- Associated Press - Saturday, October 3, 2020

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) - Hurricane Katrina destroyed Sharon Hanshaw’s home and the salon she had owned and operated for 21 years.

Standing on Bayview Avenue in East Biloxi not long after the storm, Hanshaw gestured towards one of the many empty lots.

“That’s where my salon was,” friend and colleague Reilly Morse, general counsel at the Mississippi Center for Justice, recalled her saying. “I was a beautician, and Katrina took it all away. What else can I do but this?”

In the 15 years after Katrina, “this” turned out to be a second career of advocating tirelessly for the people of East Biloxi, many of whom felt ignored and forgotten by officials who seemed more interested in attracting casinos than rebuilding affordable housing. The organization she founded, Coastal Women for Change, harnessed the skills and resilience of local women and empowered them to speak up for their community.

Hanshaw brought the story of East Biloxi to the world. She spoke at climate summits in New York and Copenhagen, and met with women from Uganda and India whose lives had also been altered by climate change.



Hanshaw died on Sept. 4 at the age of 66, having led a life of service to East Biloxi that ultimately touched people all over the globe.

Whether at the United Nations or a city council meeting, her advocacy was always rooted in her commitment to her local community, said Carmelita Scott, one of her daughters.

“Everything that she did, it was ultimately about East Biloxi,” Scott said. “Even about climate change, she was talking about it in Copenhagen, but it started for her at home.”

A LIFETIME IN BILOXI

Sharon Kay Peyton was born in segregated East Biloxi in 1954. She always recalled her childhood fondly, Scott said. The housing project where she grew up sounded like “Miami South Beach” in her description, thanks to the proximity of so many friends and opportunities to spend time together.

Hurricane Camille, which hit the Coast in 1969, left vivid memories of neighbors yelling from their top floors: “Pray for us.”

Peyton graduated from the recently desegregated Biloxi High School in 1972. She married Charles F. Hanshaw in 1978 and opened her salon, Sharon’s Unlimited, in the 1980s.

Her father was a minister and restaurant owner, and as an adult Sharon Hanshaw kept up the family tradition of community involvement. She taught adult basic education classes in East Biloxi not far from her home and business. She also protested road projects that would have claimed homes in the neighborhood in the late 1990s.

Jearlean Osborne, now a community organizer for the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, recruited Hanshaw to teach adult literacy classes. Hanshaw’s personality made her a perfect fit.

“I wanted to have teachers that could talk to anyone regardless of their status,” Osborne said. “I wanted to make sure that they treated all people with respect, and that they would not look down on anyone.”

Women brought their griefs and their joys to her salon. The job turned out to be ideal preparation for the work she would pursue after Katrina.

“As a beautician, she knew loads of people who knew more people, and so she used that to mobilize and rally folks around fairness in the disaster recovery,” Morse said.

SHARON, UNDETERRED

As Katrina was approaching the Coast, Hanshaw and her daughters were in northern Mississippi. They returned home to a devastating scene.

“The front of the house was gone,” Scott recalled. “The porch is completely off. That front wall is off. I stepped up on the porch and, bam, I’m in my room.”

Years later, former Irish President Mary Robinson included in her book “Climate Justice” the story of Hanshaw’s efforts to restore a mahogany table that had belonged to her mother and was now warped by flood waters.

“Her daughters urged her to throw it away, but Sharon, undeterred, stuck it back together again with superglue,” Robinson wrote. “The glue hardened in ugly, lumpy streaks, exacerbating the table’s sorry state.”

Amid the wreckage of their old lives, a group of East Biloxi women began to meet in a funeral home, one of the only buildings still standing, to talk about what they needed and how they could get help. Oxfam America, contributing to the rebuilding work in East Biloxi, provided some financial support and training.

“When we were trying to get together with the people in the community to see what we were going to do, all we saw was women doing things,” Hanshaw would reflect years later.

To her surprise, Hanshaw was eventually elected their leader. They called the group Coastal Women for Change, a name that she said was intended to be inclusive not only of all women on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but also those living in different parts of the world facing the same challenges of climate change.

Hanshaw set up an office at the NAACP Biloxi branch. Members of Coastal Women for Change became fixtures at local government meetings. They advocated for affordable housing, assembled hurricane-readiness kits for elderly citizens, and provided home-repair grants for low-income families.

There was a lot to learn at first, especially when it came to the technical aspects of running a nonprofit. Scott said “it was nothing” for her to spend half an hour on the phone with her mother, explaining how to attach a file to an email; Hanshaw had never really used computers before.

But the core of the work - talking to people about their needs and developing plans to help them - came easily.

“Sharon had a personality that people could get along with,” said NAACP Biloxi branch president James Crowell. “She joked and laughed a lot, and she spoke her mind, whatever she had to say, she wasn’t going to bite her tongue.”

‘POOR IS POOR IN ANY LANGUAGE’

While she represented East Biloxi in recovery debates on the Coast, she also spoke for poor Americans at global forums on climate change. Through Oxfam, she toured five states and spoke in Washington, D.C., several times.

She attended conferences on climate change in New York, Copenhagen, and Rio de Janeiro, and spoke about human rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

She met women like Constance Okollet, a farmer in eastern Uganda and advocate for climate adaptation.

With Okollet, two women from Pacific Islands, and New Yorker Tracy Mann, Hanshaw co-founded a group called Climate Wise Women. They traveled the United States and Ireland, explaining the dangers climate change posed to frontline communities in low-income countries around the world. Hanshaw argued that East Biloxi, where most residents were low-income people of color, faced the same challenges as people in other parts of the world.

“They were connected, and by failing to connect them, we were missing a number of opportunities for political leverage, opportunities for understanding and knowledge sharing,” Mann said.

Through her travels, Hanshaw saw that poverty looked much the same worldwide, and learned that people in other countries were shocked to hear that many Americans were poor, too.

“Poor is poor in any language,” Hanshaw wrote in 2010. “And whether in Biloxi or in Darfur Africa, it’s the poorest who get hit by climate change hardest. My sisters from all over the world know this firsthand.”

‘PUTTING OTHERS IN THE ROOM’

Shortly after Katrina, Hanshaw met activist and attorney Jaribu Hill, who was representing shipyard workers at Northrop Grumman. The two became friends and “sisters in the struggle,” Hill said.

Over the years, they occasionally attended the same “high-brow meetings,” where big donors wanted to hear nonprofit leaders offer a polite description of the situation on the ground. Hanshaw, Hill said, always remembered that “you’re only there to lift up those who are not there.”

“She always spoke from the vantage point of putting others in the room who were not present,” Hill said.

By 2015, funding for CWC had slowed down as Katrina receded into the past and the world’s attention shifted away from the Gulf Coast. That year, Hanshaw suffered a stroke that left her non-verbal. She kept in touch with friends and fellow activists like Hill by sending text messages, sometimes with a thumbs up emoji, “to let you know that she was still supporting you,” Hill said.

In the years before her stroke, Hanshaw dedicated much of her time outside of work to caring for her young grandsons. That, too, became an act of building a better future for her family and her community.

“When she kept the boys, they’d be babbling, and she’d say, ‘You’re gonna vote when you get old enough, right?’” Scott recalled. “She didn’t do baby talk, but if she was to do it, she was talking about that movement.”

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