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In communities often overlooked, advocates serve as protectors

In Gulfport, Mississippi, Kathy Egland is pushing back against a system she says has long overlooked her largely Black community.
In communities often overlooked, advocates serve as protectors
Posted at 2:51 PM, Oct 19, 2023

We often discuss what it takes to effect change, and particularly what it takes to get the voices of underrepresented communities heard. In Gulfport, Mississippi, that looks like Kathy Egland.

She has stayed through Hurricane Katrina and through the BP oil spill. She stayed because, for all that history, there's the history of her community.

"People have a voice," Egland said. "Those voices haven't been heard. They've been ignored. So, what I try to do is amplify those voices."

Like many cities, Gulfport is sharply divided between a largely White side and a largely Black side. Also like many cities, the Black side often takes the brunt of decisions made from above that affect their environment.

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Egland is a megaphone. A tour with her includes a stop at what was once a coal plant. She helped pressure Mississippi Power to close it last decade. The tour also includes Turkey Creek, ranked one of America's 10 most endangered rivers by a national nonprofit. Then it heads toward an intersection that is her megaphone's current target.

"We must protect our wetlands," Egland said. "It is so important. And we're really disappointed in the road. Really, really disappointed."

The road she refers to would go along the U.S. 49 and I-10 interchange. It is intended to help spur commercial growth and ease congestion. It's also near wetlands, which is why it's the subject of a lawsuit — with Egland among the plaintiffs — filed against the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"I've never heard anybody go into a non-community of color saying, 'We're going to pollute you, but we're going to give you jobs,'" Egland said. "And so that's at the heart."

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The DOT wouldn't comment on the matter, and the city of Gulfport didn't return our many calls. But the lawsuit isn't the story. It's about what it takes to get overlooked communities into the conversation on decisions that impact them.

The final stop on Egland's tour is the home of Sylvia Lee. When it rains hard in Gulfport, Lee's yard and her street flood. She says the city no longer returns her calls. She is among the many who believe those in power don't care to hear them.

"They always want to come up in the Black neighborhood," Lee said. "What about your neighborhood? We need a forerunner. We need a forerunner."

Egland isn't just a megaphone. She brings in bigger megaphones. The Sierra Club and National Council of Negro Women have joined her organization as plaintiffs against the road project. And she doesn't just tour Gulfport. She brings her toolkit to similar communities nationwide. She could likely live anywhere but stays here.

"A lot of people say, 'Well, why don't they just move?'" Egland said. "And I can't believe that they think it's just that simple. That is your history, that is your heritage. You cannot pack up and move your history and your heritage."

It's why Egland has stayed to be a megaphone for people who need one.

"We have seen some progress," Egland said. "But not nearly enough."

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