Catalyst Winter 2016


Houston, We Have a Problem

Photo: © Derrick Z. Jackson

But Scientists Working with Communities Can Work Toward Solutions

The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists cohosted a community forum in Houston this past fall, focusing on the mutually beneficial ways in which scientists and local communities can partner to grapple with health and environmental problems.

UCS’s partner in organizing the two-day event was Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), a nonprofit group working with Houston communities that bear the brunt of the area’s pollution—and there’s plenty of it. The American Lung Association lists Houston as the sixth-worst city in the country for ground-level ozone pollution, which has been linked to asthma and other respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

The forum began on September 25 with a tour of Houston’s East End—home to chemical plants, refineries, and metal recycling facilities—so participants could see (and smell) for themselves the pollution residents there suffer every day. The following day, a diverse lineup of speakers and panelists addressed some 75 attendees at Houston Community College and another 130 or so people who streamed the forum online.

UCS Executive Director Kathleen Rest welcomed participants and was followed by Arizona congressmember Raúl Grijalva, who noted the urgent need for scientist-community collaboration. “Too often,” he said, “people are shut out of important policy decisions because they don’t have access to science or technical information and expertise.”

Former UCS Kendall Science Fellow Jalonne White-Newsome, representing the New York-based nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice, moderated a panel discussion featuring national experts from the realms of advocacy, academia, and government. Panelists included Irma Muñoz, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Mujeres de la Tierra, and Raj Pandya, director of the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange.

After this discussion, participants turned to Houston-specific issues. Former presidential science advisor Neal Lane, now a senior fellow in science and technology at Rice University, opened the next session and introduced keynote speaker Robert Bullard, dean of Texas Southern University’s School of Public Affairs. Often called “the father of environmental justice,” Bullard talked about Houston communities’ struggle to overcome discriminatory policies and environmental racism, and the critical role scientists can play in addressing these issues.

Next up was a Houston-centric panel discussion moderated by Brenda Reyes, community environmental health bureau chief at Houston’s Department of Health and Human Services. Panelists included TEJAS Director Juan Parras and Air Alliance Houston Executive Director Adrian Shelley. Audience members had an opportunity to share their experiences and ask questions about improper industry influence in policy making, misguided zoning regulations, and cultural barriers between scientists and the general public.

Local Voices Must Be Heard

Hilton Kelley, founder and CEO of Community In-power & Development Association Inc., points to his neighborhood of Port Arthur, Texas. Residents of this community, predominantly people of color and low-income individuals, live in the midst of refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities and contend with the public and environmental health consequences.
Photo: © Ben Tecumseh DeSoto

The Houston forum marked an important step in our ongoing efforts to promote dialogue between scientists and communities on a host of critical issues. All these discussions paved the way for new partnerships, and UCS will continue working with TEJAS to identify where we can join forces in the months ahead.

“At the Center for Science and Democracy, we believe connecting scientists with community groups can truly strengthen our democracy,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center. "That happens by hearing the voices of community activists fighting for public health and safety, and by educating scientists about the real problems facing people in their communities."

Rosenberg adds that his own team learned a lot about local community needs at the Houston forum. The experience, he says, “inspires us to work even harder to make connections to scientists and technical experts to help them solve the really challenging problems they face.”