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November 2022 - Episode 9

Contested Spaces

An extensive system of levees runs along the Mississippi River, from Missouri through to the Delta region of Louisiana. Some of these floodbanks have been converted into walking and biking trails, which are supposed to be open to the public.

But in some rural Louisiana communities, converted levee paths are not always equitably accessible. These communities are more than 50% Black, but researchers have found that Black and White residents report different experiences when it comes to feeling safe and welcome on the levee.

This means Black people are at a real disadvantage when it comes to accessing these trails, and puts them in harm’s way when they do try and access the levee. Without clear guidelines, the default may be structural racism, which many claim has been, and continues to be, the law of the land in Louisiana.


“Understanding Attitudes and Perceptions of Public Levee Access for Physical Activity and Recreation in Rural Northeast Louisiana Along the Mississippi River Delta”

Photo by Fiona Jackson on Unsplash
Photo by Fiona Jackson on Unsplash

The views and opinions expressed in this episode are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Louisiana State University.

One of the participants discussed her feelings of discomfort in their community. She states that it’s basically the white people, they make you feel uncomfortable because they’re watching you.

She says that some will park and watch you and you just know that you’re not supposed to be there. Another black participant stated that we just feel like it’s not for us, it’s not for black people. It’s like when you go up there, they are looking at you like, “Why are you here?”

An extensive system of levies run along the Mississippi River from Missouri through to the Delta region of Louisiana. Some of these flood banks have been converted into walking and biking trails, which are supposed to be open to the public, but in some rural Louisiana communities converted levee paths are not always equitably accessible.

These communities are more than 50% black, but researchers have found that black and white residents report different experiences when it comes to feeling safe and welcome on the levee. Many black people don’t feel like they have access to the levee even when white people do. They feel like they’re being watched by white landowners and police officers.

The unspoken and unwritten rules about when trails are open are only known by those in power. This means that black people are at a real disadvantage when it comes to accessing these trails and puts them in harm’s way when they do try and access the levee. Without clear guidelines, the default may be structural racism, which many claim has been and continues to be the law of the land in Louisiana.

Contested spaces are just one way that black Americans have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re exploring how the public levies of Louisiana have been effectively privatized by white land owners and figures of authority. I am Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us.

My guest today is Jamila Freightman who is an agent of change. Jamila is the CDC Healthy Communities Manager at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center and graduate student in LSU Sociology program. She works closely with rural communities to address obesity, poverty, and food insecurity in rural Louisiana. Jamila’s team has developed farmer’s markets and food retail programs to make it easier for Louisiana residents to eat healthy. Her work also focuses on physical activity and improving the built environment. Everything Jamila does is in the name of these underfunded and under-resourced communities. What got you interested in this work, Jamila?

Oh, that is a loaded question. I think when I was younger and trying to determine what I wanted to do with my life, I initially said, “Oh, I’m going to go to medical school.” And then, over time, that changed and I started to do more work in the community. That really helped build my public health career.

I started out as AmeriCorps and then I got accepted into a CDC internship, and I worked for CDC for five years. Through that experience, I got to work very close with the community through various different programs. And so, I think trying to figure out how I can use my knowledge, skills, and abilities to create local change in communities that improve health, that improve their wellbeing and economic mobility in a way is what I want to do. I do find it very rewarding.

I did have experience working on the state level and I didn’t feel like I was having as much impact on the community, and so I wanted to figure out a way that I can weasel my way back into the area where I can have a little bit more influence on the type of changes that we can make with our federal grant dollars in the community. So I think that is what fuels my vigor for this type of public health work that I’m doing, is really making sure that the federal dollars are going back into the community, and the community gets to decide what they want to change.

When people think of rural areas, they think of them as hard to reach areas. I think saying that really puts the responsibility on the community or blames the community in a way for not being as accessible as we would like them to be. But I think figuring out ways to actually meet the people where they are and understanding the culture in rural communities in regards to communication and the best ways to reach them and things like that is important. And I think by hiring people that are from the majority of the communities that we work in, we’ve been able to foster that trust and really gain insight into how we need to work in these communities in the best way.

Historically, a lot of money has been pumped into some rural communities and then people leave after the funding cycle is over. I think being a part of an institution like the AgCenter at Extension that has historically been and that has an arm and extension in these communities all over the state, will also help maintain that trust because the AgCenter and LSU doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. So I think it’s really helped us maintain trust and because we’ll maintain the visibility in the community will continue to work in them. So I think the feedback that I get from the community and seeing some of the pictures and knowing that people feel grateful for the opportunity to have their voices heard.

In 2020, legislation was passed to conduct an economic study for a possible 130-mile bike trail along the levee of the Mississippi River in the Delta region of Louisiana. Initiating this type of project is controversial, or can be, because the levee often runs close to private property owned mostly by rural white property owners.

We’ve had instances where people have boycotted or stood near the trail to prevent construction from happening. But currently, all levees in Louisiana, particularly the top of the levee, are public property maintained by their local levee boards or municipalities. Although these laws exist, local rules regarding who actually has permission to access the levee remain unclear. And so, using the Social Determinants Of Health framework, the study that we’re doing, these focus groups that we’re doing, will determine the perception of the physical activity environment for walking and biking and access to outdoor resources like a levee, or even sometimes a lake in the area.

Jamila and the LSU AgCenter partner with Equitable Cities, my urban planning research and policy firm for this research study. We assembled focus groups of white and black residents in the parishes of St. Joe and Lake Providence.

We know that in the United States, most of our towns and cities are segregated by race, and research states that race differences in lived experience guide behavior. So this is one of the reasons why we decided to do separate focus group discussions with black and white residents that live in these areas: to capture the possible different perspectives of the physical activity environment from both of these racial groups.

The two areas that we focused on were chosen because they have a levee resource or a levee that is accessible from the town center. You can easily access them. There are clear paths that you can walk up to access the top of the levee and walk. In these areas, over half of the population is African-American. One of the parishes has the highest obesity rate and food insecurity rate. They do have a lot of residents that receive SNAP benefits. To highlight one of the areas as well, it actually has the highest child food insecurity rate in the world and was deemed the poorest county in the United States.

Participants in the study were asked questions about how they are physically active and whether access to public spaces like trails and parks was easy and safe. They were also asked about whether they felt comfortable and welcome running, biking, or walking on levee trails.

Regarding safety, participants in both focus groups did express similar safety concerns, mostly around animals like snakes, bears, loose dogs, cows even, on the levee and other safety measures that they feel were lacking were lighting. Those were things that they expressed would probably make them feel more safe, but right now, since they don’t exist, that is one of the reasons why they don’t feel safe.

One of the participants stated that the local park that they have there would be a safe place to walk if they have lights, that they would light it up. Another participant talked about how the sidewalk infrastructure has not been maintained and that is a barrier to using it to safely walk in their community.

Another black participant discussed her feelings of discomfort in their community. She states that it’s basically the white people; they make you feel uncomfortable because they’re watching you. She says that some will park and watch you and you just know that you’re not supposed to be there. Another black participant stated that, “We just feel like it’s not for us; it’s not for black people. It’s like when you go up there, they are looking at you like, ‘Why are you here?'”

One theme that came up often in this study was a lack of clear rules on who can use the public levee and when. This needs to be addressed, considering that there is an erosion of trust that occurs when people don’t know how they’re supposed to interact with their built environment.

Participants from both groups expressed the need for some type of rules along the levee, so that people know what they can and cannot do. I think among the black participants, it felt like the rules are not available possibly on purpose to possibly keep black people from accessing it. Also, when there are no rules, it maintains the status quo that exists in these areas.

Considering the power dynamics and the social segregation that exists in these areas, we know that people with more resources and larger networks probably have a better idea of what they cannot can and cannot do, who owns what land. Based on the data that we have, the white participants did express that they felt a little bit more comfortable or would access the areas anyway, and they didn’t feel like anything would happen to them and didn’t really have any negative experiences of anyone bothering them when they did access to levee.

From the data, one black male stated, “They make the rules up as they go.” Another white female stated that it’s pretty informal; the rules are probably discussed by word of mouth. She said that she doesn’t even really know, but she talked about that during hunting season they do put the gates up, so it’s clear that she has a bit more knowledge about the rules around accessing the levee, and when you can access it, and the good times to access it, and things like that.

Another black female stated that she talked about one time when they were putting people off the levee and telling them that they couldn’t be on there, but it didn’t seem like she was aware that that was happening on that particular day. There was no notification around why people cannot access the levee. There was no instruction, so there’s just a lack of communication that is happening amongst the community. And also other people in the community may have been more knowledgeable about it, but it didn’t seem like from her experience as a black person living in this area that she was aware of that.

Additionally, there was, I say, us and them. That was a theme that was brought up and I felt like this us versus them theme intersects between racism and classism. One white female stated in regards to them (what she means by them is the black people in the area), she says, “A lot of them don’t swim, so maybe they feel safe on the bank.” And this was a conversation around adding some kind of dock along the lake in this area, and she was saying that a lot of black people, they don’t swim. “So I think if we had a little bank for them, I think they’ll feel a lot safer.” So she’s making assumptions about whether or not black people would actually want to swim in the lake.

Another black male stated that it’s the white farmers that make the rules and the sheriff department backs them up, so he has this perception about who actually makes the rules and how they’re being enforced. For him, it’s the white farmers and landowners that do have the power to create the rules, and they do have the backing of the local police department, the sheriff’s department that will help enforce the rules that they create.

Another white female stated that there’s always going to be some racial stuff when it comes to power and certain things like that, so this is something that she actually said. So she is recognizing that the racial dynamics exist and they’re always going to exist.

Another white female stated that she thinks that there are two communities there. You have one part of the community that really doesn’t have access to tools and she also suggests creating a place or space where the kids can play basketball. So she’s making assumptions about the type of physical activity that the black people in the community may want to do, but also acknowledging that there are two communities that exist in this one community where you would think everyone would consider each other a neighbor. She’s also acknowledging the difference in resource accessibility between the two communities.

Another question that was asked during the focus groups with white participants, we asked that, “If a levee trail was actually built, do you believe that everyone will be welcomed to use it?” Instead of a resounding, “Yes, absolutely,” the white participants said, “Well, if there were some rules put up, but what about if people are loitering? We need to have some more security.” So they were more inclined to say yes if there were other measures in place, like if it was publicly funded or if there were rules, or make sure people are not using alcohol up there, or using vehicles up there. So there are lots more policing measures that they brought up to make them feel more comfortable with anybody accessing this new levee trail.

So I thought that was very interesting and really eye-opening because, ultimately, both of these communities want access to it. I think on one side you have people that they want it open to the public and anyone can use it, but they just want to know if this is actually accessible to everyone, and another part of the community that wants to make sure that there are more security and policing measures in place for safety, and possibly to prevent certain people from accessing the levee.

At the end of our conversation, Jamila highlighted that both groups, white and black participants, expressed that they wanted the same things on public levee trails: signage with clear rules and regulations, benches, lighting, animal control, and increased tourism to bring in tax dollars. Ultimately, Jamila feels these communities need to open up more dialogues so that everyone is on the same page.

My hope is that I can use this data and share the experiences from both sides of the track to, hopefully, create conversations and figure out how we can create a more neighborly environment in these areas where everyone is a part of making the decisions regarding rules and access, and having the knowledge of their community, whether it’s knowing who owns this land or knowing when the cattle gates go up during hunting season and things like that. So my hope is that we can create a more neighborly environment where everyone feels comfortable no matter what side of the lake or the river that you live on.

Jamila, if black and white participants want the same thing, then why were the experiences reported by the black focus groups so different from those of the white focus groups? At the end of the day, do you think that Black people’s mobility is arrested in these communities?

I do. I think based on the things that I’ve heard and the experiences that they’ve had. One woman, she talked about how she was on the levee and there were a group of young white boys who sped past her while she was walking up there, and she got dirt thrown in her face. So that’s an experience that will probably make anyone feel unsafe accessing this space in the future.

So absolutely, I think as black people, and as a black person, there are more social psychological processes that we have to go through when we do anything, whether it’s getting an appraisal on our home, whether it’s running around our community. Every day we hear about another unarmed black person being gunned down by a police officer. So absolutely, I think based on the experience that I’ve heard in the focus groups, based on everything that’s happening in our country and the lived experiences of other black people, our mobility, whether it’s physical or economic, is arrested.

There’s a question worth considering here: what is the role of compromise and conversation in a racially segregated community? I’m not sure I have the answer at this point. I agree with Jamila that neighborly discussions are a good first step, but if you really want to work towards freedom of mobility for black Americans, then I think public policy has to be written and implemented to be truly equitable and inclusive.

We must also address the self-deputization of non-black citizens who have privatized access to the levee and who threaten any and all black people who dare visit it. Jamila is optimistic about the future of the levee project, which inspired this study. She told me that the representative who led this legislation is a black person and that the LSU AgCenter is keeping an eye on how things progress. They want to make sure every voice is heard and that black residents aren’t pushed out if this project improves tourism and creates economic opportunities. They fear gentrification and displacement. That’s why Jamila is an agent of change. She’s committed to the calls and she follows through.

For my part, I hope it won’t be long before black people in the Louisiana Delta feel more comfortable and welcome walking, jogging, and biking along public levee trails.

Thank you, Jamila. I appreciate you for your time and expertise. For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media @ctbrown1911 on Twitter or using #arrestedmobility.

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