Guest Post – from Janis Bookout (Outreach Manager for Earth Day Austin)
As a mother committed to the end of the climate crisis and as the Outreach Manager for Earth Day Austin, I attended both SXSW Eco and Huston-Tillotson’s Building Green Justice Forum with two objectives in mind:
- Listen and gain new perspectives that will enhance and empower my commitment; and
- Connect with as many great leaders as possible.
Both events far exceeded what I imagined. Between the SXSW Eco kick-off party on Sunday and the after-party Wednesday night, I packed in as many experiences as possible. The sessions and keynotes included folks like Funny or Die’s Michael Burke, climate expert Katharine Hayhoe, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Bill Nye the Science Guy, William McDonough (author of Cradle to Cradle), and Senior Climate Advisor to the White House Rohan Patel. The generous time between sessions allowed for connecting with the speakers in person, which I valued very highly.
And, for those seeking are more in depth, one-on-one conversation, most of the speakers were also available for individual investor and/or mentor sessions in the Mentor Lounge. This meant that no matter what their purpose, participants had every chance possible to connect with groups and leaders who could make a difference in what they were up to.
The keynotes were also stellar — offering a wide range of topics presented by downright fascinating people. I think my favorite keynote was “Designing a Just City: Hip Hop + Architecture.” Architectural designer Michael Ford and Design Justice advocate Bryan Lee addressed the issue of environmental justice from the perspective of infrastructure, design, and urban planning. I also greatly appreciated the more than a few sessions that also included or directly addressed environmental justice from a variety of perspectives.
I got every drop I could out of SXSW Eco and on Wednesday night, upon leaving the after party, I was very satisfied and determined attend in subsequent years.
And then, on Thursday, I experienced the equally extraordinary and distinctly impactful Huston-Tillotson Building Green Justice forum. The event featured a rich conversation that dove deeply into the topic of environmental justice with layered reality-based, research-informed, experiential and generational perspectives. The focus of the conversation was “Race, Health and Environment.”
First up was Mario Sims, a social epidemiologist from the Jackson Heart Study, which is an important and comprehensive study of cardiovascular disease and the disparately high prevalence among African Americans. Open-sourced data is now being used to evaluate, among other things, the health impacts of racism on black communities.
The second keynote moved me deeply. Sandbranch, Texas, a small town 11 miles outside of Dallas, has a story that epitomizes institutional racism. Sandbranch, an unincorporated freedman’s town, had an intimate and vibrant community. In the 1980s, the City of Dallas installed a waste treatment facility plant directly across from the community playground. Within months, water in the town’s wells was tested and declared to be undrinkable. The citizens of Sandbranch were left to figure out their own solutions, which, for years, has been bottled water. Families with children have left the area, coming back occasionally for scheduled reunions. What’s more, the county then declared the area flood zone and forced the relocation of families from many homes, paying in some cases as little as $350 in compensation. A true demonstration of the human spirit, this town came together to fight the system. Refusing to remain silent, they demanded (and won) the support of multiple government entities and organizations. While their effort has only begun, they are committed to reclaiming their community.
And THAT was all before lunch. This was followed by a lively and substantive conversation about race, environment and health intervention work that ventured into a lively multi-generational dialogue about change-making and engagement.
In the afternoon, I chose to attend Dave Cortez’s (a community organizer with the Sierra Club) workshop, and I am glad I did, as I now understand a lot more about the mechanics of an environmental justice campaign. Brilliant.
When we finally wrapped up for the day, I was left with a much richer experience of why environmental justice must be accounted for (authentically and deeply accounted for) in any and all environmental initiatives. While there are no “right” solutions, there are certainly wrong ones. Our work as environmentalists is to do the necessary research and thinking, conduct the necessary dialogue and take the necessary actions to create a just environment for everyone.
After this whirlwind of activity, I am deeply grateful to the folks at SXSW Eco and Huston-Tillotson University and Green Is the New Black, and their sponsors, for their efforts in creating these amazing events.