SOARS protégés get their feet wet with participatory action research in the Bayou

By Monika Wnuk, SOARS Protégé​​

The lengths that people in coastal Louisiana will go to make visitors feel at home can be summed up with two words- vegetarian gumbo.

When community members hosting a dinner for SOARS protégés Sandra Maina and Frances Roberts-Gregory learned that Frances was vegan, they tweaked their traditional gumbo recipe for her, probably for the first time.

Under the wing of their project mentor, Kristina Peterson, Sandra and Frances spent their first weeks at late-night dinners, Masses, even shrimping with shrimpers, all for the sake of gaining trust from the community they would rely on for their research.

The protégés could not ask for a better mentor to introduce them to the community. For the past four years, through the University of New Orleans Center for Hazards Assessment Response and Technology (CHART), Kris has been working in Grand Bayou, Louisiana, a Native American fishing community, with the goal of helping achieve sustainability there. She is also the pastor at Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church.

People posing next to a plane
SOARS Proteges, mentors, and community members explored coastal Louisiana by plane.

Despite feeling a little overwhelmed with their packed research schedule, both Sandra and Frances understood how important it was to make their faces known in the community. As a result of something that Frances so fittingly called the “commercialization of Cajun culture,” people in coastal Louisiana tend to be wary of visitors.

All too often, members of the Native American tribes will see their pictures used on postcards or their words thrown into misleading contexts. Reporters, photographers, and film crews frequent the area to film shows like Cajun Justice, Swamp People, and Duck Dynasty, which community members feel grossly misrepresent their lifestyle and intelligence.

Not even researchers are immune to skepticism from the community about their intentions. When I spoke to Chief Albert Naquin of the Bilox- Chitimacha tribe of Pointe au Chien, he commented on the disconnect between promises and return for the community. “I'm starting not to trust the scientists,” he said, partly because some have come, gathered data, and left, never to return.

In response to impersonal research like Chief Albert described, Sandra appropriately asked, “shouldn't you know something about the people?”

This is where participatory action research (PAR) comes in. Characterized as extending from the needs of the community and carried out mostly through ongoing conversation, PAR is an excellent research fit for coastal Louisiana.  Residents know the issues, but need productive mediums through which to express them.

Although the protégés have needed to rely on translators to understand the Cajun-French still spoken in the region and while they have had to set aside typical research methods for expansive literature reviews and sometimes seemingly endless conversations, both see the value in actively engaging the community in the process.

“At the end of the day I don't believe in research for research's sake,” says Frances. “Everything we do is for the benefit of the community.”

Both protégés expressed that the most enjoyable part of the PAR process has been fully engaging in interdisciplinary projects.

A woman examines shrimp on a table
Sandra Maina takes a look at a shrimp caught by the Pointe au Chien shrimpers.

Sandra is interviewing residents along the five most vulnerable strips of land on the coast, namely Pointe au Chien, Montegut, Dularge, Dulac, and Chauvin, asking for suggestions of places of cultural significance that are threatened by the intrusion of the sea into the land, caused by a combination of causes - geological, climate-based, and directly human-caused. Land subsidence, sea level rise, erosion, and salt water intrusion are all affecting the region. She is interviewing a variety of people with different occupations and interests, from story-rich grandmas to leaders of community restoration projects. Her goal is to orient community members on restoration needs and ongoing restoration projects so that they're empowered to act in positive ways to their own future.

How will Sandra make sure that the information has a reach? Through social media, of course. Phone lines in the area are often down because of flooding, storms, and the like, yet she reports that “everyone down the bayou has a smart phone.” She plans to use an iPhone app to inform and update people on restoration projects.

Frances is working within the fields of ethnobotany and anthropology to determine which culturally significant plants are threatened by ecosystem changes and how they can be reintroduced in the form of personal gardens.

In the weeks to come Sandra will be presenting her ideas and progress at a community dinner, taking suggestions from those who will make up the audience of her app. Both protégés will be presenting at a conference in Chicago in late July. For now, they continue to find more ways to engage with the community that has welcomed them as trusted and respected scientists fulfilling a commitment to making a difference.

Monika Wnuk
Monika Wnuk is a graduate of the University of Chicago working with UCAR Communications this summer. Her writing focuses on the how the warming atmosphere will affect water in Colorado, coastal Louisiana, and Oklahoma.