The DIVE Program Tackles the Louisiana Gulf Coast

The annual Diversity and Inclusion adVenture Experience (DIVE) trip invites a select group of NC State students to dive right into nine days of new, thought provoking experiences. The program specifically targets socially conscious students who would not typically find themselves on such a trip and attempts to expand their global perspectives. This year’s travels took students to the Louisiana Gulf Coast, where coastal land is rapidly disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico. At a rate comparable to one football field’s worth of coastal land an hour, various homes, businesses and cultures are being displaced.  

The primary goals of the trip were to discuss issues of social justice and diversity through the lens of NC State professor Dr. Rupert Nacoste’s book “Howl of the Wolf”; learn how to practice lifelong wellness through outdoor activities; learn about a grand challenge of society in clean water and water use; and to bring back knowledge and experiences from the trip to contribute to a group-determined service project by year’s end.

After 15 hours of podcasts and group discussions in the University Recreation Outdoor Adventures van, the group arrived at Fontainebleau State Park, Louisiana. As evenings turned to night, the group would wind down and end the day with a discussion around a campfire, trading ideas on chapters of the book and how they related to the day’s adventure. Focusing on these goals while visiting areas along the Louisiana Gulf Coast, from New Orleans to Grand Isle State Park, students were offered a holistic experience that allowed a strong platform for the varying messages of the trip to be delivered.

Once in Louisiana, the group traveled to several destinations, but one in particular stood out to student trip leader Josh Glazer. He explained that Grand Isle has the very unique issue of literally sinking into the ocean over time. To Glazer, the realization of this issue, as well as the possible ways to combat it were eye opening. One of the more significant discussions his group had was on the topic of how to remedy the erosion problem. The seafood industry in Louisiana is a huge economic driver and one of the only economic drivers in Grand Isle. With this in mind, each proposed solution was analyzed based on how it would affect the industry.

A significant portion of people in the area wanted to regrow areas along the bayou and Grand Isle that had been lost to erosion. “These people were proponents of freshwater diversion,” explained Glazer. This solution meant adding sand and silt to build the land naturally, a time-consuming process that would drive down the seafood industry by negatively impacting saltwater-loving plants and shellfish. It was therefore no surprise that others weren’t so eager to choose this option. Alternatively, other people in the area, such as fisherman, were lobbying for a quicker fix which involved piling rocks to renew lost land mass as well as using these rock piles as partial protection from further erosion. Unfortunately, the scale of the issue made this solution unrealistic, considering the amount of space lost and in need of protection. “Regardless, there were definitely a lot of concerned people working towards solving this problem,” Glazer said.

Through his time in Grand Isle and on the entire trip, Glazer found the biggest lesson in diversity to be understanding a variety of perspectives and where they come from. The NC State students looked at how the seafood industry and daily lives were affected by Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and the erosion issues in the area. They spoke to people ranging from nature conservancy scientists to locals, though it was those in the seafood industry who were most noticeably affected. According to Glazer, “The big message we tried to get all the students to hit on was being aware of different peoples’ perspectives.”

Sophomore Duncan Anderson expanded on Glazer’s recognition of the multitude of perspectives, while also taking into consideration the size of the local population. “Culturally, the thing that really caught my attention was seeing a small town in an area where there are larger issues at play, and to observe how everyone in the town is so connected,” Anderson said. “Everyone from the area views the issues at hand differently, and it’s interesting to see how people from different positions will think about them. For instance we spoke to someone with Wildlife and Fisheries who had a much different opinion than a commercial fisherman who ran his own shrimping business in the area.”

For Monique Reid, the case of Grand Isle stood out for different reasons. She was astonished, “to see the amount of oil rigs off the coast. We knew there were hundreds of them, but to be in one small area and to look out and see about thirty of them was eye opening.” Local residents explained how nothing is really being done about coastal land loss and that they didn’t think anyone would be living there 20 years from now. Per Reid, it appears the booming industry of oil and offshore drilling that is the root cause of this dramatic coastal erosion isn’t going anywhere for the time being. Sadly, to the government, money talks…louder than the locals.

“The biggest overarching message for me was that there are people in our country that are excluded from the government’s help,” Reid said. “I always thought someone had to be helping somebody, but the way it seems is that these people are on their own, they’re fighting a losing battle. No one’s listening to them or taking their suggestions into account. And I mean they’re the people who live there, they know what’s best for their land.”

Concerning solutions to the issues at play on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, Anderson had a unique opinion that seems initially harsh but might carry some weight in the way of the truth. “The one thing that was common when we spoke to people in the area was that they consistently brought the conversation to a conclusion by claiming we never should have levied the Mississippi,” Anderson said. “I just started to get this feeling that we shouldn’t be here. It’s such a vulnerable area; it funnels half of the continental United States’ water.”

Anderson recognizes the reality of the situation and understands that humans abandoning the rich and bustling culture of New Orleans and the surrounding coastal areas is out of the question. He claims that from an environmental perspective, it was a mistake to ever occupy the area. “New Orleans should not be where it is, in the way that it is,” Anderson said. “That was the most striking thing that hit me throughout the entire trip that I’m still sort of grappling with.”

The unwritten goal of any trip like this is for students to grow and develop throughout the dynamic process that is the life of a college student. Exposure to these experiences offers opportunities for students to learn about themselves, others and the world around them. For Anderson, one of the biggest lessons learned that he feels he can bring back to the NC State community was straightforward.  

“The context of what we learned through environmental justice and also what we examined in terms of diversity is that you’re just not going to please everyone,” Anderson said. “I think that’s just something that the university as a whole can begin to understand a bit better, it’s kind of hard to frame, but I think there’s room for growth here. Taking a look at the issues [in Louisiana] in the most pragmatic sense, there’s no way you can please everyone in that situation. You’re not necessarily going to have to make sacrifices, but you’re going to have to prioritize what you want to save. Is it the wetlands? Is it the coastal communities? Do you want to save New Orleans? In order to do any of that, you have to affect the others.”

Anderson went on to lay out his issues here with our campus and how there were parallels in the way people in Louisiana attempted to spread their opinions compared to those in the NC State community. His major concerns dealt not with the opinions themselves but with the manner in which the corresponding arguments were constructed. He explained the domino effect that policy changes and other governing decisions for any institution will have on those that are not considered directly in the decision. He advocates for the importance of understanding that any time a change is made in favor of one group or one idea, it will inevitably have a collateral effect on others. In this framework, Anderson claimed that, “in terms of how the university goes about handling and promoting diversity, I think something we need to be more cognisant of is the people and groups we’re ultimately trying to reach.”

Explaining his background in diversity work as an advocate for the GLBT center, Anderson outlined how his field and similar organizations might have some issues of their own. “I find it to be not so much a close-minded environment, but I think there’s too much of an ingroup feeling.”

After Anderson further explained how this same ingroup perspective was evident in the DIVE group’s conversations with people facing the multitude of issues in Louisiana, he offered a solution. “If you want to get your position out there and you want it to be well-received, you need to honestly just get over yourself a bit,” he said. “The people you want to reach, the ones you’re trying to convince, they’re people who aren’t in the loop and I think when we’re pushing diversity knowledge and things like that, the NC State community could be benefited by understanding that.”