Colette Pichon Battle
“Placed Here, In This Calling”
Colette Pichon Battle is a generational native of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. The ebb and flow of the Bayou was a background rhythm in her childhood to every aspect of life. She did not ever imagine in that childhood that she would one day be known as a “climate activist.” To be with Colette, and experience her brilliance of mind and spirit and action, is to open up all the ways the words we use and the stories we tell about the transformation of the natural world that is upon us blunt us to the courage we’re called to and the joy we must nurture as our primary energy and motivation. She is a vivid embodiment, too, of the new forms societal shift is taking in our world — led by visionary pragmatists close to the ground, in particular places, persistently and lovingly learning and leading the way for us all.
This conversation was part of The Great Northern Festival, a celebration of Minnesota’s cold, creative winters.
Colette Pichon Battle is founder and Co-Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, which influences realms from equitable disaster recovery to global migration, from community economic development to climate justice and energy democracy. She founded that center in the wake of Hurricane Katrina of 2005, which she has described as “a crack in the universe.” Katrina was a front edge of a transformation we are all experiencing in some way in the places we love and come from. Among her many activities she serves on the board of the US Climate Action Network and leads the Red, Black & Green New Deal — the climate initiative of the Movement for Black Lives.
Transcript by Heather Wang
Krista Tippett, host: Colette Pichon Battle is a generational native of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. She can trace her people back centuries, and their belonging on that land, with a remarkable intimacy and delight. I was stunned to learn as I prepared for this conversation that Louisiana alone holds 40% of the wetlands of the United States. The ebb and flow of the Bayou was a background rhythm in Colette’s childhood, to every aspect of life. She did not ever imagine in that childhood that she would one day be known as a “climate activist.” And to be clear, that phrase doesn’t begin to describe her vision and her gifts, her work and her callings. Indeed, to be with Colette and experience her brilliance of mind and spirit and action is to open up all the ways the words we use and the stories we tell about the transformation of the natural world that is upon us blunt us to the courage we’re called to and the joy we must nurture as our primary energy and motivation. Colette Pichon Battle is a vivid embodiment, too, of the new forms societal shift is taking in our world, led by visionary pragmatists close to the ground in particular places, persistently and lovingly learning and leading the way for us all.
[“Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Colette Pichon Battle is co-executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, which influences realms from equitable disaster recovery to global migration, from community economic development to climate justice and energy democracy. She founded that center in the wake of Hurricane Katrina of 2005, which she has described as “a crack in the universe.” Katrina was, on some level, a front edge of a transformation we are all experiencing in some way, in the places we love and come from. The Great Northern Festival, which brought Colette and me together with a small audience in January 2022 is, in fact, another manifestation of this — a celebration of “cold, creative winters” — a signature season now in flux — through 10 days of programming towards love of place, participation, and resilience.
I have spent these last couple days just really learning about you, steeping in you, and it’s just amazing to have you here.
Colette Pichon Battle: Thank you. It’s an honor.
Tippett: And I feel like — yeah, we have so much to learn from you.
Battle: I’m ready. [laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] And so I’m always interested in the religious or spiritual sensibility that shaped a childhood, and I’m so curious for you, because clearly, Louisiana and the Bayou were part of that. And I just wonder how those things came together in the early life that formed you.
Battle: It’s the question, for me. I come from a Creole community in South Louisiana, and so we’re very Catholic — Catholic and big. It’s big families that are highly ritualized. And to drive to church, every Sunday, you have to go through bayous and bridges and water, and you look to see if there’s an alligator on your way to church. Church is under these big oak trees that have been there for hundreds of years. Those pieces of spirit were always together.
But your — the deeper part of spirit that’s just really free is out in those bayous, under those trees. And these words that you learn — like “magnificent” and “holy” and “sacred” — you see them. You see them in front of you. Things are very old and very beautiful.
Tippett: Is it right that you were raised in the same house your mother was born in?
Battle: It’s true. My grandfather built that house.
Tippett: And that it was land that your family had been on …
Battle: That’s right. So my — so Creole people were free people of color, and they could own land before many Black folks could. And so my family had been there before it was America, before it was the U.S. And the land that is in my family extends for a very long time. So my grandfather had — his family had a piece of property, and that’s where he built his house, and he had his 13 children; and my mom was one of those; and she was born in that house, and I was raised in that house. So the connection to that place and that land is — it’s not just our generations. It goes even further back.
Tippett: Something else that I loved when I heard you talking about was how you grew up. How did you say it? You grew up knowing how to pay attention for storms, and that the calm in the eye of the storm, which is not just a phrase but a reality …
Battle: It’s a real thing.
Tippett: … is something that you knew how to hang out in.
Battle: Yeah. Yeah. I actually have been thinking about storms, looking at all the snow on the ground. It’s like, how do people enjoy this? How do people live in this?
And it is — if you calm down about it, and you see there’s a — everyone’s used to it, everyone knows what to do — that’s how hurricanes are, for us. Well, they were. When I was young, it was a hurricane party — literally, a party. All of your cousins — and remember, I come from that big Catholic family — it was like 51 first cousins, all in a house. And all your aunts are cooking — the power is going to go out, so that means we’re going to be grilling. They’re not going to waste food, so you got to get the food out the freezer and just — it’s just a buffet. You’re having a party. And you’re with all of your friends, and in any moments of fear, you’re with like 20 people who love you. And it just makes the whole experience very different, because you’re not alone, not knowing what’s happening. You’re with generations of people who know exactly what’s going on, and they know exactly when to be afraid and when —
Tippett: Right, and they are contained moments of fear, of appropriate fear.
Battle: That’s right.
Tippett: It made me also think about how — so I grew up in Oklahoma — how we all, wherever we’re from, we have the storms that we know.
Battle: Ase, yes.
Tippett: Right? In Oklahoma, it was tornadoes. Exactly the same thing; there was this moment where it could kill you and you knew it, and you knew — right? But you knew what to do. And in Minnesota, it’s snowstorms, and in California, it’s the form of a storm that is a fire.
Battle: That’s right.
Tippett: And of course, in all of those examples, it’s not that known experience anymore.
Battle: That’s right. It’s very different. And I think that’s the part that scares me the most. We’re losing generations of people who know the anatomy of these things. And we’re getting new people into our space who have no clue what a hurricane is, and the hurricanes that we know to describe are not the ones we’re facing now.
Tippett: So your life changed on August 29, 2005, with Hurricane Katrina. And I have a couple questions about that. I mean, first of all, you weren’t there, were you? You were a lawyer in Washington, D.C.
Battle: I was a lawyer.
Tippett: You had gone away to school, as we do in this culture. And were you watching it on TV?
Battle: Yeah — I was practicing, I was in the D.C. area, and they just put the storm up on the television. And I can eye a hurricane the way people here can eye snowfall, because I saw flurries today, and I was like, “Is it time to go?” And no one seemed fazed by the flurries. [laughs]
So you can read a storm, and you know how to kind of watch them — they do crazy things. And anyway, this storm was way too big. No storm was supposed to be that big. I’d never seen one that large — it took up almost the whole gulf. And I just remember thinking, where’s my mom? And, you know, we’re bayou people. We don’t run from storms. That’s just not what we do, as I’m sure the Minnesotans don’t run from the snow. And so we don’t run from the storms. So I just remember my mom saying, like, I’m here, I’m fine. And I’m like, Get out of there.
I don’t even know why I thought that. That’s not something I ever thought before. It was just too big. And my mom packed three days of clothes, and she went to my uncle’s house, and we lost everything. We had a very large tidal surge, almost 30 feet, coming off the ocean, and my entire community went under about 12 feet of water. And we were on high ground. That’s where my grandfather’s land is, high ground. People would park their cars on — every storm, we’d see random cars parked in our yard, and you just knew a storm was coming, because everybody would park their cars there because we were on high ground.
But we went under. Everything went under. We lost everything. And —
Tippett: That house your grandfather built?
Battle: That same house. That same house. That same house on that land, and now the land is perpetually saturated, because the water is rising, the water table is rising, the lake is rising — everything,. You know, the sea level rise is real, and for those of us who are very close to the sea, we can see it. The yard never gets dry. The trees are falling, because the ground is saturated, you know. It’s really — it’s jarring to see, because most people think you can’t watch sea level rise, but it is very obvious, in just the 16 years that I’ve been home, what’s happening.
Tippett: Somewhere you said, “It was a crack in the universe to come home and see the destruction” of Hurricane Katrina.
Battle: It was unbelievable. It was unbelievable. You know, the worst part — you land in New Orleans, and everybody saw what happened to New Orleans, and there’s a whole thing, there’s a whole story to understand the difference between the failure of manmade levees versus the unbelievable power of a tidal surge off the ocean. They’re not the same things. One caused the other, but they weren’t the same things. So the reality of the place where I lived wasn’t failed levees. It was water off the ocean, water churned up from the storm. So to go through New Orleans was one thing, right — you land, you drive through — that was hard to see, but what you were looking at were like, flooded buildings, some things down. Just, the destruction was — I guess I had seen it already. It was on TV.
But TV didn’t show the places around New Orleans. So driving across the bridge on Lake Pontchartrain, you have to go through a swamp, and everything that was so green all of my life was brown and stinky. And it was just death. I’d never smelled death like that. Everything died. The salt water intrusion killed all the vegetation in the swamp that you have to drive through. And then you get to a place where I live, where we have a lot of trees — we have these big old tall pine trees, and they were all down. My parish lost two-thirds of its tree cover in that storm. That’s a lot of — that’s a lot of trees to lose, when you grow up — you know, as a kid, you would look at the sky and all you would see is trees, you know? And they were gone.
Tippett: That feels — that hits home here, too, that image.
So you have become a climate activist — that’s what you’re called. It’s not a title that you ever would’ve anticipated or that you trained for, and I actually think that neither one of those words is really big enough. And I feel like what you get at and what you’ve just drawn us into is the fact that this is not a science story.
Battle: That’s right.
Tippett: Climate is just this tiny piece of it, right? But it’s a human story. It’s a story about home. It’s a story about belonging. It’s about what we know and love and hold dear. Starts with love — with what we love and who we love, and culture. It doesn’t start with an abstraction.
Battle: That’s right.
Tippett: And so there are two critical moments that I kind of discovered, or at least that I’d like to dig into, in terms of the development of what I would say has become your calling. And the first is the story you tell about two years after Katrina, seeing those flood maps, seeing flood maps of this place you belong to, for the first time. And would you just tell us what you saw?
Battle: You know, there are all of these researchers who were looking at South Louisiana before Katrina, many people concerned about sea level rise and all of these things for a very long time, but it wasn’t common knowledge. It wasn’t information brought to the communities. The universities knew it, but the communities didn’t know. And there was a highly regarded professor, who put the maps on the wall, and they played a time lapse of land loss. And they had us all, like: Point where you are. And all of a sudden, you see time lapse, and you see your community is going to — is going. And they tell you, This is going to happen, no matter what. So even if we are successful in whatever it is we want to do next, we will lose these places. We will lose this land. We will lose — they didn’t say “communities,” but we were all, several of us up at the map, just coming to that conclusion.
I couldn’t believe that what I saw was that this place that I hold so dear, that I had such a long memory of — not because I was old, but because all my life I had been told stories from a very long time ago — all of those stories are going to go. All of the trees that we sat under are going to go. Everything that I knew to be, like, who I was, even describing just who I am and where I’m from, was going to go. It’s going to be lost.
And that was a moment where you sort of have this — it’s surreal. You don’t — who can believe your land won’t be there anymore? Most people still can’t conceptually understand that.
Tippett: I think especially for you, because you had such a long history on the land and much more knowledge of that history than most of us do.
Battle: Yes. And that land, for people like me, was tied to our freedom. You know, that land, the land and the right to be there was tied to — it was the difference between being enslaved and not. It was — it is a culture that has birthed a lot of people. And to lose that — it felt in that moment that we would lose everything. Nobody would even know who we are. And my mom is this — my mom is an amazing woman, who fought for French to get back into the Louisiana schools. So just the culture has been a big part of our family life. So to think that people were fighting for these communities that nobody would ever really know about was hard. It is hard.
And people ask me all the time, if you know your land is going to go, why are you still fighting? My last name is Battle now, Krista. You know what I’m saying?
Tippett: [laughs] That’s right.
Battle: I don’t know what they’re expecting, you know? We going down swinging if we going. [laughs]
But yeah, no, it’s been a — I still cry about it. I still think about it. It’s not something you understand one day and then move past. It’s something you contemplate daily. I take drives now, just to make sure I witness.
[music: “Disinter” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with Colette Pichon Battle of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. It’s worth recalling that over 1,800 Gulf Coast residents lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina. Millions were forced to evacuate and became houseless. Countless numbers left or were relocated and never returned home. And the images that riveted the U.S. and the world in the immediate days after Katrina were of human beings, mostly Black and brown, omitted from rescue operations and left for days in dangerous and desperate conditions. I will never forget the words spoken by a then FEMA director: “We are seeing people we never knew existed.” This was a story not just about a storm, but about our country.
[music: “Disinter” by Blue Dot Sessions]
And then there was this meeting you were invited to at the White House. What year was that? It was in the Obama administration.
Battle: Oh, so many meetings at the White House.
Tippett: Yeah, OK, but with FEMA.
Battle: Oh yes, yes.
Tippett: And this is so stunning, that at some point this senior person …
Battle: Yes, the head of FEMA.
Tippett: … the head of FEMA, not apologizing, not really explaining, but in a moment of just leveling with you, said — because, I guess, I’m sure the question was partly, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again? And he said, “The disaster process in this country is designed for the middle class.”
Battle: That’s right. That’s right.
Tippett: Which actually makes everything make sense that we saw …
Battle: It makes — it was the most honest answer I’d ever gotten.
Tippett: … and that it was a matter of design.
Battle: That’s right. That’s right. And it made me understand why I was placed here, in this calling. I don’t have this law degree for nothing. And the laws as they are written right now are not meant for me, and they’re not meant for my community, and they’re not meant to help people, and they’re not meant to save people, and they’re not meant to do those things with the utmost humanity and dignity. They are meant to preserve a middle-class tax base, period, almost every law that we have. How does this affect the taxpayer? [laughs] is the analysis that is used.
What was happening was there was a conversation, it was a lot of people in that FEMA meeting, and it was like, This is what happened; this is what happened. Terrible, terrible stories — housing, education, healthcare, everything. And the response from the head of FEMA was: I believe you. I believe that all of that happened, because the laws are not written —
Tippett: It was also helping him understand what had happened.
Battle: A hundred percent. I mean, because I think a lot of people — you know, there are bad people in this world, but mostly, there are just people who don’t know. And I think he leveled with me. I think he was being honest, and I think it was a moment for me that I understood, well, I have a purpose here. We’ve got to change these laws. We’ve got to change the society. It is the structures that we are living in that is the problem. I am not talking about you liking me, or me liking you, anymore. We’re now going to talk about, does this work for the least of us, which goes back to that very Catholic upbringing, you know, that — you know? That’s what I learned. That’s who we’re supposed to care about. That’s who we’re supposed to take the time to make things work for.
So the structures and the laws of our country do not work for the least of us. In fact, they create and marginalize people. They create vulnerability, and then we blame people for that vulnerability by saying something about their own individual acts. What we witnessed in Katrina was not a series of poor choices by individuals. We witnessed the breakdown of a system, or: we witnessed a system working the way it was designed to work.
Tippett: That it was designed, yeah.
You’ve talked about when you came home from Washington and that people would say, “Coco is home, Coco is home.” And that had a really particular meaning. [laughs]
Battle: Yes. Yes. [laughs] Well, my name is Coco, everyone. It’s — yeah. My name was actually Chocolat, I don’t know if you — oh, there’s some French influence in the — [laughs]
Tippett: I think that’s a revelation, here in this room, for us.
Battle: [laughs] My name — I came out a little chocolate baby amongst very fair-skinned people. And so my name was Chocolat, and my nickname was Coco. And when I came home, what my community knew was that they had — we had 500 fish dinners for my undergrad. We had 500 more fish dinners for my law school.
Tippett: [laughs] They got you to college — Kenyon College.
Battle: They got me to Kenyon. They bought all of my tickets to go, you know? Yes, I got into the college, but college is very expensive, and then you’ve got to get there, and then you need books, and my community paid for all of that. And I’m so grateful to have — to come from that. But they knew that I was — I’m theirs, you know, and so when I came home, it was: someone that we have helped to become educated can help us with what we’re going through right now.
And so then I started reading Red Cross papers and FEMA paperwork, and I’m thinking to myself, I’m a lawyer and I can’t understand this stuff. How can regular folks understand what they’re signing? And they were signing their life away. They were signing their property. They were signing, you know, to receive dollars that then got them into lawsuits with the federal government because they didn’t spend them the right way. You know, no one’s telling them what to do, they’re just telling them to sign the paperwork. And this got to understanding what happens when you don’t invest in your education system, what happens when the rest of the nation allows for the South’s education system to go to those low levels. It means, in disaster, people don’t understand the paperwork that they’re signing or the implications behind them. And oh, by the way, neither did the lawyer. [laughs] Like, I had to like, break that stuff down and read it, too.
Tippett: And that’s so granular, right? That’s not being able to read legal documents — I mean, it’s not about complexity. It’s about things that feel like they should be simple —
Battle: Should be; should be very simple.
Tippett: Should be. I mean, what was it — you were the third lawyer in four or five generations to come out of your community.
Battle: That’s right. And I was the first girl. The other two were older men that I knew of, but they’re my older uncles’ ages and — yeah, my community was very proud of me. And I was proud. I didn’t realize that that was a — you know, you don’t really think about those things, like, Oh, I’ll be the first girl. You just think, I want to do my best, and I want to represent my community in a really good way. But I think being a girl, being a woman, was actually quite helpful in this situation, because it wasn’t just lawyering skills that were needed. It was empathy, and it was patience, and it was the ability to be quiet and not take up space. Servitude — you know, I mean, I cleaned up a lot, before we got to the paperwork, you know what I mean? I held babies and cried with people, before we got to the paperwork. And that’s something I think, being raised as a Black Southern woman, those are things we get endowed with, and it was a necessary part of that process.
Tippett: What did you think you were going to law school for? [laughs]
Battle: Well. I had plans.
I was going to be secretary of state. That was where I was going to land. I was going to be a prosecutor at the Hague, against international war criminals. See? I had big dreams. Yeah, I had a very, sort of, I want to represent the United States on the global stage, around right and around justice. I want to be in the world. I want to be in a global conversation about right and humanity.
And I really projected all of that outward, and I have to tell you, there were several moments, but many moments of studying international studies and thinking about how all of this pertains to the Third World and the developing world. But coming home post-Katrina, I said, this is everything I learned about international human rights, about human rights, and it’s right here. And it is right now.
Tippett: I would say you have stepped into what has become the 21st-century dynamic that brings all of that together. And it is intimate and civilizational at once. And you’re not secretary of state, but you are — you did found, and you’re the co-executive director of, this incredible institution called the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. And this is just — this is just a sliver of what you’re doing: the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy; co-chairs the National Water Equity and Climate Resilient Caucus with PolicyLink; serves on the steering committee of the Ocean Justice Forum — or is this just you? Is this you, not “just”; this is you — and anchors the five-state, multi-issue initiative Gulf South for a Green New Deal. You also lead the Red, Black & Green New Deal, the national climate initiative for the Movement for Black Lives.
And I said a minute ago I don’t think “climate activist” is — those aren’t big enough words, and you’ve also said climate change is not the problem. But I think the words “climate change” are part of the problem, because they dull us and — right? So I would love to spend a few minutes — because you use language so powerfully, and this is in the context of your speaking, but also in how the Gulf Coast Center kind of formulates. It’s like you’re creating a vocabulary that I think opens up what is at stake and what this is really about. And I just want to ask you to kind of take us inside some of these.
So one of them is “equitable disaster recovery.”
Battle: You know, we in this country, we all have this starting point of our own struggle, our own existence. And so equitable disaster recovery means you have to acknowledge the past in your action, for the moment and for the future. This is about repair, it’s not just about response. And we in this country have a real problem with that part, right, because blame, for us, is shameful. Responsibility is shameful.
But we’re all responsible. If we’re maintaining this system, we are all responsible for the inequities, and therefore, we are all responsible for solutions that are equitable. And it means we have to start at those places that we have created vulnerabilities in, and then go from there. We have enough resources to help everybody. This is about where you start.
[music: “One Dirty Sleeve” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Colette Pichon Battle.
[music: “One Dirty Sleeve” by Blue Dot Sessions]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today I’m with Colette Pichon Battle, of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. She has been an extraordinary leader, from her home state of Louisiana, in facing the human and moral dimensions of the ecological transformation that is before all of the places we love. I was privileged to interview her in a live event in the old-fashioned flesh at Mia, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, as part of the 2022 Great Northern Festival.
So I feel like you are — you have a lot of expertise, but you also have gathered a lot of wisdom, and I just want to kind of give you back some of your words and have you take us again inside them: “We must have the courage to admit we have taken too much.”
Battle: Ase. I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard, living in this country and even the response to disaster or harm is to go purchase something. You know? That’s — we don’t even know what we’re doing. We’re so unconscious — we just do it unconsciously. We’re so wealthy — just go buy it. Just go take it. It’s yours to take.
It takes a lot of courage to examine that, right, because we would have to examine our comfort. We would have to examine the things we worked all our lives to get — the standards. We have really harmful standards that are harming the planet — our standards. We are — as a country, as a nation, as a people who love comfort and love what we love and love our freedom — we are at the tip of the blame knife. And we are causing a lot of harm, and we’re not paying attention. We’re thinking about climate impacts as something that’s harming those poor people over there because they’re poor, or because they have a bad leader, or, you know — but that’s not what’s happening. Our consumption is causing this problem.
Tippett: Or because they’re “unlucky.”
Battle: They’re “unlucky.”
You know, if we believe in luck, then there’s some responsibility that goes with that. If we’re lucky enough to live in this country and to have what we have, then we don’t just get to recycle and feel better about ourselves. It’s time to show up at the hard places, right? Everybody else is waiting for us to admit that we are the engine of the harm. And so that takes courage. I mean, you know, who wants to admit that about themselves?
Tippett: You know, something you just did I think is part of the move, because to call for courage — right? Not just to say that we have to admit that we don’t — so let’s call that courage that is what we’re called to.
Battle: It is courage, you know? We don’t like to look in the mirror. That stuff takes courage. I fight with those things all the time; like, what’s the line between the blame that stops you from action and the acknowledgement that catapults you to do the right thing? You’ve got to practice that. You’ve got to practice that one every day, or else — and you can’t be mad at people, because there’s a journey. [laughs] I used to get very mad at people.
Tippett: That takes practice, too. [laughs]
Battle: Whoo, girl. I mean, you know, the amount of patience it takes for middle-class white folks to understand the plight of brown people in this country is just, like, how much longer do you need me to sit here and be nice about this?
And I’m Southern. You know, we can wait. We can go nice and slow for you. But like, it’s — you know, it’s — at some point it feels like you’re ignoring me. At some point, it feels like you’re not listening to me. And now that’s just disrespectful, which we don’t do in the South, because disrespect is a — that’s a line. So the courage is something to practice, and patience is, too. But we are facing a crisis that we have maybe seven years at most to make some corrections on, so we’ve all got to get to that a little quicker.
Tippett: I feel like you just walked into, also, something that really defines you, in a quiet way, is that for you there is a spiritual aspect to this existential challenge. And it feels to me like that has grown more and more important to you.
Battle: For sure. I mean, all of the lessons that can take you — to really admit climate, to really, really admit that you understand what is happening to the planet, it will break your heart. If you don’t cry deep, hard tears for the state of this planet and all of the people on it, you don’t yet understand the problem. And so once you get to that place, the only thing that can bring you out of that kind of darkness is belief in something greater than yourself. And for me, it is that spiritual connection. For me, it is understanding a greater purpose. And then your job becomes less about passing a piece of legislation and more about making a better world. And so for me, this is absolutely spirit now. I mean, what do we have to lose? Well, we’re going to lose everything. So — and my last name is Battle. We’re going to lose everything, and my last name is Battle. What am I supposed to do? I’m supposed to fight.
I’m supposed to fight, but I’m supposed to fight with tools that build people up, not tools that take people down and take them out. And that’s love. That’s patience. That’s all of those things that they taught you in Sunday school. They were right. [laughs] You know, whatever the faith tradition is, those whittle down, the same ones, across the board: love, patience, care. And so yeah, that’s — it’s spiritual now. It’s — this is a moral dilemma we’re in, it’s not a scientific one. This is not about greenhouse gas reduction. This is about do we value people equally? And if we do, we’ve got some recalibrating to do, as a planet.
Tippett: Here’s some other wisdom from you: “This challenge requires us to recognize a power greater than ourselves and a life longer than the ones we will live.”
Tippett: “It requires us to believe in the things that we are privileged enough not to have to see.”
Battle: That’s right. That was me being mad at folks who just … [laughs]
Tippett: That’s a really eloquent way of being mad, I have to say. [laughs]
Battle: You know, I’m trying. I’m trying.
I’m just — those are my words around us still sitting quietly about this thing. I can’t believe that it is the U.S. government — it’s our government, it’s our representatives, under every administration in these international talks — that are stopping the conversation that says: finance the work needed for the people who are feeling the impacts of climate; finance that, because you caused it. It’s our country saying no.
That, to me, is like, come on now. We’re better than that. This is lives we’re talking about. This is mass migration. This is people’s lives. This is heat deaths. This is fires. This is storms. Put everything into this. We’re fighting over whether or not people should have the right to vote? We’re fighting over whether or not people should have the right to their bodies? That is child’s play compared to what this climate crisis is. Where is the righteous indignation on this issue? And why can’t we get past that?
Tippett: And it seems to me that you — that this spiritual power that you bring to this allows you to — is part of how you — and we’re experiencing the fullness of this — you see the issues, you see the trauma, you see the effect on our psyches and our spirits, and on all kinds of people’s psyches and spirits at different magnitude, and you say, “I come from a people who are energized by joy.”
Tippett: And you are holding those things together in how you fight for all of us.
Battle: This is a country paralyzed by fear right now. And the only thing that can — that fear — you know, Yoda — just thought I’d quote a great one …
Tippett: Let’s get the wisdom of the elders in here.
Battle: … thought I’d quote a great one. Yoda said, “Fear leads to anger.” Love leads to joy — that’s a Colette. Colette and Yoda.
The joy comes from love. To combat this thing, to combat the oil industry’s fear of losing profit, I have got to help to bring joy of the community’s love of everything that they are. And that’s the only thing that’s going to fight that. It’s who I am. I don’t come from really — you know, I have an angry streak, but I don’t come from angry people. I am so grateful to have come from folks who celebrate family during a hurricane, who — every year for my birthday, my uncle, who was this wayward person in the world, he showed up to boil crawfish, because that’s like, my favorite thing. I remember going to all of my cousins’ games, for everything, because we show up for each other. And these are the things that I’ve learned, not as a lawyer, but just as a human citizen. And this is what I bring to organizing. Every now and again, the law shows up, but mostly it’s the community building and the joy and the love.
Tippett: Yeah, there was this — Jane Fonda, actually, interviewed you for this virtual thing, and she was asking you about organizing in the pandemic. And you said, well — she said, how do you do that? And you said, “Well, I organize prayerfully.” But you also said this beautiful thing; you said, “Organizing is about checking on people.”
Battle: That’s right.
Tippett: Checking in with how people are.
Battle: “How you doing.”
Tippett: We need to wind down, but I don’t want to do that before we note that here we are, sitting in Minnesota in January, and it’s not your first time at this place on the Mississippi. Would you tell us a little bit about the Sacred Waters Pilgrimage? Was that in the midst of the pandemic? It was in 2020, right?
Battle: In the midst of the pandemic. So I kept getting messages from my grandfather, in my dreams, about the Mississippi River and a pilgrimage. I didn’t know anything else. And in 2020 we did a seven-month pilgrimage down the Mississippi River, from the headwaters in Minnesota all the way to the mouth in Louisiana. And the pilgrimage was just for Black and Native women and Two-Spirit folk. And we did ritual at every stop, at every full moon. So it was only indigenous African language and indigenous Turtle Island languages that were spoken in ritual or ceremony that was done. And some things you didn’t get to see — some ritual is not for everybody to see, but the intention was done together. And the first step before every stop was to find Indigenous people of the land where we wanted to stop, and get permission. And then those Indigenous women, many of them would come and join us, and we would bring gifts from our homes, and they had to be natural gifts, and then ceremony. And It was really beautiful. I mean, it was in the midst of COVID. We had all of our protocols in place, and then we let spirit do the rest, and it was very powerful.
In addition to the ceremonies, we had these conversations about the river. And Indigenous folks in Iowa were talking about industrial farming and how it’s messing up the soil, and they met with the Indigenous people in Louisiana, who are at the bottom of the river where there’s a dead zone and the fish can’t live, because of the runoff. And it turns out that the fertilizer and the pesticides are all fossil fuel-based, so they’re drilled and pulled up in Louisiana, refined in Cancer Alley, brought up to Minnesota and Iowa; then they run off into the river and they create a dead zone where the fish can’t live. And this is the story that the women told each other. And they cried. They cried for the river, and they asked for forgiveness.
And in addition to reconnecting with the water, we took some time to address the tensions between Black and Indigenous people and apologize to each other for what being colonized did to both of us. And those were very, very strong and powerful conversations, acknowledgements that just hadn’t happened, so that work now that requires Black and Native people to move together can move, can flow like that water; flow better.
Tippett: That’s that repair.
Battle: That repair. We get nowhere without it.
Tippett: I kind of wanted — I’d love to now spend another hour hearing what your people, your community, what you are learning, because really, Hurricane Katrina was kind of on the front edge that we’re all on. And we don’t have time to hear all about that, but I think the question I’d like to ask you — and I ask it for Minnesota, but I ask it for people who would be listening anywhere — what have you learned about how we can accompany each other?
Battle: I think I’ve learned that even people who are — who see the world differently from you, they love something. And if we take the time to share what we love with one another, we can see each other’s humanity, and we can feel each other’s value. And if we can connect in a real way, that’s what we need to accompany each other, because some of what is going to be asked is that you just let me be. You know. As relocation and all of this stuff happens, some people are going to choose something other than what you would choose. And to accompany them is to just understand what they love, and respect it. So I think let’s take the time to connect through love, and stick with each other as we practice our own liberation, our own liberated stance on this thing, which will not always be the answer we want to hear, but it’ll be someone practicing freedom. And that’s the part we have to respect.
Tippett: If I ask you — this is a big question, but just today, just right this hour, what is making you despair, and what is bringing you hope? What is giving you hope?
Battle: I feel sadness around the inability to value the feminine and the power of it and acknowledge that it is the other half of this circle. And if we do not respect it — through women, but also through a care economy and through taking care of each other and, you know, these things that we have learned to devalue because we’ve put this masculine thing on high — I feel sadness that we still don’t see it. Even the feminist movement has something to learn [laughs] about respecting the feminine. I thought race was the biggest problem. And then I’m just watching this gender thing, and it’s really sad.
But I get hope — you know, I’ve been listening to some music. I love listening to music, and I’ve been listening to some of what’s coming out of the next generation, and I have my critiques. I’m officially an old lady now. I’m like, That ain’t music! [laughs] Y’all don’t know real music!
But I was riding, listening to this song the other day, and I had a 19-year-old with me, named Tyler. And I said, Oh, check out this song I found. We turned it up, there was a beautiful sunrise over the — a sunset over Lake Pontchartrain, and it was just this beautiful music and sounds I hadn’t heard put together before. And I said, You know, I got a lot of critiques about this Generation-whatever-y’all-are. But y’all are very creative. You have a freedom with your creativity that can be beautiful. And so we’re going to need that level of creativity to get out of this thing, and I am hopeful that the next generation, that has a lot of challenges, also has enough creativity to get out of it, to get to the next level.
Tippett: And we’ll accompany them, too.
Battle: Ase. We’ll be right there with them.
Tippett: Colette, I’m just really glad you’re in the world and that you’re a comrade in all this work that we all have had. So thank you so much for coming here and for doing what you do.
Battle: Thank you. And I can’t tell you how glad I am, when I had to leave my religious practice, I had your show on Sundays to listen to. Ase. Thank you.
Tippett: Oh, thank you.
[music: “Inner Peace” by Jon Hopkins]
Colette Pichon Battle is founder and co-executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. Among her many activities she serves on the board of the US Climate Action Network and leads the Red, Black & Green New Deal, the climate initiative of the Movement for Black Lives. You can learn more about her work at gcclp.org.
Our conversation was part of The Great Northern Festival, a celebration of Minnesota’s signature cold, creative winters. You can learn more at thegreatnorthernfestival.com.
And special thanks this week to Mana Tahaie, with the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy; also, Kate Nordstrum, Natalie Román, and Jothsna Harris, with The Great Northern Festival. And also thanks to Mia, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which hosted this conversation.
[music: “Inner Peace” by Jon Hopkins]
The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Laurén Drommerhausen, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Ben Katt, Gautam Srikishan, Lillie Benowitz, April Adamson, Ashley Her, Matt Martinez, and Amy Chatelaine.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent, nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org;
Kalliopeia Foundation, dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality, supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org;
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project;
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives;
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.