Meeting the Needs of Latinos on Hilton Head Island – Eric Esquivel

Eric Esquivel is the president, publisher and managing partner of La Isla Magazine. Based on Hilton Head Island, La Isla is a national award-winning publication whose work helps Latinos integrate into American society, promotes cross-cultural awareness, and helps businesses increase their share of the local Hispanic market.

One of the guiding principles for Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 is “providing meaningful experiences that cherish our history, the arts, cultural diversity and enrich the lives of our residents and guests.” As publisher of La Isla Magazine, what does this guiding principle mean to you?

It means understanding the deep historical roots of Hilton Head and what we call the Lowcountry. If you don’t know the history, the complexities and who the players are, then you can’t move forward into the future. With that you develop the ability to understand the arts by understanding the diversity and who played that role in the arts.

I think the guiding principle is not only understanding it but also helping highlight the great diversity that doesn’t only exist culturally, but also on so many levels: the ecology, the history and the residents. What’s happening today, especially with mass development, if we don’t preserve and have guiding principles in all these factors we will lose that through the economic development and the drive to continue to do more business.

Currently, we not only have to know the guiding principle. We also have to speak to it and bring people together to understand each other. If we do not acknowledge the history, the arts, and cultural diversity we can’t enrich the lives of residents and guests because we don’t have a guiding principle behind it.

According to the 2010 Census data, the Hispanic or Latino population of Hilton Head Island makes up 15.8% of the population or 5,861 of the total 37,099 population. As the largest minority on Hilton Head Island, is enough being done to promote cultural diversity on Hilton Head Island? If not, what changes would you make?

I was the census chair for Beaufort and Jasper county in 2010. I’ll start off by saying that the 5,861 number is probably closer to 15,000. So, we don’t really understand how big our community truly is and its numbers. One of the reasons is that they do not indicate race as Latino or Hispanic on the census – and they’re supposed to defer to others – so that’s why there’s a high error rating.

I would say that while there are factors being done to promote cultural diversity, not enough is being done. Specific to Hispanics, we need more leadership and involvement civically and politically so we can move forward that recognition; not only culture diversity of the population but also of representation for the betterment of the Latino community as a whole and integration, common respect and understanding of what it means to be Latino or Hispanic-American in the deep South.

In many senses, there are two faces to Hilton Head, the one that serves our wealthy and tourists, and one that turns a blind-eye to our communities of needs. There needs to be more efforts no matter how hard the work is to engage the Latino community. You have to go to them and have to build the relationship before doing business.  Engagement is key because that engagement empowers them.  If you let them know what’s at stake, they will take ownership and be proud of it. They are a shadow workforce that has not been engaged and they are not being represented as well as they should be.

What role does the Latino community play in shaping the overall identity of Hilton Head Island?

We’re in the middle of it and that’s what so cool about it. It’s almost a message back to our Latinos, ‘here’s a soft piece of putty, what legacy and shape do we want to leave?’ The role is there to Latinos to shape the identity of Hilton Head. Serving as one of the founding members of what’s called the Santa Elena Foundation, we have proven that the first true settlement was not Plymouth Rock, but Santa Elena one hundred years before. I’ve used this as an example to create a sense of pride with the new Latinos saying we’ve got roots that go all the way back.

Where we are today, time will tell.  But my message to our Latino community is that the opportunity is there.  But, they have to be willing to take a risk, to step forward, and have their voice heard. To the non-Latinos, my message is to embrace what you don’t know, what’s different, because that what makes us stronger as a country of immigrants and will welcome and help the Latino shape their role and identity in the community. The sooner people feel a part of the community, the sooner they become more proactive to make the community better.

A recent article in the Island Packet highlighted the rapidly growing Latino population in Bluffton and the role that community organizations and religious groups are playing to meet their needs. Why are community organizations like these important to creating a strong community for everyone?

They are the foundation of our community, not just for Latinos but as support beams for integration for the people who don’t have the voice. Historically, without these organizations the new community’s success would not exist for immigrants. Community organizations like nonprofits, religious groups, and even businesses such our own and others are taking a risk by breaking the norm or going against the grain. There is no race, color, creed or religion in business; opportunity is opportunity. These organizations help reach down to the first generations and help them get established.

What is the purpose of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and what is your involvement with the organization?

When I came back to run La Isla, I knew the rule of journalism which was to tell the story and not be the story. But the stories I was telling weren’t okay with who I was, my religious values, my heart, my soul and the culture I loved.  My father is Hispanic and he was an immigrant who came here and was very successful. Seeing what was going on, I wasn’t okay telling the story. It wasn’t good for our community, our kids, our economy and our future. This is a place where I grew up and I had come back to make a career, but with a business representing Latinos. I wanted to not just talk the talk but walk the walk.

Because of what I saw happening locally, statewide, and nationally with very counter-intuitive and negative, discriminatory laws on local, county and state levels through grassroots, I helped found the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and currently serve as co-chairman. Our roots go back to 2006 when Beaufort County tried to implement a copycat law of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. A Lawful Employment Ordinance put the burden of immigration enforcement on small business.  But the way they originally wrote the law and wanted to pass it was that anybody could call the county and report that they thought a certain business had someone illegal working there based on how they looked. In Hazleton, this was already happening. It brought a negative ambience with it to a community who depends on Latinos for a workforce.  People become deathly afraid to stand up for their rights and speak the truth.

Since then our mission has become to be a human and civil rights advocacy group and stop violations on local levels. We put on educational forums for Latinos on how to be better citizens.  We do citizen workshops, health fairs, rallies or protest prayer vigils.  On the flip side, we run voter registration, development and educational forums and speak to our extreme counterparts on immigration reform.  We also reach out to our opposites to education them and bring them closer. We have served, fought and defeated many local anti-immigration laws. We helped defeat the “show-me-your-papers” South Carolina Senate Bill 20; about 80% of that law. It’s in the law books as Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and plaintiffs versus governor Nikki Haley. We’re currently are part of the amicus brief  for the supreme court hearing, that started taking place on April 18th for the DACA and DAPA expansion hearings.

It has been reported that 20.7% of the Beaufort county Hispanic/Latino population is living below the state poverty rate. What needs to be done to decrease this percentage of those living under the poverty rate?

I think when they take these numbers it’s just a general study of everybody else. To fix this on the local level we need comprehensive immigration reform. We have a lot of people living in the shadows, that have chosen to live here even though they may have come legally but overstayed their visa or work permits. They feel life is still better here than their home countries. In many ways, it creates scenarios of a mild form of indentured servitude that the shadow world takes advantage of. We need more outreach and education and also we need to look at the unintended consequences of laws we are creating.

We need to get more proactive on how we welcome and embrace, and how we get new immigrants into the system and integrate them into our community instead of putting up laws and creating obstacles. The example I use now is DACA, which gives kids the ability to process in and look like a citizen two years at a time. The intent of it was was the Dream Act which would allow these kids to join the military or go to college, and the state of South Carolina created a piece of legislation that says if you’re DACA:  1) you have to pay out of state tuition and 2) if you’re DACA and you go study for a career that needs a state license, we’re not going to give it you. We have kids graduating with nursing degrees and other degrees and go find out they can’t use it in a state that has a shortage of labor and workforce. Ultimately these kids of Latino descent are going to be a product in our community one way or another. Do we want them to be successful or do we want them to be a drain on our community?   It starts at the state legislature; these state laws need to stop countering federal law.

In a Pew research poll conducted last fall, 58% of the Hispanic population characterize racism as a “big problem” in the United States. What can be done to create a more open and culturally sensitive environment here in the Lowcountry?

I think some of the things La Isla is doing is groundbreaking and I think we’re a role model for the state of South Carolina as a bilingual publication. Not because they need to learn English, but because isn’t it smart to help people who don’t know the language to know the laws and how to be a part of our community. We do more outreach to both families and adults, more interactions, for example our festivals that we do twice a year such as the  festival de Mayo and Latin music festival. We bring out around 8,000 people a festival; it’s about 60% Hispanic 40% non-Hispanic.  It’s an appreciation of the culture and a respect and celebration.

So, I think seeing that Hispanics are the fastest growing minority not only nationally and now South Carolina being the fastest growing emerging state, we need our leaders to get on board and be progressive in the sense that we’re welcoming and helping others. A lot is accomplished with our leadership, our outreach, infrastructure, logistics, and bilingual materials. If we’re not willing to reach a hand out and welcome and help integrate, we are postponing and prolonging the inevitable but making our situation worse. It has to be a partnership of public and private and it has to be scaled throughout a business and community along with our adults and youth.

Finally, what is your vision of Hilton Head Island in 2030. And, how do we get there?

I have a vision that it’s a beautiful island, a first class destination that understands how sensitive and balanced it is to not just serve the economically fortunate and tourist but also has a balance and importance of the people that serve that beautiful place with a respect and cultural diversity that exists here. My vision includes a belief that the kids of 2030 grow up color blind, but know the history we’ve had to fight for to pave the way to a new and different existence.  I want them to know  that it isn’t an issue what skin tone you have – that everyone should have an equal opportunity and that everyone has a voice in development and economics. When we can understand and do what’s right for all we will be so much stronger and will not be fighting unintended consequences whether its workforce or housing or everything else.  These are big issues that we have to deal with now. They’re not going away – we either deal with them now or they fester, and stay with us.

I therefore envision a place where all can be successful and fully integrated – where being Latino isn’t assumed that you’re Mexican or you’re illegal, but another part of our community. Also, that we’re holding very delicate and true that the history of those challenges – just like the people who came before us, the enslaved Africans – these examples should enable us to learn from them.   We don’t want to continue to commit the same errors so that when the next generation of immigrants comes, we know how to do this already and don’t make the same mistakes.

Eric Esquivel

Eric Esquivel is the president, publisher and managing partner of La Isla Magazine.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: George Lezenby via Flickr CC

Inspiring Children with Art in Charleston – Lisa Estes

This month, the Islands Society is proud to recognize Lisa Estes as our latest “Sea Islands Community Leader.’ Estes is the founding director of Art Goes There – a nonprofit that provides children with programs that enrich their participation in the arts. A Charleston, S.C. native, she graduated from University of South Carolina School of Law. Later, she opened Estes Law Firm, LLC, in Beaufort where she practiced until returning to Charleston in 2010. A life-long supporter of the arts, Estes has served and advised non-profit boards since 2001. James Carroll, Managing Director of the Sea Islands Society, therefore sat down with Lisa to learn more about Art Goes There and some of the challenges nonprofits face in the Lowcountry.

What motivated you to start Art Goes There?

“Art Goes There” promotes and creates connections among artistic, cultural, and educational collaborators to provide inspiring and challenging programs for children that broadens, deepens, and diversifies participation in the arts. I had spent many years representing nonprofits as an attorney and working for several non-profits. I had seen best practices and also how things can be improved in the inner workings of a non-profit organization. I wanted to be able to create a vehicle that would allow me and others to collaborate and connect to bring arts education to areas where programs don’t exist or are hard to maintain. I saw a need in McClellanville and Awendaw, S.C. and decided to use that area for a pilot program.

Why is it important for local communities to support art programs?

Arts programs help build strong economic communities. Charleston is a perfect example of a community that benefits from a rich artistic history. Additionally, the advantages of arts education have been routinely studied and proven to enhance educational programming. Students whose educational opportunities include art components routinely have lower dropout rates, score higher on standardized tests and have better overall educational experiences. Art programs opportunities, both in and out of the school setting, are especially crucial in rural and island areas where programs are irregular or non-existent.

From your point of view as a lawyer and as the director for your nonprofit, what are some of the challenges of running a nonprofit?

Nonprofits are very unique organizations and many people don’t understand the organizational model. As an attorney representing nonprofit organizations since 2001, I’ve helped organizational leaders to understand the responsibilities of their employees and board members. I’ve also worked for nonprofits and founded “Art Goes There,” so I have detailed knowledge of day-to-day best practices. I used all of these experiences to build “Art Goes There” as an organization that can withstand the many challenges nonprofits face. Funding is always a challenge and I see a lot of nonprofit leaders and boards that don’t understand the detail required to maintain a healthy and legally sound organization.

In the Lowcountry, nonprofits have access to many grants that provide basic services but not as many grants for long term capacity building. What are the other issues nonprofits are facing in the Lowcountry?

When founding “Art Goes There,” I focused on creating collaborative relationships. I was born and raised in Charleston. If you live here all your life, you get to know many people. Charleston’s population has changed but it has also added to the opportunities to connect and work together. Many nonprofits in the area work together but long term collaborative relationships could help to spread critical services. The Lowcountry has many nonprofits providing similar services to similar populations. Cross-collaborations are key for longevity.

Why do you feel it’s important for the Lowcountry to promote more women, minorities and young people in nonprofit leadership roles?

Nonprofits must be diverse to survive. The Lowcountry’s population is always changing and nonprofits need to be sure that leadership is reflective of that diversity. We also need to be sure that young people learn the landscape of the nonprofit world so that they can grow into future leaders in the important work that area nonprofits provide.

Finally, what does it mean to be a leader in Charleston?

Charleston has become an international hub. It’s interesting to travel outside of the state and the country and find that people actually know about Charleston, S.C. Being a leader in the Lowcountry allows me to connect with opportunities locally and all over the world and I hope to show those opportunities to some of the children served by “Art Goes There.”


Lisa Estes

Lisa Estes is the founding director of Art Goes There of Charleston, South Carolina.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Kwong Yee Cheng via Flickr CC

Supporting the Asian Community in Charleston, South Carolina – Joyce Menon

The Islands Society is proud to recognize Dr. Joyce Menon as the Sea Islands Female Leader for the month of March. Since 2008, she has been studying lung cancer in a research lab at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Separately, Dr. Menon has volunteered with the India Association of Greater Charleston (IAGC) for the last eight years, and has provided executive leadership in organizing and hosting India Fest for three consecutive years in Charleston in an effort to promote understanding and appreciation of Indian Arts and Culture. In addition to her work with the IAGC, she has been involved with a fundraiser for Mitchell Math and Science Elementary, a local school in Charleston; a summer educational program for inner city kids at St. Julian Devine Community Center; and the installation of the bust of Mahatma Gandhi in Liberty Gardens at Pinewood Elementary, the first in the state of South Carolina. The managing director of the Sea Islands Society, James Carroll, therefore reached out to Dr. Menon to discuss her accomplishments and her efforts to promote cross-cultural awareness through her work with the IAGC.

What are you currently researching at the Medical University of South Carolina?

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women. More people die of lung cancer than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer and the current chemotherapy drugs used to treat it have only limited efficacy. One of the reasons of this resistance is because the cells are undergoing Epithelial to Mesenchymal (EMT) transformation and this is currently being studied in our lab.

Please tell me about your involvement with the India Association of Greater Charleston. Why do you feel it’s important to highlight Indian arts and culture in Charleston?

I have been involved with India Association of Greater Charleston (IAGC) since 2005. I have been a Secretary (4 yrs) and a President (2 yrs) and am now the co-chair for its Events Planning Committee. One of the aims of IAGC is to promote an understanding of the culture and heritage of India within the Charleston community. We believe that strong bonds of friendship are built when mutual respect is borne as a result of this exchange.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the Asian population of South Carolina is only 1.5% of the total population. This is far lower than the national average of 5.4%. Do you feel that South Carolina is an unattractive place to live for immigrants from East Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia?

Most immigrants from the Indian subcontinent to United States are either medical or IT professionals. Since South Carolina offers a limited number of industries and institutions in these fields, the percentage of that demographic is also low. Now that we have large industries like Boeing and BMW openings plants in this area, we should see an increase in this population. Moreover, I have seen a steady increase in the hiring of professionals of Indian origin at MUSC.

Have you ever faced challenges because of your ethnicity or gender?

I have been blessed that ethnicity and gender has not played a part in my life as a working woman and later a working mom in South Carolina. However, I am very well aware about the challenges women (regardless of their ethnicity) face in this country. But, the great thing about being an American is that you have the freedom of speech to voice your opinion, and bring about changes through grass root awareness.

A recent study found that South Carolina ranks 50 of 51 states (including the District of Columbia) in women’s well-being. What do you think needs to be done to improve this dreadful ranking?

There is a high correlation between poverty and the level of education amongst women in our society. Investing in educational programs for women – whether it’s for young girls, mothers or grandmothers – would be the best “Return On Investment.” Giving vocational training to women would go a long way in improving the situation. I am a firm believer that while educating a man will save a family, educating a woman will save the world. Including women in strategic and long-term policy making decisions would be a step in the right direction.

What advice would you give to young women and girls from island communities who want to pursue a career in medicine?

As our population gets older, we will need more medical professionals to join the ranks. The recent emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs at high schools is certainly going to help. But, pursuing a medical profession requires a significant commitment and individual sacrifice. As a society, we should provide an environment that is supportive to the challenges women will face in balancing personal life and work. This is where I believe society can help by providing certain benefits that will help alleviate the load on women. One good example of this is the recent campaign to provide maternal and child care benefits to working mothers.


Local Female Leader
Local Female Leader

Dr. Joyce Menon at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). She is also the past president of the India Association of Greater Charleston.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: sandeepachetan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Supporting Marginalized Citizens in Beaufort County, South Carolina – Fred Leyda

This month, the Islands Society is proud to recognize Fred Leyda as the inaugural Sea Islands Community Leader by its constituent society for the Lowcountry – the Sea Islands Society. As the director of Human Services Alliance for Beaufort County, Leyda oversees various organizations and groups working together to promote and sustain activities that improve the quality of life for Beaufort County residents. James Carroll, Managing Director of the Sea Islands Society, asked Leyda to discuss the work of the quality of life service agencies in addressing difficult social challenges in Beaufort County.

What does it mean to be a community leader in Beaufort County, South Carolina?

I consider it an honor to serve my community and believe strongly in Servant Leadership. As such, one of the most rewarding experiences I have in my position as Beaufort County Human Services Director is watching diverse groups of organizational and community representatives come together in a collaborative process. The good that can come from such a process is sometimes unimaginable. Recently we were recognized by the Education Oversight Committee for having improved our school readiness levels. When asked why we were able to achieve such results using methods that are common to other communities, we realized that it was because our efforts weren’t happening in a “silo” – they were being implemented in a community filled with other groups all working collaboratively to “hitch our wagons to the same train and all pull in the same direction.”

As director of Beaufort County’s Human Services Alliance, is enough being done to support marginalized citizens of Beaufort County?

Put simply – NEVER! There can never be enough done to support Lowcountry residents who are marginalized or in need. We are living in a county accurately described as “islands of affluence surrounded by a sea of poverty.” We have families in our communities living in homes with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. I have stood on the ground where a homeless man died of exposure on Christmas Eve a few years ago. From where I stood, I could watch families celebrating the holiday in their nearby condominiums. This happened on Hilton Head Island, one of the most successful resort communities on the East Coast. What happens to the least of us, affects us all in one way or another.

Now a few years old, the 2012 Together for Beaufort County report highlighted four quality-of-life indicators (the economy, education, poverty and health) in Beaufort County. What has been the impact of this report and what has since been done to meet these objectives?

The old adage “what gets measured gets done” certainly applies! While collaborative efforts have been in place in our community since the 70s, the process to actually identify, measure, and track quality-of-life indicators began in 2006. This process, and the indicators themselves, became a rallying cry around which many private citizens, agencies, and community action groups coalesced. These became many of our foundational community action teams, known as Together for Beaufort County Coalitions. We have actually shifted the report to an interactive website which can be accessed at One of the most significant changes is that, in response to years of community and stakeholder feedback, we have refined the focus of our quality-of-life indicators to include five realms of study rather than four.

In 2013, you stated that there were approximately 4,000 to 5,000 homeless people in Beaufort County. Has that number increased or decreased?

Estimates of homeless individuals living in the community are a rapidly-moving target that’s hard to hit. In the case of homeless individuals who are truly homeless (living on the streets, in the woods, or in their cars) we find that the population is transient and highly mobile, and may come or go depending on the weather or other circumstances. When we discuss Beaufort County homeless, our office also includes those who are without a home, but living with friends or family, who may have shelter one week and be on the street or at a hotel the next depending on their personal situations. Those individuals constitute the bulk of our estimate. Lastly, individuals living in substandard housing – that is to say, housing without running water, electricity, or housing with structural issues like holes in the roof or walls – are also considered homeless. However, many housing surveys ask, “Where did you spend the night last night?” to which they inevitably respond, “Home!” This creates a lot of barriers toward developing a comprehensive and exact count. Long story short, however, we believe that the number of 4,000 – 5,000 homeless in Beaufort County remains our best estimate and, presumably, has improved slightly as the economy picks up.

Recently, the topic of racism has been addressed in Beaufort County. What needs to be done to promote a safe and healthy living situation for all residents and guests?

The answer to that question lies in the difference seen between the response of Charleston, South Carolina to trauma and the response seen in Ferguson, Missouri. What came out of Charleston in response to the tragedy was a community-wide conversation about race and forgiveness. Charleston demonstrated an unbreakable sense of community which resulted in that overwhelming message of love and togetherness, the very embodiment of the ‘Beloved Community’ spoken of by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As Co-Chairs, Rev. Jim Wooten and I have been working with Beaufort County Community Relations Council to foster Dr. King’s ‘Beloved Community’ here in our community. We recognize that open and honest dialogue and communication are key components to fighting racism and division. The Council is currently developing a strategic plan for achieving these objectives and fostering a similar sense of community to our Sister City.

Finally, as a community leader, what does the future of Beaufort County look like and how do we get there?

I am very excited about the direction we are moving as a county. Growing participation by local residents coupled with a willingness on the part of Beaufort County Council and other elected officials to take a serious look at difficult social challenges in our community like homelessness, affordable housing and economic development is a powerful combination. Together we have made significant progress already – prenatal care rates now exceed state averages, 98% of our entering Kindergarteners are testing at grade level as they start school, high school graduation rates are improving, and Beaufort County’s Health Ranking is #1 in the state once again in overall quality of life and longevity. Recently the Community Services Committee of County Council requested a Resolution to Address Homelessness in Beaufort County. If these trends continue we are poised to really see some positive growth socially, economically, and environmentally!


Fred Leyda

Fred Leyda is the Beaufort County Human Services Director in Beaufort, South Carolina. He is also the Co-Chair of the Beaufort County Community Relations Council.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: atelier_flir via Flickr CC

Mitigating Sea Level Rise on Hilton Head Island Requires New Identity – 2/27/16

Recently, the Island Packet reported that the Hilton Head Island Town Council is evaluating the community’s interest in “creating a new vision for the town.” Apparently, the Town Council feels that the participation by residents in this process might prove difficult due to “retirees in gated communities, which are like separate towns and their residents often don’t feel engaged with or mistrust local government, owners of rental properties who don’t live on the island, and younger residents in the ungated parts of town who are often the least vocal.” Of course, the Town Council should be concerned about the challenge of overcoming these factional divides to create a new identity. But, the Town Council should be even more concerned about how these factional divides are already undermining how the local community tackles complex issues that require long-term solutions. For example, consider the threat posed by sea level rise. Certainly, sea level rise poses a long-term threat to the safety and security of the local community. Unfortunately, many of the permanent residents on the island will not be around to see the long-term consequences of sea level rise on the local community. This should be a serious concern for the Town Council. Without young families with a personal investment in the long-term future of the island, sea level rise may not receive the attention that it deserves until it is too late.

Local Demographics

Local demographics confirm that Hilton Head Island is deeply factionalized. Let us consider a few statistics. First, the median age of the population has increased annually from 29.6 in 1975 to 50.9 in 2010 according to the 2012-2017 Sustainable Practices Action Plan. This stands in stark comparison with the median age of 37.9 across the state in 2010. Second, the residents of the island are geographically divided. In fact, according to some estimates, Hilton Head Island is comprised of 70% gated communities. Third, a little more than half of the island’s housing units are classified as vacant (rental properties, seasonal, second-home or for sale). In fact, the 2010 census states that of the 33,306 units, 16,535 are occupied housing units while 16,771 are vacant housing units. Fourth, many of the permanent residents do not have children. According to some reports, only 3,039 of the 16,535 households have children under 18 years. Of course, we could go on. But, the point is made. Hilton Head Island is factionalized along at least three important lines (i.e., age; residency; children) that impact the ability of the local community to tackle sea level rise and other complex issues that require long-term solutions.

Sea Level Rise

Regardless of where one stands on the politicized topic of climate change, sea level rise is an objective threat to the coastal region of South Carolina. And, Hilton Head Island is not alone in being unprepared for the growing threat. Overall, South Carolina recently received a D rating for “its below average level of preparedness in the face of an average overall coastal flooding threat.” This is because many coastal communities across South Carolina have taken little action to plan or adapt to future coastal flooding. But, there are exceptions. For example, the most populated city and economic hub of the Lowcountry, the City of Charleston, has recognized that sea level rise is a direct threat. And, they have released a strategic plan to counter this growing challenge. Hilton Head Island needs to be a leader on this issue as well.

One of the environmental strategies outlined in the Sustainable Practices Action Plan is to “reduce and mitigate negative impacts of sea level rise and global warming effects through beach re-nourishment and development regulations.” Unfortunately, both these measures do little to reduce or mitigate the long-term consequences of sea level rise. Beach re-nourishment projects are temporary solutions at the cost of millions of dollars every few years. At some point, these efforts might even prove cost prohibitive for the local community. But, that is not a personal concern for many of the permanent residents of the island. They will not be here when that day arrives. It is only a personal concern for the young families in our community. They will be the ones that will have to bear that burden.

Lack of Identity Undermines Action

While there has never been a better time to address that sea level rise is threat, Hilton Head Island is simply not in position to meet the challenge of sea level rise. And, the lack of a ‘sense of community’ will continue to hinder any future efforts to counter sea level rise. From my perspective, the local community therefore needs to shift the demographics. Hilton Head Island needs more young families who are personally invested in the same long-term aspirations and goals for their local community. Communities with a strong sense of identity are better placed to meet challenges of sea level rise. This is because they face a shared future. Research seems to support this. One study found that communities with a high resiliency to climate change have achieved it through a ‘bottoms-up’ approach where citizens feel that climate change directly impacts their homes or neighborhoods.

Now, it is well-known that Hilton Head Island is a popular retirement destination. But, a poll released by Pew Research Center on American’s views on climate change exposes that this also undermines any efforts to mitigate the long-term threat posed by sea level rise. When US adults were asked about their views on climate change, 60% of 18-29 year-olds replied that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity compared to only 48% of 50-64 years and 31% of 65+ years. This poll demonstrates the serious generational divide on climate change. While younger generations feel that climate change will directly impact their lives, older generations do not share the same feelings.

Moreover, the number of vacation rentals and second homes paints a picture that a large number of homeowners have their roots planted elsewhere. While these homeowners may share the same concerns about sea level rise as permanent residents, they are not similarly invested in the long-term future of the community. The same goes for family households without children under the age of eighteen. These households are not similarly invested in the long-term future of the community as those with children under the age of eighteen. And, it will be difficult to change these dynamics. With a large percentage of gated communities combined with a median age above 50, Hilton Head Island simply is not in a good place to attract young families who want to become permanent residents.

Local Consequences

While the Town Council’s efforts to push for a new identity should be considered a step in the right direction, simply saying that the local community needs a new identity is not enough. We need to completely revamp the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 so that its focus is on the long-term future of our community. That means that we need to attract young families as permanent residents. And, that in turn means that we need to get serious about tackling complex issues that require long-term solutions. Sea-level rise is just one of these issues. Others might include discrimination and income inequity. Right now. the community is not positioned to tackle these issues. And so, the community cannot attract young families. That needs to change. And, it needs to change quickly. If not, the local community will suffer in the long-term.

Author: James Carroll is a local resident of Charleston, South Carolina. He is also a graduate of the College of Charleston and a former Peace Corps volunteer.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors and not their respective organizations. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Lee Coursey via Flickr CC

Hilton Head Island Needs Authentic Community Programming – Cheryl Walsh

One of the key objectives outlined in the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 is to achieve a diverse economy beyond tourism. Unfortunately, it will be difficult for our local community to achieve this objective when tourism fundamentally shapes every aspect of our identity. If we want to achieve a diverse economy beyond tourism, then our local community must strike a new balance between the needs of a community and the needs of a tourist destination. For too long, the scale has been tipped over in favor of the needs of a tourist destination.

If we are serious about creating a new identity, then we need to prioritize authenticity. We need to put an end to our residents being guests at their own events. We need to put an end to our cultural heritage being something that we market to tourists rather than celebrate as a community. We need to put an end to business practices that benefit the tourist industry at the expense of the local environment. These are a few of the things that we need to do if we want to nurture a stronger sense of community on the island.

Take community programming. If we were serious about the needs of the community, we could sacrifice one or two of the large commercial events that we put on for tourists. The money that the town allocates to these events could then be reallocated to hundreds of smaller community events across the island. Here, I am thinking of farmers markets, neighborhood fairs, cultural events, and other local activities. In other words, events organized by residents for residents.

Right now, we do not have a strong slate of community programming that allows residents of all backgrounds to experience the performing talents and cultural heritage of the island. If we wanted to create a new identity, then we need to invest in programs that bring the musicians and artists from the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head and speakers from the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn into the community. These programs need to be authentic. They cannot be shaped by the needs of tourism. They need to be shaped by the needs of the community.

While programs at the Arts Center are wonderful and draw a certain percentage of the population, we need to be honest with ourselves. Many local families with small children and senior citizens on fixed incomes simply cannot afford the cost of admission. That is why we need to take a page from local communities along the coast of New England. There, many small coastal towns have symphonies or town bands that give free open air concerts on the lawn every Friday or Saturday night in the summer months. These are wonderful programs that are a fact of life for the residents.

In my opinion, we could easily replicate such programming on Hilton Head Island. In fact, there are many open air locations on Hilton Head Island – i.e., Shelter Cove, Coligny, the Park – that would be ideal sites for such programs. And, we could easily incorporate our own cultural heritage into these events.

Of course, investing in such programming would be a major shift for our community. We would be taking a step back from the commercialism that defines the Heritage Trail, Gullah Museum, and Sweetgrass basket shops. But, I think that is a necessary move. We cannot accept the status quo any longer. We need a new identity.

Much as Shannon Tanner draws tourists to Shelter Cove year after year, we also need community programming for residents that cements an emotional and intellectual attachment in their minds to a new identity for their community. If we had such programming, we would create more than just a stronger sense of community among existing residents. We would be providing activities that would act as a catalyst to draw new families into our community, especially young families who are looking for somewhere to lay roots. We also would be providing tourists with something that is desperately missing from their experiences on this island. Tourists love to participate in authentic local experiences.

Author: Cheryl Walsh is a local resident of Hilton Head Island. She also a graduate of the University of South Carolina.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors and not their respective organizations. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Robert Du Bois via Flickr CC