We are about two months into our project, and now find ourselves sitting (slouching, actually), trapped overnight at the JFK airport. We’re on our way back to New Orleans from a conference, dripping with exhaustion under the florescent lights of this place that never sleeps—or at least, that never lets you sleep—bags and electronics and panhandled-bananas strewn about all around us. Amidst all of this we are reflecting on all that has happened and all that is before us. Marking this the moment that concludes the first chapter of what we have been toiling over, lovingly, which we call Delta Collaborative.
This movement began, as all movements do, with contention. With a climactic convergence of events that sent us over the edge, blundering and bursting with revolution steaming out of our ears. We were moved by Standing Rock and the BLM movements. Trump was elected as president by a minority of Americans, for reasons too many to list here. We were horror-struck by the subsequent upsurge in white supremacy, restrictive immigration policies, and blatant disregard and denial that this was happening all around us. We had the international threats of climate change and neoliberal land relations—seemingly innocuous, slow-moving events for most—setting off sirens and high-level alerts in the forefront of our minds (as always). How to proceed? How do you stop climate change and pollution when an electoral majority of the country is opposed to such regulation?
Our solution was Delta Collaborative. We decided to move to a red state; to live and work alongside Trump supporters because we felt we needed to understand this other part of our country. And, we had this crazy idea that the seemingly disparate groups of Americans needed to meet and talk about what they had in common, and that once they found that they share quite a lot (read: class consciousness), they could unite and do something about it to make the future that much better (read: revolution). We’d do this with a mobile library which we'd take to suburban towns in Southeastern Louisiana. In our minds, people would flock to our library and converse with us. It was through these conversations that we would learn, and hopefully others too would learn. From this we would be actively bridging America's divide while learning about how both sides could go forward in addressing environmental issues. A heady university student utopian haze filled our minds indeed, for we had much to learn.
Over the last few months, our most trusted companion has been a school bus. She is twenty four feet long, bright yellow, and takes diesel (don’t forget). She huffed across the country with us, across desert and into hurricane—a boat that moored up to the shores of gas station after gas station. We have learned she can get close to 70 on the freeway but this is definitely not advised. If you push her for too long she will slow down and start chugging, losing power until you are forced to pull over. She has a driver’s seat and two bench seats behind, both covered in a plastic-y grey leather. They are insanely comfortable and will surely rock you to sleep on a hot day (which is most days). She has a flying bug infestation, but we don’t think anyone has noticed, yet. We’ve painted her insides yellow, teal, and bright pink in the hopes that she will be welcoming. She’s got seven shelves, each loaded with local, national and international fiction; fantasy, mystery, thriller, action, science fiction, dystopian, history, environmental science, popular science, reference, young adult, children’s, big ideas (which is really a catch all for all the other non-fiction we had no category for), memoir, and local non-fiction.
As you may have guessed, the largest hurdle we encountered in the beginning was how to keep the books on the shelves of a moving library. Our shelves went through four iterations before Emma braved Home Depot one day, pushing past disrespectful men, to buy wood to screw firmly to the shelves which acts as a wall. If you are curious, no, the books still don’t stay in place.
Metal on the outside with fountains of words inside, this is Choolie. Named for the letters she donned as we crossed the country: chool. Our little Choolita has become a friend. We have sat on her roof, slept in her, put air in her tires and oil in her engine. We have double parked with her many a time, using her distinguishing yellow color as an excuse. We have (accidentally and otherwise) cut many people off as we drive through new territories. We have woken our neighbors up with her backup beeping. It is rumored that we may have even rolled through the French Quarter on a Saturday night selling $2 beers out of her. We drive her *tenderly* over New Orleans’ many potholed streets because now, she is a fully fledged ‘Library Bus’.
We stand by the notion that books move. That they take one out of their self and help them to understand the life of someone else, somewhere else, another time. If building empathy is done with building blocks, we assume reading is the big red piece at the bottom, holding it all up. Growing hearts and opening minds.
“People don’t want books,” complained Elena, “they want beer and football and fish.” We sat under some trees in Des Allemandes, putting more labels in books, the wind blowing them out of our hands and folding the tape in on itself. Flat bed trucks with ice chests passed by with families wearing rubber boots inside. We got many looks but few would come talk with us. This surely would not be the first difficulty we would have getting to know the people of Southern Louisiana.
In these first few months we have felt like outsiders. We dress different we talk different. We are asked where we are from. Oh, California, why would you leave California? And through this we have begun to feel the different values, opinions, and worldviews that permeate through this country.
And there is nothing like seeing yourself through the eyes of another. We now ask: How do others perceive us? What do our words mean? How might our words deter people from talking to us?
We challenge our arguments too, wondering how people might respond to us. We play devil’s advocate with each other, often coming to new conclusions, perhaps better conclusions than we had before. This process of question asking, critical thinking, and reflection has led us to a paradox within our own worldview.
It began as we tried to understand what has been called Louisiana’s "great paradox": that one of the poorest states in the country, one of the most unhealthy, polluted, incarcerated, and environmentally degraded, is also populated by a great majority of people who are opposed to government help or regulation for such issues.
However, the convictions of Southern conservatives are not to be disregarded with accusations against their ability to feel environmental degradation—they probably feel it far more personally than most environmentalists from the coasts. Here, the pollution is so bad, you can see it peeling away at skin. The land loss is so rapid, teenagers can point to places they used to play at that are now submerged, as if the land is being murdered by inundation, memories being drowned to nonexistence. What does it mean to our world that water, giver of life, is now often so polluted we think it’s normal to stare at it on a hot summer day without jumping in, that it comes knocking evermore frequently in the form of hurricanes, and that it is creeping up our coasts and eroding our shores? Water, bringer of life, here transformed into the patron saint of death.
Despite these premonitions, and staying afloat with stubborn pride, are the colorful communities in the Deep South. If you were to ask one of them why on earth they put up with such abuses in their backyards, in return they might ask you what they’re supposed to do about it. Corruption and government are synonymous words here, and fully comprehending this perception of government has made us stop and wonder why we’re even advocating for government fixes to obviously government sanctioned (and caused) problems in the first place.
Someone might tell you that conservative politicians are usually the only ones that speak their language, that care about the white working-class man, that don’t bow down to identity politics and minority snow-flaking. Why would they vote for a democrat who told them to feel bad for black people and women, when they themselves are working hand to mouth? Who's standard of living is a morsel of what their parents had, with just crumbs to pass on to their children? Long ago, you probably would have gotten frustrated and stopped listening.
So we find here, a place with little "environmentalism" that seems to badly need it. But we are wrong to think that the environmentalism we know would ever work for people here—its language and solutions are foreign. We give up on advocating for this. Instead, we have turned our focus to finding something new with people here.
Something about this methodology has made this a truly transformative time for us. While we left university so certain of ourselves, we are now stranded in this airport, riddled with paradoxes within our worldviews, faults within assumptions, and entirely new fights worth fighting for. The Dunkin' Donuts workers at terminal four are not amused by our pleas to reuse cups, exaggerating this struggle for a better world into an evermore daunting task at this late hour. We're tired, overwhelmed, and already, one of us wants to scrap this entire piece of writing, make it anew, express a different viewpoint. But isn’t that the beauty of our project? Or some sort of “measurable success”, that our opinions are changing—gears shifting—attitudes pirouetting too quickly to even put out a first blog post?