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The state of Louisiana, with its resilience and strength, has harbored a myriad of differences from the rest of the country. There isn’t anywhere quite like it and that’s celebrating our culture is so vital to the future of our state. One group of young community activists recognized this and decided to take charge. On September 16, 2023, the Declaration of St. Martinville, Louisiana was created as well as the founding of l’Assemblée de la Louisiane [the Assembly of Louisiana].
Will McGrew, Vice-Président pour la Politique et le développement économique, is a twenty-eight year old from New Orleans. He and a group of other ambitious young leaders banded together to start the saving of our state’s history, culture, and language. According to Will, l’Assemblée is a coalition of individuals and organizations working to bring everyone in Louisiana together around protecting our language, our culture, our land, and our local economies.
“Membership is open to people of all generations, but the leadership is definitely predominantly younger people who understand that the stakes are very high for people in Louisiana when it comes to land loss, the loss of our Cajun French language, or the culture or lack of economic opportunity, and it’s really kind of on us to develop solutions and bring people together to develop those solutions,” Will said.
The founders of l’Assemblée are from across the state: from Lafayette to Houma, Thibodaux, New Orleans, and beyond. The l’Assemblée members from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parish are Jamie Billiot, Misty Leigh McElroy, Kyle Crosby, Patty Ferguson Bohnee, Theresda Dardar, Baley Champagne, Janie Luster, Christine Verdin, J.R. Naquin, and Caitlin Orgeron.
They recognize the importance of performing conscious efforts on a local level and are persistent in bringing these efforts to fruition. Will expressed the need to begin coordinating across the state so we can work together in the realization of l’Assemblée’s mission.
As Will previously mentioned, anyone and everyone is encouraged to get involved with l’Assemblée. This assembly is aiming to be the movement and interest group of people in Louisiana. Anyone can visit their website, assemblee.la, to sign up and receive updates on every event and activity.
“We’re going to be traveling across the state and doing little events as well as […] hearing where people are hurting […]. What are the key issues that people in Louisiana are facing across political, ethnic, and regional differences and how can we be a part of developing that solution?”
“The key thing is to follow us on social media, join on the website, and we’re going to be keeping people updated there in terms of events we’re having which will be a combination of a town-hall style as well as concerts and festivals,” Will explained.
l’Assemblée will be attending existing festivals as well. In October, they took part in Festivals Acadiens et Creoles in Lafayette with a vendor tent to talk to fellow Louisianians about their concerns and stories.
One of l’Assemblée’s main goals is to defend and expand French immersion schools throughout the state of Louisiana. As of now, they have a network of about 35 French immersion schools in the state. These schools are vital to keeping Louisiana heritage and the French language alive.
“Whether you’re Cajun or Creole or Native American or anything else, French is something that was really important to our state’s history and to our present,” Will said. “People still have parents and grandparents who spoke French as their first language, so we’re really focused on building on the success of the network of French immersion schools that we already have and then bringing them into the communities that are historically French speaking.”
Will is the president of a French immersion school in Pointe-Aux-Chenes that was recently opened. École Pointe-au-Chien opened in August 2023 for students in kindergarten and first grade to keep their Cajun and Indigenous culture alive. According to Will, l’Assemblée believes that every parent who wants their child to be educated in a French immersion school should have that opportunity to learn their heritage and the Louisiana French language.
These French immersion schools are at the top of the list when it comes to the assembly’s priorities. Their course of action includes defending the schools we already have and working to keep those open, opening new schools, and, as Will puts it, “Louisianaizing” those schools. l’Assemblée hopes to be a part of helping more local Louisiana teachers train to teach in French immersion schools as well as take part in developing curricula in Louisiana and Cajun French. The students in these schools will ideally incorporate activities where they can learn about the culture at the same time from fisheries to Cajun music and any other cultural practice depending on the region of the school.
“I think the most important thing is protecting what’s working with the French immersion schools, expanding them to as many families as possible, and then incorporating as much Louisiana culture and language into the classroom,” Will said.
By attending festivals and hosting events, l’Assemblée hopes to also give adults and people of all ages the chance to practice the language and have French staples throughout the state. They want these resources to be accessible to all people even if their kids are too old or are already in French immersion and they want to learn the language themselves.
Will also runs a production company called Télé-Louisiane which produces two shows for local PBS, all in Louisiana French, making them more digestible and available for schools. Their goal is to continue developing additional resources that are as user-friendly as possible for individuals as well as for teachers to incorporate as much Louisiana French into the classroom as possible.
At its core, l’Assemblée is about uniting Louisiana and empowering the people to keep the culture alive. With such a unique and robust culture, with every variation still incredibly present, Will finds it important to prevent it all from eroding like the land it’s grown on. However, it is hard to ignore that people are speaking the language less. In a few areas, no one is learning the local music, dancing, or how to cook like their mawmaws and pawpaws did.
“We have so much in common and our interests and the problems that we face are quite overwhelmingly similar and so whether it’s the fact that we are losing the language, we are losing the culture, or that we’re facing crazy insurance rates or the fact that people are getting pushed out of bayou communities or that we’re losing land or that there’s not enough economic opportunities in our cities—those are all problems we face together regardless of our ethnic background or political affiliation or age or anything else,” Will said.
l’Assemblée believes our best chance at saving not just our culture collectively but also all the different, rich variations— the Cajun, the Creole, the Native American—all of the other parts that make Louisiana culture so rich, we’re going to have to work together because there’s really going to be strength in numbers.
“Now is the time for us to really come together and keep alive what makes Louisiana so special and be a part of creating a more vibrant, positive future for a state that faces many challenges,” shared Will.
l’Assemblée plans to attack a few different issues each year within their broad vision. The most important thing for them now is adopting that framework of not focusing on just any region or parish or just any ethnic group or political party, but instead thinking about what Louisianians in general face.
“In order to keep our language and culture alive, it needs to be possible for people of all ages to stay in the communities where our culture is and where people speak French so for that we need to make sure to—on the environmental front—we need to make sure we’re doing coastal restoration, investing in hurricane protection systems so that our front line communities can stay robust,” Will explained. “We also need to make sure that we get these insurance rates lower, […] We need to make sure we have our fair share of offshore revenues. […] We need to ban shrimp imports and have a really aggressive approach to that so local shrimpers are able to make a living and have a robust shrimping industry that is going to be higher quality and also better for our local economies.”
Because the language and culture is maintained by the people, focusing on what can allow people to actually stay in Louisiana and live in land that is threatened and in an economy where there isn’t enough opportunity, l’Assemblée understands the importance of addressing that together: language and culture as well as environment and economic revitalization.
Will considers himself very optimistic for the future of Sportsman’s Paradise. While throughout history our state, and even our country, has faced huge difficulties that seemed impossible to overcome, in the end we have always come out on the other side. Will thinks that the people tend to take on this approach where Louisiana will always be at the bottom of the list and that there’s nothing we can do about losing land or letting languages go unlearned by future generations.
“Of course, we’re not going to be able to solve everything. We’re not going to be able to save everything. It’s not going to be as it once was and it’s not going to be easy either. But we do know that it’s a choice, and just like other communities– Quebec and other communities around the world– that face many environmental, economical, and cultural challenges that we’ve faced, it’s really just a question of political will and popular will,” Will said.
While there is lots of work to do, the reason l’Assemblée was founded was due to determined citizens who traveled across the state and found that we have so much more in common than what divides us. They believe that the vast majority of people in Louisiana are onboard with these different issues and it’s truly about working hard to knit that fabric and bring all those people together so we can realize that dream just like we’ve done with all challenges in the past.
“I’m very positive and I think that l’Assemblée will be an important part of keeping our language and culture alive, using our language and culture to remind people that we’re a part of something bigger and we have something to fight for and then start fighting for all of those things,” Will said. “If we can speak with one voice whether it’s private entities, or the state or federal government that needs to take action, we’ll get it done. Any united voice of four million plus people, that’s a really powerful microphone so I’m super optimistic.”