Coming in and being extractive is something that academia has done historically, especially in marginalized communities. So, I need to be a little more intentional about the processes I use, not just in my research, but as an activist.
Diamond Holloman, PhD Candidate in Environment, Ecology and Energy Program
+ Jeff Currie, Lumber RiverKeeper
Explore Diamond and Jeff's project with Southern Futures: "Coasts, Climates, Humanities and the Environment Consortium."
The Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program at UNC: "Our mission is to understand and provide solutions to the most challenging resource issues facing our planet. We explore systems on our planet through basic research and applied solutions. As such, we bring together natural and social sciences to propel North Carolina as a leader in local and global environmental research and innovation. We elevate research into understanding by investigating the diverse and interactive systems that regulate the environment, including consequences for humans and other organisms. We are committed to educating students to improve understanding for future generations."
Read "A List of Waters" by Tyree Daye, published in Southern Cultures.
Resilience + Recovery
Jeff: We’ve got to give the room to the river to be a river. And a lot of people are having a lot of struggle with that, you know, because that impacts what we think of the community and what they think of the community. And basically we’re on a pogo stick back and forth, hurricane to hurricane, but there’s never really any great, you know, rebirth.
You’re hearing the sounds from the Lumber River, recorded by the Lumber River State Park staff. This is Southern Futures, and I'm your host, Melody Hunter Pillion with the Center for the Study of the American South.
Lumber Riverkeeper Jeff Currie is no stranger to the sounds of this river. It runs through 9 South Carolina and North Carolina counties, including Robeson, Hoke, and Scotland. Jeff is joining us today, along with Diamond Holloman, a doctoral candidate in the Environment, Ecology, and Energy program at UNC. She's working with Jeff and community members along the Lumber River, and their continued struggle to recover from hurricanes. Folks in this diverse community, including Native Americans and African Americans, are telling their stories. Jeff and Diamond, the two of you are assisting in that community storytelling of vulnerability and resilience. Welcome to the podcast. What are the two of you seeing, as people struggled 4 years after Hurricane Matthew, and 2 years after Florence?
Jeff: Water surrounding, or up inside of your house, just the logistics of getting that situated, and cleaning out your house. Dealing with FEMA or not dealing with FEMA. But also, the emotional and social and economic--all of those ramifications have taken a toll on the county and the region. “Recovery” and “resilience” are great words--but people are still struggling. People are working to try to get their lives back to the place they were before. It's something that is not a 1, 2, 5 year thing--it’s 10, 20 years out. People are still going to be working to try to get back to a place they were before. So it’s a long-term deal and I don’t think people who don’t live in the region really understand. And Diamond can definitely attest to that as well.
Diamond: Not being from Robeson, not being from North Carolina, coming in and people letting me into their homes, and into these intimate spaces has allowed me to see the ways (like Jeff said) in which they are trying to recover, and dealing with the physicality of it all, but also deal with all the emotional aspects. Young children that have been through these storms now, have in a way, this post-traumatic stress that's accompanying large rains or thunderstorms. Dealing with some of those issues that have to do with the recovery or the aftermath of the disaster--and also, still trying to work everyday and still trying to make sure that all the bills are paid--doing these things at the same time is a challenge for anyone.
Melody: Diamond, you said you’re not from Robeson County, not from North Carolina...tell us where you're from and were you surprised with the hospitality that you found in Robeson County?
Diamond: I was happily surprised. I’m from Bed Sty, Bedford Steyvsant New York, which is in Brooklyn. My accent has calmed down a little bit. I’v been in the South for a number of years. But I met folks at an Environmental Justice Summit who were from Robeson County, and I was just very eager to talk to anybody. And not only do they say, ‘yeah let's talk whenever,’ they say, ‘come to my house, meet my mom, meet my other family members, let’s chit-chat.’ Not to say that New Yorkers are mean, but you’d be hard-pressed to find that vibe in New York. That was a pleasant surprise.
Melody: Jeff, you are the River Keeper, so professionally you know the river, but you're also a member of the Lumbee Tribe, and from a personal standpoint, you have this personal knowledge, a very intimate knowledge of the river. What are the problems for the river? In particular, what problems are you seeing when it comes to these major storms?
Jeff: With storms, it’s flooding in places, in communities that had never seen that level of flooding. But what we also know, going back historically, a lot of these places--south and west Lumberton--have been flooding for over a hundred years, if not longer. Back when they were swamps. A lot of these areas were swampland that were cleared back in the late 19th century. People didn’t live these for a long time, and then people did move into these areas. The issues that we're dealing with are compounded because people don’t realize oftentimes that they are living in floodplanes. Some communities have gotten assistance. Some communities have helped. But then you have areas that are out of the way, far out from the county that haven't had a lot of assistance and flooded catastrophically. People have talked to me about rivers going through their front yard, going through their house, and they were caught unawares that they lived in a place that was that vulnerable to flood waters. If we look back in time, we can see that a lot of places, did flood. But the levels that we’ve seen from the hurricanes are just not what was in people’s mind that could happen. It's been tough to hear how it’s impacted people, but it has been really tough to get information back to government, and get government down on the ground to actually address a lot of these issues, because a lot of people think it's a quick fix--and it’s not a quick fix. We don't know where the water is going in the watershed--and until we know and map where this water is going and where it's not supposed to be, we’re not going to get a complete sense of how we can deal with this. We’ve got to give the room to the river to be a river. And a lot of people are having a lot of struggle with that, you know, because that impacts what we think of community and what they think of the community. And basically we’re on a pogo stick back and forth, hurricane to hurricane, but there’s never really any great, you know, rebirth.
Melody: Diamond you've developed a project that invites people to capture those stories of change and those stories of struggle. And thankfully you have Jeff for his expertise. Tell us about the project that you, Jeff, and folks in the community are doing:
Diamond: Jeff, community members, and other researches at UNC are working on this CCHEC project. CCHEC stands for “Coasts, Climates, the Humanities and the Environment Consortium” and it’s a consortium of 4 Universities, Chapel Hill being one of them. It’s a grant project in which we were given funds and Malinda Maynor Lowery gathered us as a team together, and we brainstormed what we would need and what we wanted to do and how we can make a project that leaves room and space for community member to really take the lead once we get started. That’s something that’s a little different from traditional environmental grants, is that we purposefully left room for community members to change some of the aims, or think through with us. The first phase of the project is photovoice. Photovoice is something that I had piloted before for my dissertation work. And was so excited to bring into this space and expand it work with folks out in Robeson County. Photovoice gives folks cameras and you give people a prompt, sometimes historically informed. We knew we wanted to do something around natural disasters. And we knew we didn’t want to use the word hurricane in particular, because we’re in a very interesting moment now with Covid, and we didn’t want to limit the scope of thinking about what disaster means in terms of folks’ lived experiences. So we talk about disasters, and what it means to experience them, live through them, and think through the threat of future disasters. Right now we’re in the midst of what is presumed to be one of the worst hurricane seasons on the Atlantic in a while. We provided this prompt. Right now, we’re in the space where community members are taking pictures of their community and whatever they’re going through. Then they bring those photos back to us and we have a large focus group conversation about what those photos mean. This allows for communication for these community member with the researches, and with each other--to have generative conversations about what the problems are, but also what the solutions are. Ultimately we want to use these photos to create something we can provide to policy-makers and decision makers, in order to have some sort of positive change in their communities. That’s the voice part of “photovoice”--to have their voice taken to a different place and be amplified.
Melody: I think there’s a lot of trust involved when people are going to share stories, especially when these disasters have had so much impact on their lives. Jeff, tell me, is there a lot of trust when it comes to sharing stories and thinking about what outcomes could be from sharing? What’s the upside, and is there trust that the upside might be there? Particularly with Indigenous communities?
Jeff: There’s a lot of trust on a deep level that has to be built, just to get to a place where people are willing to talk, not even share stories. Whenever I first started going around after hurricane Florence and talking to folks--I was hired less than a month before as a RiverKeeper--and so after the hurricane, I went into communities and we were doing some wellwater sampling, and I was talking to some of the folks that we were getting samples from. People were worried about their water quality. In Robeson and a lot of south eastern NC, people use sand wells and push-down wells--what’s called washed-down wells. Which are 30-40 feet in the ground. So they can be contaminated rather easily. So when we’re going out talking and I have folks telling me how they have been flooded out, flooded around, flooded through. And that they’re getting no feedback from elected representatives--whether it’s county, local, federal--and nobody’s calling them back and nobody’s coming back to visit. And I said, ‘well, I’ll be back next week.’ And I go back next week. And then I say, ‘I’ll be back next week.’ And then I go back the next week. That’s the level of trust that we need to build first. Before they even go into detail about what stories and what affected them and how deeply this is changed their lives and how they’re trying to get to a place where they can just get some help...number 1: Listen to what people are saying, and not say a word. And then come back, listen some more. Yes, the process takes a long time. But in order to make it right? Resilience means to rebound. Well, we just keep rebounding. And basically we’re on a pogo stick, back and forth, hurricane to hurricane. There’s never any real great, rebirth. There just rebounding back and forth.
Diamond: I was over here basically doing the “yes!” and the “snaps!” Part of what I’ve had to learn going through this as an academic, is I can ignore the part of me being an academic, so yes, people are very nice and when I go in they’ll tell me the story of what they’re going though in regards to hurricanes. But there’s also this pressure and it’s a welcomed pressure that I take on an outsider, that I need to do something. Just coming in and being extractive is something that academia has done historically, especially in marginalized communities. So, I need to be a little more intentional about the processes I use, not just in my research, but as an activist, quite frankly. And try and do things that give back in a way that is useful. I’ve been listening for years. I tell people all the time, “I’m listening. I’m listening. I’m listening.” If there’s something that I can do, tell me, and I will do my best. Part of this CCHEC project--and I remember when Jeff and I were at the beginning planning stages--whatever we do, the end point, is that people who make decisions can listen to people in the community.
Melody: Part of the nation’s wild and scenic river system, the Lumber River is a national water trail, designated so by the National Park Service. But long before those designations, Indigenous Tribes, including the Lumbee Tribe, embraces the river as a central source of their travel, living, and heritage. Enslaved African Americans used the river and its swamps as a mode of escape, and a way of living after emancipation. So this river has deep history and meaning for folks. Diamond and Jeff, you were talking about that. That this is a historic thing, a cultural thing. I want folks to have a sense of, when we say people are still struggling, are y’all seeing people that are literally still not back in their homes?
Jeff: Now they’re full of mold, and they’re still living in trailers and outbuildings. So there are people that are still not back in their homes. And there’s also people that just gave up on their homes and moved in with family or found other accommodations. A large number of people left the county after both hurricanes. So much so that the county school system, because of the amount of students that had left in certain areas, closed 4-5 schools in 2019. There’s been funding that has been released since the Covid-19 virus that is supposedly going to go fix things and help community recovery...but people really haven’t been able to give input on it.
Diamond: The people I’ve talked to, that’s a very similar story. A lot of the solutions that are provided aren’t really tackling some of the systemic issues that Robeson County has been exposed to. It’s not tackling the racial profiling that has happened that led to present conditions. It’s not tackling economic and historical processes that marginalized certain folks of color and didn’t marginalize others. The solutions that are presented are very much partial, even if they are “ahistorical,” they are just so partial. And there’s also this element that people don’t know where the money is. I’ve been in the field in Robeson County since 2017, with all of the recovery issue--people don’t know where the money is. Even people that are very actively looking--like, “hey, where did this grant go to? We applied for this, where did that money go?” Like Jeff was saying, in what ways are the community members being contacted. Are you going door to door? Are you taking people’s opinions into account? These are the questions that echo through the recovery process in Robeson County.
Melody: Diamond, your research looks at storms and their impacts, not just geographical, but also cultural landscapes. The lack of community input--you and Jeff have both mentioned--means your photovoice project is more important than ever, I would think. When will folks see and hear the images and voices captured by their community? And have all that shared with decision makers that you referenced?
Diamond: Right now, we are in progress. Community members are out taking photos now. We have met a number of times over Zoom. We’ve had to move to this virtual space, which is very interesting for the community members and myself--because we’re so used to doing this engaged work in person. We’re using Zoom, and thinking of ways to do contactless pickups of memory cards, and things of that nature. With community-led projects, as opposed to just community contacted projects, the timing is really up to them. They have their everyday lives. They have full-time jobs, they have kids they have to take care of. And so I can’t give you a definite time. But I can tell you we are aiming for something tangible soon.
Jeff: It’s not hard to get people involved when they actually have a voice finally in the end product..that’s something someone is actually going to listen to.
Melody: This is our Southern Futures reading corner. I love it when we have 2 guests, just to see how varied their choices are! Diamond, let’s start with you.
Diamond: I picked a poem by Tyree Daye, called “A List of Waters.” I picked this poem because it’s part of what I’m understanding about Robeson County and talking to folks and reading some of the history about the County. Understanding there is a really strong connection between waters, and the river, and place. This poem does a really great job of weaving that into family history and representing that well.
A List of Waters
The scar that flows from my aunt’s thigh
to the boulder of her swollen ankle is a map
of the Haw River,
each toe a Blue Heron.
My mama’s waterr
……is all water, I’m every river rock
inside her being smoothed over.
The palms of my uncle’s hands
are the Deep River when he is holding a gutted trout.
You saw her bloody
and did nothing,
you Yellow Perch.
My uncles sinned openly
fed in the daytime,
…..a White Catfish.
My smallest cousin is a salamander in their father’s
…..Neuse River arms, legs hanging there
who has ever told me to clean my face
is the Atlantic Ocean.
The shoreline of this beach
is also a history lesson,
these sea shells
have blood on them.
I dream mostly in floods.
Melody: Jeff, what did you choose for us today?
Jeff: It’s from “Naked in the Wind” by Simon Published by Querlon Cummings, Pembroke, North Carolina in 1971. He is held up as the main poet of the 20th century, and 21st, as he’s still going. I had a chance to meet him and talk with him a little bit. I find it amazing that this was published in Pembroke in 1971 and it took me years to find the book. It’s hard to figure out what to read, but I’m going to read 2. The first one is a short poem, and the second one is the end of a longer poem:
This man he talks me words
These words grasp me.
He is telling me that I should buy it.
It’s got good paint, pretty good tires, listen to the engine
This is a damn good buy
He is telling it to me
These are the reasons you need it
I am cringing
I don’t need those clothes they smell of machinery rubber insides of building
You’re lacking this you are hurting without it
I am buying it
I am wrapping it up to take home to my children
You have made a good deal
And I leave ashamed
This American has sold me things I don’t need
And I kind of feel like that’s where we’re at in Robeson County. We just keep getting sold a bunch of things we don’t need. And the help we do need is not coming.
This is the last verse in a longer poem called:
“A birthday poem for myself”
...It doesn’t end
in all growing
in all happiness
in all sadness
in all soothing the aches of all pains
it doesn’t end
especially good words.
Melody: Jeff and Diamond, thank you for reading those selections for us. Now we’re going to close out the show with how you guys reimagine the South and the role of the Lumber River and its people in the future.
Diamond: My reimagining would be one in which grassroots ideas, movements, solutions were centered in solution making in the county. I think Robeson as a county represents the nexus of southern issues in many different ways--socially, economically. We’re talking about racism, marginalization. We’re also talking about tenacity, strength. The communities there represent, at least in part, what the South is. And so, my reimagining of that, would be their voices, not just being amplified, but at the forefront of change. That would fundamentally change how people are living.
Jeff: People who have had enough will take it on themselves to change their little corner of south eastern North Carolina, their corner of the watershed, their corner of Robeson County, for the better. To help their neighbor, to help their community. Whether it be Indian, Black, Hispanic, white--across the area. Because until we do that, until we take it on ourselves and quit looking for our neighbor to do it, and just do it on our own to help our neighbor, I don’t think we’ll have the change we all want. And so my revisioning, is revisioning a community that comes closer. That is drawn together by the need for something different going forward.
Melody: Diamond and Jeff, we appreciate the time you spent with us today and also the work you’re both doing in Robeson County. Thanks also for our listeners for tuning in. For executive producer Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery and sound editor Mark Meyer, I’m Melody Hunter-Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures Initiative, a collaboration between The College of Arts and Sciences, UNC Libraries, The Center for the Study of the American South, and other units of UNC Chapel Hill. Southern Futures: Reimagine the American South.