Environmental Justice in Houston: A Human Rights Tribunal

December 1, 2015 / By Jylise Smith

When I was presented with the charge to coordinate a Human Rights Tribunal, I was nervous and excited at the same time. I remember two things going through my mind during that moment. The first thought was that this hearing was much needed for the Houston community, and my second one was, “Where do I start?” Little did I know that this experience would change my life and perspective on the role that environmental justice is taking in communities of color and beyond.

One of the first steps was identifying areas in Houston that have experienced the greatest level of human rights violations in the areas of illegal dumping, pollution, flooding and power plant pollution, along with advocacy groups that have been on the forefront of efforts to resolve those issues. I chose Texas Southern University’s School of Law as the event location because it was a central location to some targeted areas and also spoke to the need of attracting as many interested students as possible. I collaborated with the Houston Branch Environmental Climate Justice committee along with the Texas Southern School of Public Affairs, Texas Southern University Earl Carl Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. Panelists included Houston Branch President and Texas Southern University Distinguished Professor of law, Dr. James Douglas; Dr. Robert Bullard, Dean of the Texas Southern University School of Public Affairs, also referred to as the “Father of Environmental Justice”; along with EDF Climate Corps Fellows and HBCU Environmental Justice Consortium representatives, Janise Young (2013-2014), and Steven Washington (2015). The event Moderator was our branch’s very own ECJ chair, Dr. Jacqueline Smith.

One interesting community that we targeted was Griggs Road located in South East Houston, where an abandoned CES Environmental Systems Plant has been reported to be causing health issues for nearby residents. I chose this area because the plant, which was raided by Federal Investigators in 2009 due to safety violations, still stands, despite the fact that it promotes an unsafe neighborhood with leaking chemicals and foul smells. The company filed for bankruptcy and has since then suffered many lawsuits and court proceedings, which has made cleaning up the area a very complicated process. Unfortunately, residents who still reside in there have to live in unhealthy living conditions.

I also selected representatives from the Pleasantville community where community members have been victims of air pollution, which has caused cancer in some cases. Children and senior citizens have also been known to suffer from higher rates of respiratory illnesses.

Other speakers and groups included: Melanie Scruggs from Texas Campaign for the Environment who advocates for Oil and Gas restoration, Bryan Parras from T.E.J.A.S. who spoke on Houston polluted schools and Toxic chemicals and James Caldwell from the Coalition for Community Organizations who spoke on the pollution at the Port of Houston.

During the event, there were two rounds where community members and representatives were able to testify and receive responses from those serving on the panel. After panelist responses, we allowed the audience, along with previous speakers to give their input on the topic being discussed. We thought this piece was important because it allowed community members to gain perspective from those who have been active and involved from different angles.

For instance, Dr. Douglas was able to give his perspective from a political standpoint. He gave an analysis on the role that civic participation plays in terms of electing those who will fight for policies to enhance quality of life in communities of color. Steven and Janise discussed the role that partnerships play in advocacy strength and expounded on successful efforts including the 2014 People’s Climate March where HBCU and Young activist group collaborations played a pivotal role. Additionally, Juan Parras gave responses with statistics of how the Hispanic community has battled some of the advice given from the panelists. It was a great discussion and included many viewpoints that could speak to everyone in attendance.

One of the most important realizations I had at the conclusion of this event was that although I am not an expert, I would like to become one. The success of this movement is going to soon depend on engaging and inserting young people into the process. In order to do that, we must come up with better messaging tools, along with strategic nonviolent and direct action projects that young individuals standing up for environmental justice and peace can be involved in. Additionally, youth must have a seat at the table to assist in developing best practices to bring awareness and address climate change concerns, along with aiding in discovery of solutions that will transform our communities. I am excited to be one of those included to participate in the Climate talks in Paris and I am confident that this experience will open my eyes to the many possibilities of moving our communities forward.

Stay tuned for more updates from Paris, where I’ll be presenting on these very issues!

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