At the very beginning of the Center for Rural Strategies, before there was a Rural Assembly or the Daily Yonder, we had a single contract with the Local Initiative Support Corporation to document the efforts of rural development organizations across the United States. The first organization we filmed was Southern Mutual Help Association in Iberia Parish, Louisiana. Southern Mutual was run by two dynamic women, Lorna Bourg, the director and a MacArthur genius, and Sister Helen Vinton, a nationally honored environmentalist who specialized in efforts to make farming and fishing in the Gulf more sustainable.
Sister Helen died August 5 at age 90. She was a steadfast friend and renewable inspiration. A slight woman with a soft voice. You had to strain to catch all her words, but she spoke with purpose, and you could not mishear that.
On our first trip to the Gulf Coast, Helen began teaching us the tenets of stewardship. She took us to interview sixth generation Cajun family farmers, the Judices, who were seeking ways to both make a living growing sugar cane and strengthen the land. For Sister Helen, who was raised on a Nebraska farm and who previously taught high school biology, her work at Southern Mutual was a calling.
A year or so after that first film production, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast and left a swath of destruction and death. Lorna called to say the country was only seeing what happened to New Orleans. No one was seeing the devastation the storms had done to rural areas. She asked if we would come back and tell the story of other places that were affected.
That began a five-year journey for us at Rural Strategies looking at the relief and rebuilding efforts along the coast in Louisiana and Mississippi. And through much of that journey Sister Helen was our guide, either taking us to meet people, or along with Lorna, helping us set up shoots.
I remember driving 50 miles from south of Abbeville to Cameron, where only a couple of habitable buildings still stood along the way. We traveled to Holly Beach, the Cajun Riviera, where nothing was left but of open plain of rubble and shredded American flags. Helen introduced us to Mr. Meaux, who was set up to restart his fishing business from the back of his pickup truck, though his home was gone. We interviewed Mr. Pitre, near Abbeville, who had lived under a tree for five months while his disabled wife lay in in a one-person fishing camper. We met an older Vermillion Parish man called Pops who showed us his father’s fiddle, the one thing in the house they could save from the storm other than themselves.
There were ranchers whose cows were now standing in dying pastures, Vietnamese fishers who had seen their livelihoods crushed in debt, and activists fighting oil-and-gas operating practices that endangered the balance of life along the coast. In Plaquemines Parish we visited members of the Atakapa tribe in native fishing villages, that, as their leader Rosina Philippe explained, “have been here forever.”
Helen was an optimist: An environmentalist seeking solutions, not despair. She found people who could envision a long trajectory, and they found her. And trusted her. You did not want to disappoint Helen. On one trip to film about displacement in Plaquemines Parish and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we arranged to talk to the Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (now the lieutenant governor of Louisiana). He told Sister Helen he would be available for the interview, but at the last minute he was invited to Houston to attend a national Republican political event. We understood. Things like that happen, but Sister Helen was not as understanding. The next trip to Louisiana, we were assured that the parish president would be available. When we got to his office, the staffers went out of their way to acknowledge us and send their regards back to Sister Helen.
The interview with Mr. Nungesser was good. He was quite performative, making jokes and delivering grand statements. One thing about a television interview is when you get it, you get it. There’s no reason to stick around and have the visit go south or the subject revisit what he might have just said on the record. But Nungesser did not want to stop or let us go. He kept offering refreshments and chit chat about where we were from and what we thought about what we’d seen.
When we did leave, he also wanted to make sure that we had gotten everything we needed and that we would make sure to send his regards to Sister Helen and let her know that the shoot went well. As we walked out of the parish offices, we learned that there was a CNN crew that had been waiting for most of an hour for an interview. The staff did not alert Nungesser, because they did not want to disappoint Sister Helen again. Who would?
Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Yonder’s parent organization, the Center for Rural Strategies.