Lead Image from YES! Magazine
It seems fitting that the last interview we did in this series was with Yvette Arellano of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). TEJAS is a Houston based organization. They are a small, but extremely mighty Environmental Justice group. With just five staff, they’re one of the most well known and respected organizations in the field. In their work, TEJAS is “dedicated to providing community members with the tools necessary to create sustainable, environmentally healthy communities by educating individuals on health concerns and implications arising from environmental pollution, empowering individuals with an understanding of applicable environmental laws and regulations and promoting their enforcement, and offering community building skills and resources for effective community action and greater public participation” (http://tejasbarrios.org/about-us/).
This interview was conducted in May, well before the tragic and terrible events of Hurricane Harvey. There is no doubt the events of Hurricane Harvey have stretched this group thin, and strained their many community constituents. TEJAS- Yvette and Deyadira Arellano, Juan, Ana and Bryan Parras, you and your community are in our thoughts. In solidarity.
Yvette Arellano interview below:
What kind of support do you look for for your community organizing activities?
When it comes to community organizing, anything from individual walking into the office, to funds to help us get the work done. We’re hoping there are young people looking to come in and help us with capacity for things like social media, and keeping the website up to date. We’re also looking for capacity through collaborations with schools, scientists, academics. We’re ultimately hoping to get more information out at a faster pace.
Also funding is a big one right now-- everyone’s crunched under this administration. Before we could count on federal funding, but now our organizations are trying to go after scraps that are left. Bigger organizations can see people laying down funds to support their work because they see what’s happening, but that’s not always the case on the grassroots level.
Are there any resources for your environmental work that you’ve found to be helpful? Such as guides, monitoring resources, websites, trainings, network, or otherwise?
We just got done working over past year with project with the Union of Concerned Scientists -- it’s a massive network with nothing but capacity. Together we got out the Double Jeopardy in Houston report.
The beginning of year was tough. We checked EJ Screen for missing information and the site went down for a solid week. It was a huge concern. We reached out to USC friends, they called up the ladder to ask why there was so much missing information. We also reached out to our friends in EJ community who gathered together and helped us download information from EJScreen and the Toxics Release Inventory so that we had it.
What were the strengths of these resources?
National Air Toxics Assessment is the most comprehensive source of information on cancerous toxins and amount of cancer on different parts of the country. It comes out once every three years, but it just released information in January regarding results from 2011. We went before NEJAC (The National Envioromntal Justice Advisory Council) and asked the EPA to have a more solid schedule for the data release for NATAData because we need it.
Different databases give us information that help us with our work. The TRI data (The Toxics Release Invintory) is the one that comes out the most frequently- annually. The National Emissions Inventory comes out every three years. Where TRI tracks what’s reported to come out of the stack, the NEI tracks fugitive and stack emissions. If there’s an accident - stuff that’s not supposed to come out NATAData grabs that all and pumps out numbers. ECHO (Enforcement and Compliance History Online) is a solid basis for grassroots groups to know what has been done and help community members. Finally, EJ Screen helps translate this all into graphs, and common language.
What do you these resources could have done for you, but didn’t?
They’re technical. EPA has addressed this by telling grassroots groups, or anyone, that there are technical assistance grants to help people. So you have to apply for a grant to get someone to translate it out of the technical jargon - and this is for a public database. It’s unfair.
When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information? What is your preferred method of sharing information?
Just like anybody else - social media, email, news, and conferences. We also get together and share from our communities through regional meetings and phone calls. We also get out and do the old school block walking.
What methods of sharing or learning do you or your group find challenging?
Navigating datasets and databases with older people who aren’t used to it is challenging. Also translating from English to any other language is something that’s a barrier as well.
Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? If so, in what ways?
Yes, 100%. I think working with different organizations from different backgrounds and populations is important. We need to be able to communicate with their groups, and they with ours. We have more experience with these issues when we work together so we need to make a vast network of people to deal with these issues.
What would you want to be able to do, find, offer, or receive through interacting with this network?
Ideally, I would want to be able to piece the puzzle together faster. Pipelines through Illinois are going to connect to Texas and to Louisiana refineries. That’s very similar to so many parts of the country. Across region or nation we have these joint issues. We could work together. We could reach a solution together and create mass momentum across a nation.
Who would be important people for you to be able to engage with?
I see the space being populated with scientists -- that’s new, we’re not used to scientists and academics opening their eyes and seeing challenges our communities face. Opening that space and really uplifting that message against the administration. We need legitimacy as grassroots organizers. We’re not seen as having the most legitimacy, but when scientists come in and support our message with data it’s really helpful. It’s also really important for young environmental justice organizers to connect with elders. We live in age of technology. If we can’t share those skills, we’ve already lost.
What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold?
You’ve probably already heard this. Jemez principles of engagement. Environmental Justice principles are about being open and inclusive. Letting people -- community -- speak for themselves. Committing to self-transformation. At the end of day, we’re struggling, and we should be aiming at a joint approach. There is power in numbers.
End of inteview
Thank you Yvette!
It has been a wonderful journey learning from amazing grassroots and environmental justice organizers over the past several months, but that learning doesn’t stop with the end of this series. I’m wondering for those who have read and followed along:
- What questions are you left with?
- What surprised you?
- Where do you see steps forward?
- Who else should be brought into this conversation?
Note on Harvey Recovery: You can support TEJAS in response to Hurricane Harvey by donating to A Just Harvey Recovery Fund here.
Other avenues to share and help on Public Lab:
- Support Gulf Restoration Network’s efforts to capture and report pollution events from Hurricane Harvey by sorting through aerial images in this activity.
- Public Lab has organized Harvey related material on this page where you can ask questions and offer support.
**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.