Although I grew up living in the Atlantic Ocean on the Sea Islands of what is now the “Gullah/Geechee Nation,” no one could have told me that there would be global and national celebrations of this body of water. Of course for centuries, there have been traditional African rituals honoring the waters and the spirits of that element. However, when the world sits down to declare an international Ocean Decade, it seems that folks would immediately take notice. I guess I did because the survival of my people and our cultural heritage is tied to the ocean and the estuaries and creeks that flow to it.
Just when I thought I would be the only one sailing out on my own in celebration of the work that is being done to heal the water and protect the ocean so that it will continue to nurture us, GOD had it that I became aware of the other folks in the United States that climb The Hill annually to get together and celebrate at Capitol Hill Ocean Week aka “CHOW.” I figured that we would all get together and “chow down” on some good sustainable wild caught fish or similar cuisine and instead of a simple meal that could easily be devoured, I found myself feasting on the knowledge of those that had been drawn to the shoreline together due to our love of the environment and the ocean in particular. In the midst of the pandemic, some of the most passionate people I have ever met got together virtually for months to help organize CHOW. Some of us ended up with double duty because we were also asked to present for this annual national event. I didn’t hesitate to agree to be a part of the dialogues and inspiring engagement sessions. In fact, we had smooth sailing for the event.
Last year, I virtually attended CHOW and wondered if I should ever take the time to go up The Hill from the Lowcountry for it. I mentioned this to a few of my DC folks and they immediately said, “YOU definitely need to come to DC!” Just as I found myself being like Otis Redding-sitting at the dock of the bay-I was invited to speak in person at CHOW 2023. I immediately agreed and awaited the navigation plan.
The plan ended up taking me to a fully series of activities in the United States Capitol. From the White House to Congress to the Department of State and finally to the stage of the International World Trade and Convention Center. I had the honor of starting my morning with a powerhouse group of speakers that are all dedicated to healing the world in an equitable way beginning with the ocean.
While we all sat backstage trying to stay quiet even while taking group shots, we listened attentively and applauded when the announcement came that the Biden Administration was committing $2.6B to coastal resilience. Adaptation, resilience and sustainability have become things that I eat, drink, breathe and live in order to protect my homeland. So, I was elated to hear of what sounded like a massive financial commitment to this cause at first, but then I became concerned about who will actually get the funding to flow to them. Will it, once again, flow away from indigenous cultural heritage communities like the Gullah/Geechee Nation and other communities represented by members of the Ocean Justice Advocacy Group, Hispanic Access Foundation or Black in Marine Science? I started thinking about how many allies we have for the photo ops when legislation is being pushed or even passed, but how we are not contacted when its time for allocation of those resources or the direct appropriation of these millions and billion dollars. In fact, sometimes if feels like these folks invite us on the boat ride until the champagne comes out and then you get tossed from the deck! So, I figured, I better find out where the helm of the ship is and hold tight there to stay onboard and start working on the navigation.
I held tight backstage and stayed in meditation and contemplation as I listened to all the outstanding and visionary things that were forthcoming by these ocean loving folks. I knew that when my time came to present, I would need to transport these folks from the Hill back to the Lowcountry shoreline with me. I would need them to realize that resiliency couldn’t simply mean investments in shoreline restoration, forestry or even salt marsh conservation as we are fighting for via the Southeast Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative (SASMI). I also needed them to see that resiliency couldn’t just be about creatures. It had to be about an investment in culture!
As I started off my presentation, it was like going out into the river via a bateau. We were moving out into the tide flow ever so slow. I gradually got them to take the oars along with me and we started sailing out into deeper waters away from the shore. Finally, they emerged as one with me in declaring that we would all be the Ocean Community Engaging Action Now. Yes, I had gone from speaking Gullah to speaking what I call “Hill talk.” Oh, how they love an acronym in Washington DC! This acronym got them into the boat and flowing out on the ocean with me. One only needs to tune into Gullah/Geechee TV to see:
Once you do, I implore you to Yeddi we!” and join us as part of the ocean community. What better time to do this than during Ocean Month.
Although we have a decade to focus on the health of our ocean and thereby focus on the health of our world, let’s not wait until the decade begins to draw to a close in 2030 to get engaged and get involved. Be one of the many drops that come together to be a wave of healing for the world. Become a part of the Ocean Community Engaging Action Now!
On behalf of the Gullah/Geechee Famlee, tenki tenki ta all hunnuh chillun wha meet we pun de shoreline and jayn we.