Environmental justice in East Austin

Environmental justice in East Austin

By Beth Cortez-Neavel
The Austin Times Staff

Along East Cesar Chavez Street on the front of a blue-gray one-story
house there are three signs hanging. Next to a muffler shop and across
from a small hair salon, this house looks nothing out of the ordinary
for East Austin.

“¡Si Se Puede! Feed. Teach. House & Employ.” “Protect our
children/relocate Pure Casting/build affordable housing!” and “PODER’s
Young Scholars for Justice” the signs read.

This is the home base for the People Organized in Defense of Earth and
her Resources – or PODER (which means “to do” in Spanish). PODER is a
grassroots environmental justice organization whose mission is to
redefine environmental issues as social and economic justice issues, and
collectively set their own agenda to address these concerns as basic
human rights.

PODER was formed in 1991 by a group of six Chicano and Chicana East
Austin residents who had “lived with the burden of inappropriate land
use and zoning” which placed Austin minorities – primarily
Mexican-Americans and African-Americans – next to toxic plants.
In 1928, Austin was re-zoned to segregate minorities to east of what is
now IH-35.

“Basically, these communities were zoned directly adjacent to heavy
industry,” says PODER Research Analyst and Community Organizer Carmen
Llanes. “Even in the 1990s, when you looked at the land use and the
mapping of the city, over 90 percent of all industrial zoning was
located in east Austin.”

Because of this, Co-Director of PODER, Susana Almanza, says she and the
other founding members began to realize that not only was the
environment of East Austin endangered by the industrial plants, but that
people of color were also endangered.

“When we looked at our communities, we were basically living next to
polluting industries,” she says. “We saw that the environment wasn’t
just about nature-kind but it was also about nature-kind and humankind
interlocking, interwoven, and you really couldn’t separate it.”

PODER was formed to address the environmental racism and injustice that
was becoming more and more apparent.  “We consider the environment to be
the place where you live, work, learn, play, and pray,” Llanes says.

But it goes beyond that. PODER is multi-issue, dealing with education, community health, police-community relations, juvenile justice, quality of education, voter empowerment, and jobs. Llanes says it is also PODER’s mission to increase East Austin residents’ participation in the public process. “To give a voice to people who really didn’t have a voice in Austin politics for a long time,” she says.

PODER first received media recognition when they got international
coverage on their success with relocating and shutting down East Austin
fuel storage facilities known as the Tank Farm in 1993. The Tank Farm
had been emitting toxic chemicals for over 35 years that was causing
chronic illnesses for neighborhood residents.

PODER has since then helped to relocate a recycling plant owned by
Browning Ferris Industries (B. F. I.) – one of the leading solid waste
handlers in the nation – away from East Austin, where it received
recyclables from over 350,000 households.

It has also helped establish the East Austin Overlay Ordinance to
protect residents against further industrial threats to their
neighborhood, helped establish a Bus Riders Union, helped to close the
Holly Power Plant – which emitted chemicals contributing to ozone – and
prevented the City of Austin from placing an industrial Green Water
Treatment Plant at Roy Guerrero Colorado River Park.

But, Susana Almanza says, PODER’s biggest triumph is teaching and
mobilizing the community to advocate for justice. One of the projects that keeps the community involved is the Young Scholars for Justice (YSJ) summer program, which engages youth in social and political involvement.

According to the PODER website, YSJ “prepares students of color to
articulate their needs and concerns in order to make significant
institutional changes that negatively impact their communities.”
Participants in the internship program increase their knowledge and
skills in program development, implementation, and evaluation through
research and social action.

Almanza says another way PODER works to empower the community is by
working not only with other grassroots organizations on issues, but with
neighborhood associations.

“That’s where we think the empowerment comes from,” she says.

In fact, PODER’s board of directors is made up of East Austin
neighborhood associations. They had asked the Presidents or Chairs of
the different associations to sit on their board.

“That way – if we have seven neighborhood associations representing on
our board – we know what’s happening throughout the community,” she
says. “Those neighborhood associations are going to bring those issues
to the board. We’ve got eyes all over.”

Including people from the neighborhoods in decisions is important inmore ways than one, Almanza affirms. “A lot of these people would never have been asked to be on a board, or even know how a board functions,” she says.
And now they have a voice where they didn’t have one before.

PODER is currently working to relocate the Pure Casting Industrial
Facility away from its location across the street from Zavala Middle
School on East 4th Street. Pure Casting emits harmful chemicals that can
lead to ulcers, an increased risk of lung cancer, infertility, and brain
damage.

Projects take time, and PODER has been working on this one for over a
year now. But PODER is in a funding crisis, declares Almanza.
PODER has been denied three grants already, and is waiting to hear back
from two other grant organizations.

The five paid staff members who normally would spend their days in
meetings with city officials and researching are now looking for
part-time and contract jobs to be able to support themselves and the
work they do for PODER.

PODER recently had a fundraiser and has set up a PayPal account online
so people may donate funds to their cause, but so far have only received
a total of $4,000.  Almanza states that when that money goes away, it’s going to limit the amount of work they can do. This will lengthen the time frame of their projects considerably.

“When we’re working somewhere else, we’re not going to be able to just
get off and say, ‘Well, I have a meeting’,” she says. Almanza claims this will also limit the community. “The community counts on us for doing a lot of the meetings and research because we live in a working class community where people punch-in and punch-out and they don’t have the liberty to leave their jobs,” she says. But, no matter what, Almanza says she and the other PODER staff members will continue working.

“It’s been really hard because economic times are hard, and because
we’re a grassroots organization,” she says. “But, we’ll continue to do the best that we can do until we get back on our feet.  We will continue to do the work whether we’re funded or not. It’s just that we won’t be able to do it full-time and have the privilege that other non-profits have.”

To learn more about PODER, visit their website at www.poder-texas.org.

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