Beyond the BP Oil Disaster: To Fight or To Lead? – That is the Question


As we reflect on the second anniversary of the BP oil disaster, community groups of America’s Gulf Coast can celebrate three major victories:

1. On Thursday, April 12,  two Board Members of the Gulf Coast Fund, Derrick Evans and Bryan Parras gave such a compelling testimony at the BP shareholder meeting in London that Board Member Ian Davis, who is also the Chairman of the Gulf of Mexico Committee, has agreed to visit Gulf Coast communities to get a first-hand look at what is really occurring with the recovery.

2. On Wednesday, April 18, BP submitted a $7.8 billion settlement with the Plaintiffs Steering Committee to the Court: “A grant of more than $100 million will be used to establish a 5-year program to enhance access to physical and mental health care services in the Gulf Coast region—with an emphasis on integrated and sustainable community-based primary and mental health care and environmental and occupational health services.” 

3. On Wednesday, April 18, 2012 the RESTORE Act, included in the Surface Transportation Extension Act, passed the House following last month’s passage by the Senate and after initially failing the house shortly after. The legislation will direct 80% of BP penalties (Clean Water Act fines) to the Gulf Coast for restoration of coastal ecosystems damaged by the disaster. The legislation still needs the President's approval, and it unfortunately comes with some nasty blemishes such as a block on coal ash waste regulation and a mandate to build the Keystone XL pipeline. However, getting the House to reverse itself in less than a month was no small feat.

In the Shakespearean tragedy, “Titus Andronicus,” the hero Titus comes home victorious after 10 years of war and is offered the throne of the Roman Empire. After refusing the offer, tragedy ensues as Shakespeare is wont to do …well, it IS Shakespeare.

Today, Gulf Coast advocates find ourselves at a similar crossroads as the hero when he was offered the throne. We have the major victories - billions of dollars for ecosystem recovery and health care on its way, and a board member accepting the invitation to see for himself the concerns of Gulf Coast communities, and a choice regarding how we will proceed.

On the one hand we can not be like Titus and accept the mantle of leadership or, on the other, we can continue on in fight mode. As activists, advocates, and organizers we are trained to fight, and fight is what we do. We fight so often and against such incredible odds that we don’t often get the opportunity to flex our leadership skills in the face of victory.

Nonetheless, I wholeheartedly suggest that we take on that rare mantle of victorious leadership, not only because we have the opportunity to impact how these victories will unfold, but because a failure to do so will leave future healthcare and ecosystem recovery to outside forces and without the significant benefits to be gained from changing the dynamics of these communities’ relationships to key decision makers. 

This last point is perhaps the single most important.

Leadership in this case means accepting Ian Davis into our communities in a manner that allows him to share in our concerns as opposed to being tested by our anger and aggressiveness; it means participating in the settlement process, such that the primary and mental health care and environmental and occupational health services are not just community-based but community-led; and finally, we need to not only continue to influence the movement of the RESTORE Act, but make sure that we are positioned to influence the direction of the projects once the legislation passes, while still advocating for proper regulation of toxic coal ash waste and the denial of the Keystone XL pipeline.

By focusing, as too often occurs, on an all-or-none solution we run the very real risk of marginalizing ourselves and our communities to the peanut gallery, hurling complaints from the sidelines as opposed to meaningful participation in the direction of our recovery, and that would be a tragedy. 

Stephen Bradberry is the Founder and Executive Director at Alliance Institute in New Orleans, LA. A veteran organizer and advisor to the Gulf Coast Fund, Bradberry is the only American individual to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Noted for assuring a space for the community's voice, Bradberry's work has resulted in billions of dollars being directed to the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Alliance Institute is a proposed sub-grantee for the health services portion of the BP settlement.