Houston activist Juan Parras is the 2015 recipient of the Sierra Club Robert D. Bullard Environmental Justice Award. He is slated to receive the award in San Francisco on Saturday September 12. Born in 1949, his interest for equality began in his hometown of Big Springs, Texas as he watched various forms of inequalities unfold in front of his eyes. Not long after graduating from high school he devoted his career to correcting environmental injustices within low income communities. His career spans more than two decades from serving as an international union representative to serving as a advocate for communities across Louisiana and Texas. It was not until after he began working for Texas Southern University in the Environmental Law and Justice Center that he founded T.E.J.A.S, a nonprofit organization whose focus is on environmental quality and social justice issues across the state of Texas. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Parras in my office at Texas Southern University.
Bullard: First of all, would you give me a little bit of background on yourself and your work.
Parras: I actually started working on environmental justice issues almost right after the 1994 Environmental Justice Executive Order. At that time, I was actually looking for employment. I was hired by the Louisiana Labor Neighbor Project that was doing environmental work because of the Executive Order. And then I was lucky in that Greenpeace asked me to work with Damu Smith in its Louisiana toxics campaign. I was laid off after 9 months of working with Greenpeace. But as life goes, I met Professor Grover Hankins who was teaching at Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall Law School doing environmental justice work. He offered me an opportunity to move back to Houston, work under his leadership and guidance, and do community outreach on environmental justice issues. I worked at the TSU law school for 10 years.
Bullard: When you learned that the Sierra Club had named you its 2015 Robert Bullard Environmental Justice Award recipient, what was your first thought?
Parras: My first thought was I’m not looking for awards. We do the work because we believe in it, because we want to bring change to our communities. It’s good to be recognized. I like the idea of this award and I’m extremely proud of the fact that it’s in your name. So because of that, I’m willing to accept it.
Bullard: What made you decide to start your own non-profit organization?
Parras: After being laid off from my job, I decided to open up a nonprofit organization in which we could decide what we want to work on, without any hurdles and without somebody telling us, what we can or can’t do. So we started Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.e.j.a.s.) in 2006. We are the only Latino environmental justice organization in Houston.
Bullard: Houston is the fourth largest city in the country. It is majority people of color with Latino population approaching 50 percent. And yet you say that TEJAS is the only Latino EJ organization in the city. What would you say accounts for this small number?
Parras: We are in the fourth largest city in the country. We are the sole EJ Latino NGO in the city. We are also an organization that has no resources and no permanent paid employees, so that makes it extremely difficult, you know, just to move around the area. Funding is the biggest obstacle for Houston’s Latino and African American environmental justice organizations. Yet, most of the communities here in Houston that are severely impacted by environmental justice issues, are low-income communities and people of color—and we have them all over the city of Houston. It’s just a tremendous task, for us, our organization, to try to meet the needs of all the environmentally-impacted communities that need help with limited resources and no paid staff.
Bullard: So you’re saying capacity and resources are the major barriers facing your environmental justice organization in Houston?
Parras: It’s always been about capacity and resources that seem to bypass Houston’s people of color environmental NGOs. We have had meetings with local and national foundations and they talk about funding environmental NGOs, and they meet with us, they seem sincere, they seem very interested, but at the end of the day, the money goes to the same white organizations—who have major racial/ethnic diversity challenges on their staff and board composition—even though Houston is diverse with over two-thirds people of color.
Bullard: If there were meetings held with funders, and you and other local EJ leaders of color were at the table, what would be your advice to the funders to address the organization diversity problem in Houston?
Parras: My advice would be that our people of color community based organizations and institutional partners need multi-year general support funding to deal with capacity and resources at least, minimum, for the next ten years. I would recommend funding local organizations that have direct ties to the most environmentally-impacted communities and groups that have a history and track record of working on environmental, health, economic, racial and other forms of inequality. We need to funders to understand how the various forms of inequality are linked and follow-up with funding to support organizations whose mission is cross-cutting. We have a lot of environmentally-related challenges that cannot be addressed or solved in a short term. We’re here for the long haul and we need funding for the long haul.
Bullard: A recent study by University of Michigan professor Dorceta Taylor and Green 2.0 pointed out the lack of diversity in the large environmental conservation organizations and small share of funding going to people of color groups. What’s your feeling on the study findings?
Parras: Overall, I feel diversity needs to take place in our country. There are lots of groups that need help with their diversity challenges. Some of them don’t have a clue. Here in Houston, our leaders often brag about our city being one of the “most diverse” in the nation with over 90 languages spoken. The fact is we are demographically diverse. However, we are not diverse when it comes to who is in the decision-making room and who gets funded. Generally, people of color are severely underrepresented as decision makers and funds tend to go to white privileged organizations that have been around for a long time. This was the case when the city was majority white. This pattern still holds true even though Houston today is overwhelmingly people of color—with environmental problems concentrated in low-income and people of color communities.
Bullard: What are some of the “poster child” environmental justice communities in Houston that you work in?
Parras: Our main focus has been in the East End, especially communities along the Houston Ship Channel. This area is a real “poster child” for environmental injustice, a classic “sacrifice zone.” And I tell folks, even foundations and others that come and meet with us, that – we’re focused on the East End because we live in the East End. Our work though, takes us all over the city of Houston. We work in Manchester, Pleasantville, Galena Park, Pasadena, and Sunnyside. We just cannot spread ourselves to all those areas that need vital attention to deal with environmental justice issues. But there are unlimited places that we could work here, if we had the capacity and the resources.
Bullard: Some of the neighborhoods – communities that you mentioned, some of them are Latino and some of them are African American. What do you see the importance of building a multi-ethnic environmental justice network here in Houston, with blacks and browns working together?
Parras: There’s a tremendous need for building and strengthening brown-black coalitions and networks. This is our future. We’ve made a lot of inroads with Houston’s African American communities because we’re in the same boat. The problem is capacity. If we had the resources, we could expand the number of people of color working on solutions to environmental problems in our most environmentally-impacted Houston communities. Right now, our organization operates with mostly volunteers. Our situation is not unique since this continues to be a major challenge facing EJ groups in Texas and around the nation. I wish we had the money to employ them to continue working in their own communities and also join and build a bigger, more diverse and stronger people of color-led network.
Bullard: How important do you feel the principle of environmental justice that communities most impacted must speak for themselves?
Parras: It’s definitely crucial to communities of color that those most impacted speak for themselves, speak for the community, and represen the needs of the community. Most of us who’ve worked with environmental justice communities realize that we have to speak for ourselves and we have to be at the table. Unfortunately, these two things rarely happen in because people of color, the most affected communities, usually don’t have representation and often don’t get invited to meetings where important decisions are made about our communities.
Bullard: I know you have for years taken people on “toxic tours” in Houston. What do you want the visitors to get out of the tours and what do you and your organization get out of them?
Parras: We started doing the toxic tours to engage people from other parts of Houston to make them aware of our living conditions, our environment, and our circumstances that are totally different from many Houston’s west-side neighborhoods. We also do the tours for individuals and groups who are not from Houston. Our message is simple: the principles of environmental justice demand that people of color should not have to live with more pollution than the rest of Houston and that we all deserve clean air, clean water, and clean space for our families and children. We are talking about basic human rights.
Bullard: There are some people who say people of color are not concerned about environmental issues and climate change. What would you say to that?
Parras: I would say that’s absolutely false. They are misinformed. In fact, there is a large body of research that show people of color are more concerned about the environment than other groups because owe are on the frontline of environmental assault where we live, work, play, and learn. And we pay the price with elevated environmental and health disparities. Recent polls show Latinos and African Americans are more concerned about climate change than whites.
Bullard: If we talk about the future, how have you been able to recruit young people and plan for a new generation of EJ leaders to follow in your footsteps and to work on these issues?
Parras: It is happening because we’re organizing in our community without insulting people and making people feel like their problems are our problems. Our organization targets youth, young people and students. We are mentoring our youth and educating them about what environmental justice means. We are also stepping aside, allowing them to engage other youth and providing a space for them to assume new leadership roles.
Bullard: Last question. What would you like your legacy to be in terms of the work and passing the torch on to the next generation?
Parras: I’m not seeking any legacy. I enjoy what I do and I think that it would be beneficial to our communities educate and train a new generation of leaders who can continue this quest for just, healthy and sustainable communities for all.
Bullard: Thank you very much and congratulation on your new Sierra Club award.