Gullah/Geechee Collaboration: Collective Summer Reflections

Gullah/Geechee Collaboration: Collective Summer Reflections

Hannah Jo King 

Thinking back over the course of this summer, I feel proud of the work our group was able to accomplish. Proud because the circumstances of the summer were very difficult. Here in Minneapolis, we had a great tragedy take place at the beginning of the summer, the incompressible murder of George Floyd and the local/national Black Lives Matter uprisings that followed. For weeks I was numb. I didn’t have words to express what I was feeling; I didn’t even know if I was feeling at all. It was confusing to be so sad for the loss of another brother to the hands of police violence. And yet to be confronted with all the conversation, anger, protests, and general activity happening around his death. Confusing because of all of the other many times our Black brothers and sisters have been taken (and continue to be taken) by racial violence and our pain was silenced. This time, it was like every street you walked down, every tweet you read, every meeting you entered, you were confronted with George Floyd. And I think for me it was even beyond Floyd. It was a feeling of being confronted with hundreds of years of racial trauma every day, at multiple points throughout the day, for months. I’m not saying this to invoke pity or to paint myself as a victim. First of all, the nation is rising to its feet over racial injustices, and this is a great thing. Second of all, Black folx are always walking with the pains and joys of our ancestors, and that’s just how it is. I’m saying this because writing helps me process. And I’m also saying this because it’s impossible for me to reflect on my summer CREATE experience without also reflecting on living through the death and wake of the murder of George Floyd.

A learning moment for me this summer was in confronting a mental challenger that I often confront—my hero complex. The one who asks me: “Am I doing enough? Am I supporting communities of color enough?” and the echoing voice that replies, “I’m not selfless enough, I’m not righteous enough, or radical enough, or heroic enough.” While I highly doubt these questions are leaving me any time soon, circumstances did align in such a way that this summer I was able to gain some insight. Our summer mentor, Dr. Kate Derickson, was very active in responding to the Twin Cities’ needs around BLM protests. One day she was out delivering food to one of the many emergency supplies drop off sites that cropped up around the city. That same day our community partner Queen Quet had a live YouTube event with the CREATE Initiative, called “Zooming in on Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage and Sustainability.” Kate reached out to us all to say that she might be late for the event, asking for our help to get the event started if that was the case. Queen Quet replied to her by saying, nope, she better not be late, that she had committed to this event and needed to be there. Even though it’s a small anecdote, the takeaway we later discussed and learned from this was that while Kate was responding to a very real short-term need of the city, Queen Quet was responding to a very real long-term need of her community. And one is not more important than the other. As a person in academia, it’s often hard for me to feel like the work I’m doing is enough, and I wonder if it has any impact at all. But I’m trying my best to accept that we all have different gifts to offer and different parts to play in the struggle for justice. This doesn’t mean that academics are off the hook or that I’m now a supporter of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” But I think it does mean that there is space to recognize how and where our work matters: that responding to short-term emergencies and responding to long-term emergencies are two parts of the struggle that are completely intertwined. And even though I know that I’m not a hero and that no one of us alone is going to end racial injustice or climate change or “insert world calamity here,” somehow seeing it here in this context of “community-engaged scholarship amidst crisis” brought that truth home for me.

So going back to where I started, it’s true that I’m proud and amazed at the work we did this summer. The simple fact that we did it was amazing to me. And the hope that I have for how this work may create ripples of benefits for Gullah/Geechee people gives me joy. We were able to create a small community together: Aidan, Ryan, Eskender, Representative Jenkins, Queen Quet, Kate, and me. And that too has value and will have its own ripples.

Ryan Gavin

The plan was to be embedded within an active and alive community organization; to be immersed experientially in community-engaged, interdisciplinary research; to serve and learn by doing—the summer 2020 CREATE experience did not go as planned.

Amidst the backdrop of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the protests that followed the wanton and brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I began my community-engaged experience working from home. I was assigned to the group working with Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins in Nassau County, Florida and Queen Marquetta Goodwine ‘Queen Quet’ in Saint Helena Island, South Carolina to support the needs of the Gullah Geechee Nation. In truth, I was initially apprehensive about this assignment. It’s not that I didn’t recognize the importance of supporting the Gullah Geechee community, it’s that I couldn’t help but feel like my own community needed supporting, and I wanted to work locally.

My misgivings were immediately dispelled. In our group’s first conversation with Representative Jenkins, she expertly linked the immediate struggle for racial equity in my community with the ongoing struggle for environmental justice and against systemic violence in her community. More than anything, though, she demonstrated a huge amount of care for our own individual wellbeing and exuded an uncommon grace. By the end of the meeting, I was excited to begin the work.

Our group prioritized work in three key areas: we completed a National Science Foundation grant to support research into the ways that wastewater retention ponds affect the Gullah Geechee community in Nassau County, Florida; we built the architecture and did background research for a StoryMap describing the history of the Gullah Geechee Community in Saint Helena Island, South Carolina and integrated functionality into it that would serve to support Gullah Geechee community members; and we helped to facilitate a durable legal partnership between the Gullah Geechee community in Nassau County, Florida and faculty at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Along with Eskender Yousuf, I devoted most of my effort to building the legal partnership. This was an immersive education in capacity building and provided a lot of opportunities to practice meaningful meeting management and interdisciplinary communication. We began by writing emails to any and all local law school faculty and student groups who might be interested in the work that we were doing. Then, we held several informational meetings, and after identifying a faculty member at the St. Thomas University, we worked with Representative Jenkins to facilitate a meeting of all interested parties. This work is ongoing and will hopefully lead to a long-term partnership between the Gullah Geechee community and legal researchers from St. Thomas University, alleviating the burden of constantly having to search for legal direction and expertise currently faced by community members. Though still in the planning stages, new coursework, practicums, and internships have all been proposed as potential ways to integrate the injustices facing the Gullah Geechee community into St. Thomas University’s law school curriculum.

I cannot thank Representative Jenkins and Queen Quet enough for working with me and trusting me to work on their behalf. It’s impossible to separate place, privilege and position from the work that we do. There’s no doubt that I come from a world of privilege—I’m a straight, white, cisgendered, male in America—and without question, the same systems that violence the Gullah Geechee community today are descended from policies that have benefited me and my community. In light of these realities, the remarkable amount of compassion, understanding, and generosity-of-spirit that I experienced throughout this whole process was truly edifying. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from our incredible CREATE partners, Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins and Queen Quet, and to grow with my amazingly talented group members: Hannah Jo, Aidan, and Eskender.

Eskender A. Yousuf

During the past 8 months of my CREATE scholars experience I have benefitted from the interdisciplinary learning amongst the group of scholars and scholars in training (graduate students). Coming from more of a humanities and social science background, my work and academic training is focused on systemic issues of PK-16 schooling and its impacts on minoritized populations. More specifically, I am drawn toward better understanding how the societal systemic oppression and exploitation of African descendants in America is reflected in schooling practices; schools are reflective of the larger society in which schooling occurs. Thus, schools are often locations that mimic and reproduce societal inequalities.

Through my time in this program, I learned how environmental issues are another tentacle of systemic injustice. Reading from the literature, and hearing from community representatives, I learned how the Gullah/Geechee Nation, a disenfranchised community of African decedents, was and still is experiencing environmental injustices disproportionally in comparison to surrounding communities. This was my first experience in taking a deeper dive to better understand environmental issues and concerns of a minoritized community.
I often joked with my CREATE research group by poking fun at the idea that I had little to no understanding of what “land loss” or “eminent domain” meant. I bring forth this small, but significant, example in order to demonstrate how far my learning has coming along this summer. I got experience in collectively completing an NSF planning grant, helped mediate a potentially long-standing partnership with Representative Jenkins and Dr. Artika Tyner, and was introduced to storymaps. Before this experience, I have never worked toward obtaining an NSF grant nor utilized storymaps as a research medium.

My participation with this research group and Gullah/Geechee community leaders has provided me with an invaluable opportunity to learn more about environmental justice issues directly from community perspectives. This process highlighted and validated the importance of learning from community perspectives. I was able to learn with and from these community-based perspectives that is oft-neglected in traditional academic research practices.
I am very grateful for the experience this summer. I was able to grow my understanding of environmental equity issues, while also building a “virtual” community with my CREATE peers. This was a HEAVY summer, to say the least. COVID-19 and racial injustices that sparked uprisings across the globe. As a scholar-in-practice, who examines how colonialism, racism, and systemic inequalities impact minoritized populations, this summer exploded all that learning to the surface. Once you are exposed to the historical understanding, it situates the current context much more vividly. Black bodies have continually been sub/dehumanized. Yes, COVID-19 has taken many lives, however racial inequality is far more deadly.

This summer, albeit the most unique I have ever experienced, provided me the flexibility and learning to attempt to fulfil my duty in creating a more just world. This CREATE experience was a component in that process.

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