Spotlight on 3 Small Louisiana Communities

The research described here is part of a larger project identifying assets and challenges of small US communities.Quote from Anne Rolfe about IC² initiative

“Fenceline communities”—towns or neighborhoods adjacent to businesses that cause pollution or disruption of the quality of life of community residents—are experiencing unprecedented distress.  Throughout the US, the economic impact of the current pandemic has caused enormous job losses, and access to adequate healthcare has become more of an issue than ever before.  But in fenceline communities—typically populated by low-income, often minority, citizensi—the current economic and health risks can be exacerbated by pre-existing health issues, a lack of opportunity, and an absence of quality education and job-training.

The IC² Institute is studying three small communities in an area of Louisiana where residents often highly value the culture, history, and natural beauty of their small towns, but seek alternatives to life and jobs tied to the petro-chemical industry.

Quote from Anne Rolfes

St. James Parish, Donaldsonville in Ascension Parish, and St. John the Baptist Parish are African-American-majority communities nestled along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Due to a growing influx of petrochemical companies since the 1980s, the region has developed the nickname “Cancer Alley.”ii

In partnership with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), IC² will conduct research to document what community residents see as assets and challenges in their communities.  A team of student researchers has begun conducting interviews and distributing surveys.  So far, family, culture, and cuisine are things some residents name as reasons to stay in the area.  Health fears due to pollution, low-paying jobs, and issues with education are identified as big challenges.

LABB Director, Anne Rolfes, explained, “One of the fundamental problems is that there are no clear economic alternatives. That’s what’s needed, and that is why we are excited to work with IC².”


Perspectives on our Louisiana research:

Sheldon Landsberger

Anne Rolfes

UT Austin Professor &
Robert B. Trull Chair in Engineering
Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Professor Landsberger has extensive experience studying the impacts of oil and gas extraction and chemical manufacturing. His IC²-funded work focuses on economic diversification in West Texas, a region with high levels of oil and gas activity. About the Louisiana communities, he says: “It’s environmental racism that’s occurring there… Some of these companies skirt environmental laws because of costs, there’s an upfront savings to the company and a long term cost to the community.” Ms. Rolfes began her career in Nigeria, collaborating with local communities to address oil companies’ destruction of the Niger Delta. She returned to Louisiana in 2000 and founded the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to end pollution in her home state. Her vision for Louisiana: “a healthy, prosperous, pollution free and just state where people and the environment are valued over profit.”

Christopher Martin

Amel Weaver

UT Austin student researcher
UT Austin student researcher
Chris is gathering data from the community of St. James, and describes the challenge of getting good interviews as this: “Talking to people is easy, but getting them interested and making them believe that their words actually matter, that’s the hard part… If someone has the mindset that their opinion does not matter, it is hard to get them out of that mindset. But their perspectives are valuable and needed.” Amel has also been assigned to the community of St. James. With roots in southern Louisiana, she’s passionate about advocating for underserved communities and interned with the Congressional Black Caucus. She says, “I grew up in big cities my whole life so researching smaller towns is new for me. In the future, I want to become a journalist to shine a spotlight on the struggles of underserved communities.”

Adrienne Russell-George

Matthew Newland

UT Austin student researcher
UT Austin student researcher
Adrienne has been assigned to the city of Donaldsonville. She was active duty Air Force for 11 years and then a special education teacher before coming to UT Austin. She is a PhD student and her research focuses on educating and empowering underserved populations.“Working on this economic recovery project has afforded me the opportunity to not just hear, but truly listen to the experiences of people who are part of these communities.“ Matthew has been conducting phone interviews from members of the Donaldsonville community. Matthew grew up near Lafayette, Louisiana, but served in the Marine Corps in sites around the world before enrolling at UT Austin. He says, “Calling people and doing phone interviews was really out of my comfort zone. I was discouraged at first but then I changed my mindset and learned to establish a connection with someone over the phone. It became a great learning experience for me.”

Cassidy Reis

Art Markman

UT Austin student researcher
Executive Director, IC² Institute
Cassidy is working on primary source research for the parish of St. John the Baptist. She grew up in a small town near Dallas and has relatives in the parish. Cassidy is also a researcher at the National Energy Technology Laboratory and studies Physics at UT Austin. About the community in St. John the Baptist Parish, she says: “It’s a close-knit community and churches play a big role. People there acknowledge the issues with air quality and the public education system. They’ve grown frustrated with the lack of change.” Art Markman leads the IC² Institute and initiated the Regional Economic Recovery Initiative. He says, “The pandemic has hit small communities doubly hard. Not only were those communities struggling relative to urban areas before the pandemic, but they do not have the resources to gather the data they need to develop strategic plans to recover. With the rural economic recovery team, we are giving UT Austin students the chance to help communities understand the opportunities in the future and at the same time giving the students a chance to engage in real-world learning that enhances their classroom education.”





Posted on

July 29, 2020