by Bill Quigley
A young corporate lawyer returned to Louisiana to immerse herself in the post-Katrina struggles of her people. “People were being asked, in the middle of trauma, to sign away rights and legal documents on property and your land that are going to have ramifications for generations.” In New Orleans, Atty. Battle learned that “rebuilding since the storm favors privileged private enterprise and this illusion of recovery is not progress."
Katrina, Climate Justice and Fish Dinners: Social Justice Lawyer Colette Pichon Battle
by Bill Quigley
“We need to help people take their power back.”
Colette Pichon Battle gave up a great job working as a corporate immigration lawyer in Washington DC to live in a tent in front of her flooded family home 50 miles from downtown New Orleans. She is now a much honored director of a small but powerful non-profit climate justice human rights firm advocating all along the Gulf Coast. Why the big change in her life? Katrina, climate justice and fish dinners.
Pichon Battle’s extensive South Louisiana French Creole Catholic family live in Slidell along Bayou Vincent, which connects directly to Lake Ponchartrain. Free people of color, on her mother’s side, who have lived there since the 1700s, they can trace their roots back to France. Many in the community still spoke French when she was growing up. Their roots include people from the Chocktaw Nation. In the past they farmed tiny plots, fished and trapped, and later became master carpenters and craftsmen. Her grandfather actually built the home she and her mom grew up in.
Pichon Battle always knew she was going to become a lawyer. “I was known as Coco in my family and Coco was always going to be a lawyer,” she said. A family reunion questionnaire asked 8 year-old Coco what she wanted to be when she grew up and her response was a lawyer! Her interest in becoming a lawyer was fueled by reading about Thurgood Marshall and watching Clair Huxtable.
Mom was her biggest inspiration. Mom attended segregated public schools before graduating from Southern University at New Orleans. Mom was one of the first African Americans in the Peace Corps where she spent years teaching in Morocco. As a French teacher, she took students to France nearly every year. “She wanted us to understand the world is bigger than the bayou and to be proud of our African and French heritage.” Dad played football for Southern University, the New Orleans Saints and the Cleveland Browns. His family roots include members of the Caddo Tribe.
“Her interest in becoming a lawyer was fueled by reading about Thurgood Marshall and watching Clair Huxtable.”
Colette Pichon Battle attended a majority white public high school, where she excelled academically and athletically. There were plenty of racial tensions inside and outside her school. Racial profiling was common, as was over policing and racial violence. She played sports year round and her volleyball team were state champs. She was one of few blacks in honors programs and was homecoming queen senior year. She was able to maneuver the various race worlds but it was hard.
Going to college was never the question. Where she was going was left up to her. The family had no money for college so she had to get a scholarship. She wanted to leave the race problems of the South so she applied all over, even Alaska, and won a great scholarship to attend Kenyon College in Ohio. “I wanted to get away from the race tensions. I thought if I left the South they would go away. Little did I know!”
Though the scholarship paid for her schooling, she still needed to get there and back. Her extended family stepped up and put on fish dinners to pay for her airfare to and from Ohio. Pichon Battle did work study all four years and other side jobs for spending money. It was challenging. “You have to compete with the best even while most of your time is spent working.”
Kenyon was smaller than her high school and there were even fewer black students. She majored in international studies and world religions. There she was exposed to human rights coursework. It was tough academically at first because most of the students had attended much more academically rigorous private high schools, but she found her way and succeeded. She played volleyball for a couple of years.
Now interested in becoming an international human rights lawyer, maybe becoming a prosecutor at The International Court of Justice at the Hague, Pichon Battle’s international studies took her for a transformative semester of study in Morocco.
In Rabat, Morocco, she was assigned to live with a local family, who was delighted they got the “black girl.” “I was excited by that. It was the breath I needed at that time.” The language was French so she spoke a lot of French, and studied Arabic, religion and anthropology. “Walking in the streets every day surrounded by brown people was terrific! For the first time in my life I was surrounded by people who looked like me,” said Pichon Battle. “For the first time I blended in the majority culture. For the first time in my life I did not always have to represent black people! I was invisible until I opened my mouth. It never occurred to me what it was like to be in the majority.”
“I studied women in Moroccan politics. I was prepared to be very righteous based on how Africa or Islam is presented to us in US culture. But I found great similarities between the challenges for women in Morocco and the US. My view of the world changed.”
She returned to Kenyon for her senior year where she was elected class president and graduated in 1997.
During senior year she was awarded a post-graduate Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to spend a year in Africa. So she returned to study a full year in Africa. She lived and studied in Mauritania, Morocco and Senegal studying religious culture and practices in North and West Africa. “I stopped and studied people and rituals. I was even in full veil for three months in the desert. It was beautiful.”
Becoming a Lawyer
While in Africa, Pichon Battle applied to and was admitted by a number of Louisiana law schools. Her mom suggested that if she wanted to be well rounded person she should consider a historically black institution. Southern University Law Center gave her the most generous scholarship offer so she went there. It was a tough three years. She found it a vivid contrast to the private white well-resourced Kenyon College but she again did well. She learned the law while she worked two jobs, one at the library and in a women’s clothing store in the mall. She graduated in 2002. When it was time for the Louisiana bar, her family put on more fish dinners to pay the fees and costs.
Her first job after completing law school was in immigration for a private Florida law firm defending Haitian immigrants and trafficked Eastern European women. Later, she moved to DC and worked in Baltimore as a program director in an entrepreneurship program for minority and immigrant women.
Pichon Battle always wanted to live in Washington DC. “I had the romantic idea that DC was where black dreams come true. Every black professional that I knew who made it out of our area ended up in Washington DC. I wanted to be a black intellectual there.” She got her chance in 2004 when she joined a Northern Virginia law firm that did business immigration work for high profile internet and tech companies. “I had a good boss and was on a good team. We worked hard on labor certifications and all kinds of visas for the US and other countries around the globe.” She enjoyed living and working there and was learning a lot.
Then in August of 2005, Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
In DC, she watched with horror as her home town was hit with storm surges of twenty feet totally flooding the town.
She started hearing from family members. “I got text messages about people being cut out of their roofs and others spending eight hours in water. Some held onto trees until the water receded. Some could not hold on,” she recalled.
Pichon Battle immediately started organizing help for her family, her community, and for people in the four states hammered by the hurricane. She organized food drives and recruited volunteers from churches and colleges to go help people gut their homes.
When she returned home after the hurricane, Pichon Battle went to see her childhood home, the home her grandfather built. “The 1930s shotgun-style house remained on its foundation, but barely. It sat eerily amid an acre and a half of downed trees. Its wood siding was warped and covered in mud and its tin roof was peeling off. The air inside smelled damp and foul, and a giant X on the front door meant that the military had searched the premises for survivors.” "I was raised in this house, the same house my mother was born in. There it was, gutted by the storm."
“When I came back people said “Oh great Coco is home, maybe she can help us with all these papers.” I did not know disasters generated so much paper. And when I looked at the papers I could tell they were written by lawyers. People were being asked, in the middle of trauma, to sign away rights and legal documents on property and your land that are going to have ramifications for generations. They needed help reading and understanding the papers. People knew I could read because as a child, I would go to church before 6 o’clock mass and read the newspaper to the elderly. There are few lawyers in my community. I am the only woman lawyer in generations from our community.
“People were powerless over important parts of their lives.”
Not enough was being done. “Whoever was in charge was not taking care of people that looked like me,” she remembers. She wanted to represent her community and fight against the apparent lack of concern for her neighbors and the French Creole community that had supported her from childhood. “I’d heard about volunteers discriminating against the elderly and African Americans, I was getting reports about police brutality, I had seen my family go through the ridiculous FEMA processes.”
Her Bayou Vincent community needed assistance not only with complex legal issues but also with everyday tasks that a D.C. lawyer would take for granted. She organized a conference call between people who had been displaced from Bayou Vincent, people who still had no idea of their family and community members’ whereabouts. The call opened with older members of the community praying in Creole French, something that many younger Bayou Vincent natives had not heard. Parents and frail elders were finally put in touch with their children. “They began to thank me and cry. It was just setting up a conference call. . . . It was then I knew that the community that had bought fish dinners to send me to college and law school now needed me to bring back the things I had learned.”
“They invested in me and in my education and my ability to connect to the rest of the world. I felt a loving obligation to come home and help.”
“My biggest heartbreak was watching my community be silenced. People were powerless over important parts of their lives. It dawned on me, I am part of the legal system which is being used as a tool of oppression and a barrier stopping people from progressing to another level. I believe in this system and I believe we have to change it.”
Moving Back Home
So in 2006, Pichon Battle moved back home to help out for a while. For the first two months, she lived in a tent on the front lawn of her family home. Then she moved into her family’s 240 square foot FEMA trailer in Slidell. She started a non-profit law firm, Moving Forward Gulf Coast, dedicated to informing people about their rights and helping them protect them. That trailer was her home for the next 24 months.
Moving Forward Gulf Coast provided direct disaster assistance, community development and community advocacy in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. They worked with African American, immigrant and elderly populations on voting rights, renter’s rights, immigration and FEMA appeals in addition to coordinating direct services in house gutting and rebuilding.
Pichon Battle was still living in that trailer when she was recognized by the American Bar Association in 2006 as one of the “Lawyers Who Made a Difference.” When the ABA asked what kept her going, Pichon Battle replied that she felt a duty to fight, despite the uncertainty whether she was actually getting people the assistance they need and deserve. Access to justice in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast did not always mean getting people lawyers and filing motions in court. “Every day that I wake up, I realize that this battle is almost impossible to win,” she said about her work at Moving Forward Gulf Coast. While some lawyers fought for the government to remedy violations of storm victims’ rights, Pichon Battle took the first step of educating citizens of their rights as storm victims. She advised that in her new line of work, “success is measured in thank-you cards and 7 a.m. visits at my FEMA trailer with people from my community, who are known to not trust anyone, trusting me to handle their affairs.”
In 2006 and 2007, Pichon Battle helped train and place law student volunteers as one of the steering committee of the Match Makers for Justice Program of the Student Hurricane Network.
Her work took her across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as Program Director of the Gulf Coast Fellowship for Community Transformation which trained community members and groups across the Gulf in organizing, advocacy, and leadership. She worked with many groups including Oxfam, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and other organizations. For Oxfam, she did policy lobbying in Louisiana and Mississippi and helped communities develop multi-racial, cross regional campaigns for low-wage workers and immigrants.
Pichon Battle continued her Katrina work for five years, always planning to return to DC.
BP Oil Spill April 20, 2010
“Five years after Katrina, I was ready to move back to DC. But then the BP disaster happened. I knew Katrina was a government responsibility but BP was going to be a legal fight. I knew this meant triple the amount of paperwork to the same communities that were just recovering from Katrina. That was the moment I decided to stay.
“It dawned on me that we are going to keep having these storms because the climate was changing and they are going to keep extracting oil and gas and from deeper and more dangerous places so these things are going to keep happening.”
Now Director of Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy (GCCLP), a nonprofit public interest law firm and justice center, Pichon Battle is still living in her community. GCCLP has a mission to build, serve, and advocate for structural shifts that promote equity for Gulf Coast communities on the frontlines of climate change. Through human rights-based legal services, community training, local leadership development, and grassroots advocacy, GCCLP works to create structural balance in policies and practices that produce disparate impacts on communities of color. The organization contributes a southern perspective on issues that have national impact and global influence.
The focus is climate justice for the most overlooked coastal communities across the Gulf: rural communities; African American communities; Native American communities; Latino and Vietnamese communities; women and young adults.
Over the years, her extraordinary advocacy was recognized repeatedly. In 2012 she was named an “Expert of Color” by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development on issues that surround the U.S. racial wealth divide for her training in climate justice for Louisiana officials of color. In 2014 Colette was selected for the Young Climate Justice National Fellowship based on her work with coastal communities of color. In 2015, she addressed Law for Black Lives convening in NYC. She was awarded US Human Rights Movement Builders Award in 2015. And also in 2015 she was named an Echoing Green Climate Fellow for her work promoting “equity in Gulf Coast communities of color most affected by climate change by providing community stabilizing legal services and ecological equity training and support for civic participation.”
“The focus is climate justice for the most overlooked coastal communities across the Gulf.”
Pichon Battle also serves a lead coordinator for Gulf South Rising, a regional initiative around climate justice in the South. “The Seas Are Rising and So Are We!” They organized community events in five Gulf States on the fifth anniversary of the BP oil spill and on the 10th anniversary of Katrina. "Front line communities are standing up to say it's time to tell the truth, it's time to pay up," she said of BP. On the 10 year anniversary of Katrina, Pichon Battle cautioned against slapping too happy a face on New Orleans, saying "rebuilding since the storm favors privileged private enterprise and this illusion of recovery is not progress."
Gulf South Rising organized a 33 person delegation to go to Paris to participate in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in late 2015. Delegation participants came from the Gulf States of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. “Our hope,” said Pichon Battle, “is that leaders of Gulf South recognize they have not only remedies within the U.S. legal system and justice system, but ... internationally. We’re part of a global South dealing with impacts of extraction. We need to broaden our viewpoint.”
Her organization provides community legal clinics which share legal assistance in areas such as immigration, business development, expungements, FEMA, BP damages issues, and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). She puts on trainings in racial justice and human rights for local elected black officials and school boards. She recently partnered with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice to put on a DACA clinic in rural Alabama that attracted over 250 agricultural workers. She does combination expungement and DACA clinics with the Vietnamese community partners like VAYLA.
Her theory of change is that “justice seekers must first be of service to the most rejected of our society. Then we can help develop leaders. Then we can help them develop strategies. Then support their actions to bring about better policies and laws. We need to help people take their power back. Helping them do that is not charity.”
“Justice seekers must first be of service to the most rejected of our society.”
Pichon Battle admits to being challenged by the constant search for funding. The contrast from private firm work to non-profit was dramatic. “You have to do the same services but you have no support staff, no up to the minute software, no resources, no real library of up to date books!” The organization asks people who can to pay a little bit for some of their services. She maintains a small private practice that helps fund part of the organization. But running a non-profit is tough. “Begging for money is horrendous. It is a terrible thing to have to beg for your life. Fundraising with grants has tremendous challenges if you are not part of the usual groups funded.”
Despite the challenges, the work still satisfies. “I do this work because of calls like the one I got last night. A person from the Houma Nation called me up. He had a child in jail and the Chief told him to call Coco. The Chief told him to trust what Coco said. We discussed what was going on and I gave him my advice. Then, as the call was ending, the man told me he loved me.”
All this is stressful. “I didn’t really plan to live in the non-profit world. I have a lot of work to do in order to live a more balanced life. When I can, I swim. I love to laugh. I love to be with other people. I make friends easily. Everyone will tell you I am very social person, the best bar buddy anyone could ask for! My community is my family and my close friends include many other great women across the south.”
Her advice to law students? “One, it is never too late to start the work of justice. Two, everything you have been through is helpful to where you are going. Three, have courage. Four, understand that winning cases is not the same as getting justice for people. Five, start in your own community. I always thought I would end up going to Africa to help people, but Katrina showed me I have to focus on my own community. Six, watch out for privilege in the social justice community. If there is no accountability to the communities we serve, it builds resentment instead of alliance. Seven, love the legal system, it is fantastic. For all its flaws it is a good profession. But make sure to love it enough to change it to make it fair!”
Pichon Battle is standing up for and with her community in the fight for climate justice. “I come from a strong line of south Louisiana women who love the land and the water and the birds and the sky and the trees. We understand our entire existence requires a balance on this earth. I’d like to make sure that legacy is there when I’m gone.
Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans.