Equipping Resident Leaders to Advocate for Change

Communities across Texas grapple with a range of environmental concerns, from encroachment of industrial facilities to a lack of accessible greenspace. These challenges are particularly pronounced in communities of color with a history of disinvestment. In response, and with support from the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, resident leaders are organizing their neighbors to spur meaningful change, showing that those closest to a challenge are best positioned to forge solutions.

For example, Pleasantville, one of Houston’s first deed-restricted neighborhoods for Black residents, is surrounded by the Port of Houston, rail yards, warehouses and Interstate 10, and is adjacent to contaminated dredge spoils from past Port expansions. Longtime resident Bridgette Murray launched Achieving Community Tasks Successfully in 2012 to organize residents and ensure Pleasantville lives up to its name. To this end, the ACTS team established a community air monitoring network that indicated high levels of particulate matter – as a result, the State of Texas plans to install a federally-approved monitor that could inform future enforcement actions. ACTS also pushed the City of Houston to fund improvements at the local park, and as a member of the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, is urging the Port to reconsider yet another channel expansion.

Nearby, local leaders Juan Flores and Cruz Hinojosa formed Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park in 2010 to serve this largely Latine city of 11,000 that is adjacent to petrochemical facilities along the Houston Ship Channel. The ECAGP team has organized residents to advocate for state regulations requiring industry to better prepare for emergencies that result in toxic releases, and has introduced regular “green markets” to introduce fresh produce in a community with limited access to healthy foods. Having established a community air monitoring system in partnership with Air Alliance Houston, ECAGP is training local high school students to use it as a platform for advocacy.

Leaders installing air monitoring stationOnce known as Houston’s “Black Wall Street,” the Sunnyside community is burdened with heavy truck traffic, brownfields and industrial sites. Formed in 2017 by residents Debra Walker and Jo Ann Burbridge, the Sunnyside Community Redevelopment Organization initially developed its Block Captain program to train – and compensate – resident leaders to share information about COVID-19 with neighbors. Now the SCRO team is deploying this model to gather community input about environmental concerns and to engage residents in efforts to advocate for change. Like ACTS and ECAGP, the SCRO team has recently established a community air monitoring network to ensure that residents have access to data that reflects their lived experiences and can spur policy change.

According to Juan Flores of ECAGP, “We need to do what we can as a community to take care of ourselves. Who else has a more vested interest than us that live here to know what’s going on?”