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Bringing Communities Together to Restore our Gulf

A conversation with Keala J. Hughes of the RESTORE Council

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© Emily Brauner

Ocean Conservancy is reflecting on the work we’ve done to restore the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy. These are conversations with women of color who are leading change for the Gulf of Mexico. Click here to read about Colette Pichon Battle and Frances Roberts-Gregory.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is one of many tragedies that have impacted communities on the Gulf Coast. It is what led Keala J. Hughes to become the Director of External Affairs & Tribal Relations for the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE Council).

“When I first heard about the disaster, I was actually working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also known as FEMA, on recovery from some of the more recent hurricanes. I remember reflecting on the eleven lives that were lost, and how those family members must’ve felt on that day and continue to feel, as this story was on the news day after day after day. But also videos and photos that were released. It kinda mesmerized me. It was looking like, ‘Wow, this is huge, this is a lot of devastation, it’s hitting all of the Gulf Coast states.’”

In her current role with the council, Hughes works to improve public inclusion and engagement, particularly for underrepresented communities and federally recognized tribes. She works with communities with limited English proficiency, such as the Vietnamese fisherfolk, by translating materials so that they can read them in their own language.

In the early days of the disaster, Hughes saw that the oil disaster left communities confused, angered, frustrated and with lots of questions.

“What I saw was pure frustration. The stakeholders had more questions than we had answers.”

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Thao Vu represents the Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese American Fisherfolk and Families at a public meeting. © NOAA
This is where the staff at the RESTORE Council plays an important role, by connecting stakeholders across the Gulf Coast states with the information they need to properly make their voices heard as Gulf leaders work to restore the ecosystem. Hughes is an expert in the facilitation process, making sure community groups get their answers. When President Barack Obama established the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force in 2010, Hughes coordinated meetings with stakeholders from all over the Gulf Coast, eventually working with more than 2,000 stakeholders to align on strategies ensuring a process toward a healthy and resilient ecosystem.

However, the Council has faced challenges with engaging stakeholders, caused in part by the complex legal process that determines how much money is available to restore the Gulf, where the funds can be spent and who gets to make those decisions. In addition to the challenge of physically getting to these public meetings, there are also challenges related to misinformation about how the RESTORE Council can use funding.

“There are other funding streams out there that people often will often confuse RESTORE with [because] a lot of the folks who represent the different state and federal agencies are the same. They’ll get us confused as far as our different missions, or how we can spend money to restore the Gulf. So I think the main challenge is just helping them to differentiate between the restoration efforts, and who’s wearing what hat. When you come to the meeting, you see the same people, you think ‘Oh, it’s same meeting.’ Also, meeting fatigue, because in the effort to inform our public…it’s another meeting. And we don’t want folks to get tired of meeting, but we do want to figure out a way to get the information out to them.”

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Public comment meeting in Corpus Christi, Texas. © RESTORE Council
By using a diversity of public outreach tools like webinars, email lists and opportunities for one-on-one dialogues, Hughes has improved the RESTORE Council’s practices for public engagement and cultivated trust with communities—a difficult task.

When asked about how to cultivate trust with communities, she had this to say: “In general people just don’t trust government. And so I find that if you build a relationship with a community and they ask you questions, you deliver the answer. If the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ you say ‘I don’t know. I’ll get you that answer, I’ll connect you with a person.’ And you continue to follow up with that community. I think that’s how you build trust. I know in the midst of a disaster, there’s a lot going on. It’s really, really easy to drop the ball. It’s really, really easy not to follow up with someone.

“You build trust by providing information, by doing what you say you’re gonna do, and just maintaining the relationship with them.”

The process of restoring the Gulf is a long one, and payments from the $20 billion BP settlement will continue until 2031. Looking ahead to that future when the RESTORE Council’s work is complete, Hughes would like to see real change.

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“ I would like to see that the money was well spent in people who were impacted by the injury, some of the fisherfolk, or oystermen, who are just waiting for us to restore those resources so they can begin to take care of their families again. I would love for us to get that right, so that those folks can recover just that much faster. Even if it’s another ten years, it’s worth it.”

Keala J. Hughes
Director of External Affairs & Tribal Relations for the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council

This final quote from Hughes’ reminds us that true progress takes time. Hughes’ work of bringing stakeholders together is in alignment with our work at Ocean Conservancy and with the RAY Fellowship because we know that all stakeholders deserve to have a seat at the table to protect the resources we depend on. We need everyone’s input every step of the way in this essential work of restoring the Gulf.

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