Marquetta L. Goodwine fights to preserve the culture of the Gullah/Geechee people and counteract the impact of climate change on their way of life.

The Gullah/Geechee people make their living along the southeastern U.S. coast, as they have for centuries, since their enslaved ancestors toiled in relative isolation on island and coastal plantations. They have their own art, music, food, dance, and crafts. They have their own creole language, based in English but also distinctly African.

And they have their own head of state—Marquetta L. Goodwine, elected Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, on July 2, 2000, when this nation within a nation was formally established in the presence of international observers.

A native of South Carolina’s St. Helena Island, where she lives today, Queen Quet double-majored in mathematics and computer science at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, working in the latter field during college and for a few years after graduating. But she changed direction in 1996, founding the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition to help her people safeguard their rights and way of life. Their nation exists within a coastal area stretching from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida.

Queen Quet draws on a kaleidoscopic skill set ranging from art and preservation to mathematics and computer science in advocating for her people. She has written books about them; spoken up for them everywhere from the United Nations to city council meetings; and served as an expert commissioner on the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission established by the federal government in 2006.

Locally, she helps her people with land rights and other issues that tend to come up when native cultures meet rapid development and a rising cost of living. One recent bureaucratic tangle: a municipality putting Gullah/Geechee cemeteries on its delinquent taxes roster. “That has never happened before,” Queen Quet said one morning this past September after making calls about it. “People are asking me, ‘Well, Queen Quet, what’s going on? They’re going to take our graveyards now?’” Such snafus are often resolved amiably, she said.

Harder to resolve, however, is a global problem that is especially dire in the low-lying coastal lands where her people live, and that’s climate change. As rising seas and extreme weather ravage the land and fisheries that are central to Gullah/Geechee lives and livelihoods, she’s helping build support for long-term policies to stem climate change. She also works to mitigate its impacts locally—appealing to local officials to remediate rapid erosion on the Sea Islands, promoting more stewardship of area waterways, and other efforts.

“Gullah/Geechee culture is inextricably tied to the land and the water,” she said. “The land is our family, and the waterway is our bloodline.”

How has climate change affected the Sea Islands?
We’ve seen rapid erosion from sea level rise, and more intense and prevalent tropical storms and hurricanes, in the past 10 years especially. We went from one extreme about 15 years ago, with massive drought, to this overabundance of water—the sea level rise, the rains, the floods, the “king tides,” all coming in at once.

Farmers and the fishing families have suffered financially, whether they’re involved commercially or doing subsistence farming and fishing, which is our natural tradition. We’ve seen agricultural land inundated because of ocean and creek flooding, and now there is ocean acidification and pollution by single-use plastics. People are not catching the same amount of crabs, they’re not picking the same amount of oysters, they’re not getting the same harvest from the sea. So our food security is something that’s been taxed the most.

How does climate change intersect with racial injustice in your part of the country?
This year in the South, we had 100-plus-degree weather for weeks, and as a result our people are suffering because most don’t have health care. Am I having heatstroke? I can’t go to a doctor, I don’t have that kind of money. So of course more people of color, more people of African descent, are dying in heat waves. And mold and mildew are major issues on the Sea Islands. Who can afford to remediate a home if it gets flooded? Two, three generations may be living in there who develop lung problems but don’t realize why. So people then die of other conditions that develop due to long-term mold exposure.

Does racial bias show up in environmental action?
You look back in the history of environmental organizations, and Black people are not reflected visually; the optics show these are white-led organizations, and so therefore they don’t tend to look at communities of culture like the Gullah/Geechee Nation and say those communities and those lives are valuable, so we need to protect them. What you make a priority is what you’re going to resource. For instance, your organization’s not going to budget to help save a part of a Sea Island where Gullah/Geechees live, and protect their fishing industry in that location, if they’re not on your priority list.

What gives you hope?
Having the opportunity to go to the U.N. Climate Change Conference and work with groups advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, and being in the arena with people who are passionate about this topic. In international gatherings, I also see a lot of people of color fighting for their own communities and their own culture. It always gives me hope that it’s not me in a glass box hollering like I’m a mime and nobody can hear me, that someone’s hearing me and I’m making a difference.

One thing that people always hear me say is a statement that came to me as a vision from my ancestors and became the motto for the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, and it’s this: “Hunnuh mus tek cyare de root fa heal de tree” (“You must take care of the root to heal the tree”). If you want to get to the root of a problem, you need to dig for it, because roots that are really solid, they’re not on the surface. I’m ready to work to make sure that the fruit that’s produced from this tree in the future is sustainable and is healthy.

Queen Quet is also quoted in “Rising Temperatures, Rising Concern,” our related article about the Fordham community’s ideas for addressing climate change.