepted. At Williams, Parfait studied geosciences and collaborated with Cox on several mapping projects related to the tribe’s historic territory. One showed the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band and nearby Jean Charles Choctaw Nation were losing land faster than the surrounding basins, and at more than double the rate of Louisiana’s entire coast.
Parfait always imagined his tenure as tribal chief would begin in the distant future. But as he was finishing up his undergraduate degree in 2022, Parfait-Dardar called to say she was ready to step down. “I knew what we were facing,” she says: further land loss, potential dispersion, continued public health challenges. “And Devon had the education that I don’t have.” Knowing the burden Parfait would be taking on, the outgoing chief also called his mother. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
After graduating, Parfait returned home and started working as a coastal science coordinator for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). In August 2022, he recited the oath of office at a kitchen-table ceremony scaled down for the pandemic. That same month, he turned 25.
One of Parfait’s first orders of business as chief was to assist an intertribal effort to get the federal government’s attention. The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band had teamed up with four other tribes—one from Alaska, the others from Louisiana—that have seen their traditional lands disappear. The five had petitioned for a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), alleging that the government had failed to protect them from the impacts of climate change and other human-caused disasters.
The consequences, the petition claimed, amounted to a forcible displacement. Grand Bayou Indian Village, home to the Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha, has lost nearly all its land; the handful of remaining houses sit on pilings and can only be reached by boat. Jean Charles Choctaw Nation has watched its ancestral island erode down to a sliver and the state’s relocation plans devolve into conflict over how much decision-making power the tribe would retain.
The IACHR, part of the Organization of American States, had scheduled a hearing for October, two months after Parfait’s swearing-in. The commission lacks binding powers for the U.S. government, “but it’s still important,” says Maryum Jordan, an attorney with EarthRights International who worked with the tribes on the hearing. “This is a key moment to put displacement on the radar at the international level. And it’s also an opportunity to pressure the government to do more.”
The hearing was online, but there were private in-person meetings, too. The day before, Parfait took an early-morning flight to Washington, D.C., where the team huddled over sandwiches and cupcakes, crafting testimony and supplemental material. They met with a White House official. And they talked with an IACHR attorney to provide more context than they could squeeze into the 90-minute hearing. Parfait talked about how colonialism had altered the coastal environment, making it harder for the tribes to stay self-sufficient.
The next day, Parfait watched off-camera as his predecessor, Parfait-Dardar, logged in from a hotel ballroom in Thibodaux, Louisiana—in her emerita role as elder chief, she retains moral authority and years of knowledge. She sat at a conference table with Rosina Philippe, an elder from Grand Bayou. Tribal banners hung behind them.
“The lands once lush and fruitful have eroded away, so that all that remains today are strips of land that stick out like fragile fingers on a badly wounded hand,” Parfait-Dardar testified. The declining harvest, compounded by education discrimination, “has led us into lifeways that have also caused negative consequences for our mental and physical health.” And without federal recognition, she said, the tribe can’t secure the funding it needs to recover from hurricanes and adapt to climate change.
After Parfait-Dardar and three other tribal representatives made their case, the U.S. government responded. Department of Interior staffer Joaquin Gallegos, who is from the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Pueblo of Santa Ana, acknowledged that climate change poses “existential threats” to Native economies and health. But, Gallegos said, the government “takes its political and legal responsibilities to Indigenous people seriously,” funding climate-resilience programs, supporting traditional food systems like fisheries, and consulting with tribes on issues like relocation.
Still, the panel seemed alarmed by the tribes’ testimony. “Why is it taking so long…to assist these communities?” asked commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, a Jamaican attorney. She announced the IACHR would submit an official request to visit Louisiana and Alaska. “Around the world,” she said, Indigenous tribes “have the least footprint and suffer the greatest crisis from climate change, which is committed by the industrialized state in pursuing industrialized profits.”
Then the laptop screen went dark. Parfait-Dardar turned to Philippe. “OK,” she said. “We survived.”
Philippe exhaled. She had watched the federal officials talk about collaboration. But that didn’t square with her own experience of a process that solicits tribal input without any real intention of disrupting the oil-and-gas economy. “The government—they maintain that whip hand,” she said. “So they can tout and say, ‘We are engaging the tribal communities.’ …But in the end product, we don’t see our suggestions. We see them just forging ahead with what they planned to do in the beginning.”
As winter approaches, Parfait confronts the enormity of his unpaid role as chief. His tribe’s mental and physical health, limited food access, and economic insecurity all demand attention, but so does his full-time day job at EDF. “I can’t do everything,” he says.
Sometimes, public-health problems require action in areas that look tangential but are actually foundational. “You could treat that diabetes, you could tell people to walk,” but health is collective, too, says the University of Pittsburgh’s Lichtveld. “The sense of community cohesion, or the gaps in it, in Indigenous communities is very strong.”
And so Parfait gravitates toward the issue that, to him, undergirds all the others. “How do you live a healthy, happy, productive life,” he says, “when you can physically see your lands eroding away in your backyard?” He fixes on a primary task: pushing for coastal restoration efforts that would slow the degradation enough for his tribe to plan an orderly retreat.
Louisiana has a 50-year, $50 billion coastal master plan, released in 2007 and updated every five to six years. Some of the funding comes from a Deepwater Horizon oil-spill settlement. But no amount of money can fix the entire coast. “It’s not like restoring a chair, where you’re going to strip the old varnish off and put some new stuff on, and it’s going to look exactly the same as it was,” says Denise Reed, a coastal geomorphologist at the University of New Orleans and a member of the master plan development team. “If you have limited resources, where are you going to put them? Where can you achieve most of your objectives?”
A keystone of the state’s coastal program is the $2.3 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion: a gated structure, built into the levee system downriver from New Orleans, that will allow river water and sediment to flow back into the delta. According to the 2023 draft update to the master plan, the diversion could build 21 square miles of new land over the next half-century. “That will serve to protect everything inland,” says Kelly Sanks, a Tulane University sedimentologist. “From a protection-of-New-Orleans standpoint, it’s good and lots of people want it,” including a coalition of large environmental groups.
But the diversion will make flooding more severe for the Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha in nearby Grand Bayou, and tribes like Grand Caillou/Dulac live too far from the river to benefit.
“So it costs billions of dollars,” Parfait tells me. “It only benefits people 50 years from now. And it does nothing to help the tribal communities.”
The state’s plan acknowledges that some places won’t survive intact. For those residents, it recommends voluntary property acquisition and relocation assistance. This is not a reassuring prospect for Native Americans who watched Jean Charles Choctaw Nation’s dispute with the state over resettlement. “[It] indicates to these communities who are on the frontlines that people have given up on them,” Parfait says.
The chief understands that land loss might continue to force the tribe inland. But he wants the state to invest more in slowing down that loss—“buying time” to prevent citizens from dispersing helter-skelter as his family did after Hurricane Rita. “If you were to do coastal restoration projects to save the land now, and have that community stay there and develop a plan, you have a better chance to save culture, to keep the community cohesive, and to keep families together,” he says.
Topping Parfait’s priority list: seeing those oil-and-gas canals backfilled with the piles of dredged material that run parallel to them. This, some researchers say, could help restore the hydrology the canals wrecked decades ago. The tribes have consulted with R. Eugene Turner, a coastal ecologist at Louisiana State University who calls backfilling a cheap, fast, and effective way to rebuild wetlands. Those wetlands, he says, would in turn provide habitat for the seafood and game that make up the traditional Indigenous diet.
Stuart Brown, the state official who oversees the plan’s development, calls backfilling “one of many tools in the toolbox, not a panacea.” But after meeting with Turner and tribal leaders, he added one sentence to the 2023 draft endorsing the practice. “Now,” he says, “those seeking funding for it can go to the master plan and specifically say, ‘Look, it’s consistent with the plan.’”
When Parfait saw the draft update, he initially had mixed feelings: happy that backfilling got mentioned at all, and saddened by the brevity. “It is kind of an asterisk,” he says.
But he has moved past his disappointment and now views that sentence as a potential pipeline. “It feels like they’re saying, ‘Hey, connect,’” he says. “And that’s exactly what I’m doing.” His calendar is filling with meetings, and his head with strategies. He has met with local officials about a potential backfilling demonstration project that, if it comes about, would be managed by the parish government with tribal input. If that project succeeds, Parfait hopes it will nudge backfilling higher on the state’s priority list.
Parfait often thinks in stories; he calls this a product of his Indigenous heritage. “When I leave this world, what story do I want my life to represent?” he asks. “I don’t want to move forward into a world where we have to be constantly displaced, where we have to be constantly worried about our next meal, where we have to be constantly worried about land loss.” He thinks about his 8-year-old self, fleeing the bayou without his Zoobooks, and all the upheavals he has experienced since. Those memories remain close, guiding his plans for the future.
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Black male teachers are rare. Louisiana’s HBCUs hope to change that.
Nicholas Cobb teaches fourth-grade math in Arcadia, Louisiana. But he didn’t grow up expecting that he’d end up in a classroom.
It was the influence of an administrator at his high school that set him on the path. Edmond Donald was the dean of discipline while Cobb was at Glen Oaks High School in Baton Rouge in 2014.
Donald looked out for Cobb, particularly during the rough weeks after Cobb’s parents divorced. Cobb started acting out — and Donald would bring him out of class and take him to his office. But instead of punishing Cobb, Donald would offer support and kindness. Donald made sure Cobb stayed in school and didn’t get suspended.
“The patience he showed was more than what anybody else had,” Cobb said. “He just saw me and he saw something in me.”
Donald and Cobb talked regularly about college — including sports, Greek life, and traditions like Pretty Wednesday. Each summer, Donald drove Cobb to TRIO programs — federal support aimed at disadvantaged students — where he took ACT prep courses. Eventually, he scored a 27 on the exam, well above Louisiana’s state average. Dozens of colleges admitted him.
Cobb is just one example of the influence Black male teachers can have on Black students. Their presence is decidedly rare: In Louisiana, just 5% of teachers are Black men — something the state’s education commissioner has said is a major concern. The profession is very white nationally, too. And, further complicating matters is a nationwide teacher shortage.
Louisiana, for example, had more than 2,500 open teacher spots as of last fall. The state’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) hope to ease that shortage and, in particular, the share of Black men entering the profession. Already, HBCUs educate half of the nation’s Black teachers.
The influence a Black teacher can have on a Black student can’t be overstated. Black students who had at least one Black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate high school and attend college. And, one study from the University of North Carolina School of Education found that when Black male students have a Black teacher in elementary school, high school dropout rates declined by 39%.
Jenna Bernard, now a junior at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, thinks often about the enthusiasm of herBlack male high-school history teacher, Zealon Solomon.
He made otherwise routine details — like the number of terms a president served, or how they died — seem interesting. His lectures on the World Wars were engaging and, sometimes, fun. Solomon died in 2021.
His kindness sticks with Bernard. He would often counsel students on how to approach the challenges of adulthood.
“He was very impactful to me and every other Black kid at my school because he was like a father figure to us. He was always so warm, kind, sarcastic, and he made my love for history grow a little bit more,” she said.
Helping Black students ‘see themselves’
There are a range of initiatives underway at Louisiana HBCUs to increase the number of Black male teachers.
In 2018, the School of Education at Southern University and A&M College received a $1.5 million grant as part of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association’s effort to increase the number of men of color in the teaching profession.
Currently, the School of Education has 19 male candidates and the ShEEO Project has 10 participants, including newly elected Student Government Association President Brandon Horne. The project begins recruiting as early as 10th grade.
And, Southern University New Orleans runs a college-prep summer program for male high-school students of color. They receive mentorship and ACT prep, and spend a week on campus over the summer.
SUNO’s Honoré Center for Undergraduate Student Achievement also hosts Manhood Monday, one of many weekly events that allows Honorés 10 male students to network with professionals in their field of interest.
“Black students can see themselves when they have a Black male teacher,” said Morkeith Phillips, director of the center. “I’m a family member. I’m not just someone that just works at the school. It’s different.”
‘Needed in the classroom’
There are also several initiatives underway, in partnership with Louisiana HBCUs, that aim to increase the number of Black men in teaching.
One example: Brothers Empowered to Teach is a teacher recruitment, development and placement program based in New Orleans. To date, they have worked with more than 175 students, predominantly at Louisiana HBCUs — including Dillard University and Xavier University in New Orleans. Representatives aim to recruit an additional 60 students in the fall, and they have plans to work in other states as well.
“Black men are needed in the classroom because Black father figures are needed as surrogates,” said Larry Irvin, the founder and CEO.
There’s also Call Me MISTER, a national initiative that aims to increase the number of teachers of color in public schools. (MISTER stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role models.)
Ja’Deric Talbert, a junior studying Elementary Education at Grambling State University, is the president of the university’s Call Me MISTER chapter. He has been interested in teaching since he worked as a reading interventionist at Crawford Elementary School in Arcadia during his senior year of high school.
“Seeing the impact that was made in their reading scores, and the relationships that were formed and that I still have. That is what drove my attention to education,” he said.
Participants in the program get their tuition and fees covered in full. In exchange, the program requires all participants to teach in the state of Louisiana for as many years as they received the funds.
Completing the cycle
Call Me MISTER helped Cobb, too.
In 2017, he enrolled at Mississippi’s Alcorn State University on a basketball scholarship. But he promptly transferred to Louisiana Tech University — a predominantly white institution — after Noflin called him, and told him about the funding available there through Call Me MISTER.
Cobb graduated from Louisiana Tech in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in education. As the only Black man in his 72-person program, Cobb found the peer evaluation process to be particularly frustrating.
“Imagine you teach a lesson to fake students — student teachers — who are white, and the feedback that you get isn’t pertaining to what you taught, it is pertaining to the way you talk,” he said.
The critiques “failed to realize this is the way I connect with African American kids,” he said.
Not only is Cobb now in the classroom, but he’s also a graduate student at Grambling State University.
Becoming a teacher was part of the cycle that Donald started for him. For Cobb, Donald was more than a teacher — he was an educator.
What’s the difference?
“His definition of being an educator was taking the kid, investing in them and expecting nothing in return so that the only thing you can do to repay him was to be successful.”
Louisiana Becomes First State to Issue Drinking Water Report Cards
Move aims for transparency and to identify struggling water systems.
The water tower in Sunset, Louisiana. The town’s water system received a D grade in the state’s first report card. Photo courtesy of Patrick under Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 2.0
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – May 11, 2023
In an effort to improve public communication, the Louisiana Department of Health published its inaugural water system report cards last week, becoming the first state in the country to use annual letter grades to highlight the failures and successes of drinking water utilities.
Water systems are already required by federal law to send an annual Consumer Confidence Report to customers with details about drinking water contaminants. The Louisiana Department of Health grading system, which was mandated by a 2021 state law, goes several steps further, combining a range of measurements into a single letter grade for each of the state’s 951 community water systems.
On top of water quality, the grade incorporates data on utility finances, operations, and customer complaints. Utilities must include the grade on annual reports sent to customers.
Forty-one percent of water systems earned an A grade. Six percent received a D, and nine percent failed. Many of the failing systems serve small, rural communities, which often have fewer financial and technical resources.
Amanda Ames, chief engineer at the Department of Health, led the development of the grading system.
“It provides for accountability and for transparency,” Ames said. The public gets an easy-to-understand snapshot of their water provider, she said, while state agencies receive an overview of water utility conditions.
Though many states collect the same data that informs the Louisiana grades, a drinking water report card is a new step. But is it worthwhile to take it?
Manny Teodoro, who studies public policy and consults with water utilities, said that a report card makes intuitive sense. School systems use them. Health departments assign letter grades (or smiley faces) to restaurants based on their cleanliness. The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes an annual report card on the nation’s infrastructure. In the 2021 report card, drinking water systems received a C- and wastewater systems a D+.
All told, report cards have promise, Teodoro said. Still, details matter and he has reservations about how Louisiana designed its grading system.
The Louisiana system works mostly by subtraction, but also some addition. Water utilities start with a score of 100. Points are subtracted in seven categories of infraction that were spelled out in Act 98, the law that mandated the grades. Those categories include exceeding federal and state drinking water standards, failing to have evaluated their water rates, being the subject of customer complaints, and having deficient infrastructure. Utilities can earn up to 10 bonus points for having an asset management plan or participating in training programs.
Letter grades change every 10 points. Scores of 90 and above receive an A while scores below 60 earn an F.
Within the categories the Department of Health determined the point distribution. The highest point-value category is failure to meet federal drinking water standards. The maximum deduction for that category is 30 points, which Teodoro feels is too generous. A utility could have a slew of violations but its penalty is capped.
“This is a recipe for grade inflation,” said Teodoro, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is helping to develop a water utility grading system in his state.
Teodoro also thinks that basing a grading system on deductions is more stick than carrot. In other words, even with the bonus points it does not encourage utilities to do more than the minimum requirement.
The Louisiana Department of Health, which developed the grading system itself, said that it looked at various designs, but “ultimately used a point deduction method because it was easy for the public to understand. These annual letter grades are a step in the right direction to increasing transparency and accountability and, ultimately, to increasing water system sustainability.”
Maureen Cunningham, director of water at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, also called the grades “a step in the right direction” because they generate more information about utility performance. But she was not ready to endorse report cards, in general, as the best approach for improving drinking water outcomes.
“I worry that it’s not always a complete picture of what’s going on,” Cunningham said.
For instance, data on the number of customers who had their water shutoff is not a part of the Louisiana assessment. Nor is data on customer debt.
Cunningham also wondered how the report cards would be received. Could state agencies collect the necessary data and be transparent about the problems that certain communities face without condensing it all into a single letter grade? “I would be interested in seeing what motivates change better: giving someone a failing grade, or just pointing out, ‘Hey, this community needs X, Y, and Z to do a better job.’”
Though perhaps not a perfect system, the grades will be useful, said Leslie Durham, executive director of the Louisiana Infrastructure Technical Assistance Corporation, an agency set up to assist disadvantaged rural governments in applying for federal grants.
“I’m excited about it,” Durham said, referring to the report cards.
For years Durham has worked with rural water systems. In the past, she said it was difficult for some of these systems to acknowledge that they needed help. “They didn’t want to raise any flags or make any waves.” The grading system lays bare some of those struggles in an easy-to-digest format. Accessible information will lead to action, she said.
“Our organization plans on using that grading system to make sure we’re targeting the right folks,” Durham said.
Some are already getting help. Of the utilities earning a D or F, Ames said that more than 30 percent are in line to receive funding to upgrade their water systems.