Yates High School Collective Action to Mobilize Against Environmental Racism (CAMERA) ProjectThis project is for a collaboration with the talented students of photography at the Third Ward’s historic Jack Yates high school, their dynamic teacher, Mr. Ray Carrington, members of the Third Ward community, and a grassroots environmental justice advocacy group, called t.e.j.a.s. The students will capture images of Third Ward environmental risks and, through various methods of community engagement, will share these pictures to engage in a community conversation about environmental justice in the Third Ward and how it has impacted health, happiness, and general quality of life. Data profiles will be compiled for each photographic site to begin to develop trends and draw conclusions about the causes and effects of environmental threats. The images and findings will be shared with the broader community, including the media and local government representatives, to begin to clarify the environmental issues facing the neighborhood and work toward strategies that will preclude the recurrence of environmental injustice in the future – for the Third Ward and the many other struggling communities of color across Houston.

The Yates CAMERA project considers environmental justice from a framework somewhat distinct from more classic cases, such as the community that suffers the effects of proximity to a polluting chemical plant or waste water discharge facility. While the Third Ward has undoubtedly suffered disproportionate exposure to these types of environmental threats – toxic landfills, hazardous waste facilities, and others – it is the more subtle and indirect forms of environmental injustice that encumbers the community. Those environmental threats that present barriers to access of resources (massive highway projects and poor connectivity; lack of quality grocery stores and greenspaces) and that serve to marginalize and disenfranchise a community (infrastructure neglect and non-response to illegal dumping) that this project aims to mobilize against.

In many ways, it is these more indeterminate threats to humans and their environment that are the most injurious. A problem that is difficult to identify is more challenging to solve. Over time, society’s collective failure to bring these issues to light and work toward a resolution chips away at the impacted community’s sense of worth. When people believe they are not entitled to a better quality of life, they will not pursue it.

The Yates CAMERA project evolves in the following four stages:

1. Frame the Issue: What is Environmental Justice?

2. Capture the Images: How Does Environmental Injustice Look and Feel?

3. Process the Results: What Do the Images Tell Us?

4. Expose the Issue: How Can We Tell this Story?

Stage 1: Frame the Issue

Third Ward, HoustonPreventing environmental injustice starts with raising awareness of the issue.  The goal in this first stage is to name the problem. By creating a working definition of environmental justice as it pertains to the Third Ward, students can begin to develop an understanding of how and why environmental insecurity is a threat. This first stage begins with a one-day workshop, which will better familiarize students with the many forms of environmental injustice and will facilitate a discussion about how poor environmental quality may impact people in the Third Ward.  This workshop will occur in the beginning of the fall term.

Some of the most meaningful work in the environmental justice movement in Houston is being led by a non-profit organization called Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services  (Parras, 2007). t.e.j.a.s. is committed to providing community members with the tools necessary to create sustainable, environmentally healthy communities by educating individuals on health concerns and implications arising from environmental pollution, empowering individuals with an understanding of applicable environmental laws and regulations and promoting their enforcement, and offering community building skills and resources for effective community action and greater public participation  (Parras, 2007).

t.e.j.a.s. is guided by the principle that everyone, regardless of race or income, is entitled to live in a clean environment. This value inspires the dynamic leadership of the organization, Mr. Juan Parras and his son, Bryan Parras. These two gentlemen have been integral in spear-heading environmental justice grassroots activism in Houston. Under their leadership, t.e.j.a.s. has represented the rights and interests of numerous communities threatened by environmental risk. They have advocated for the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Manchester, east of downtown Houston and boxed in on four sides by toxic emitting industry. Residents have only one way in and one way out of their cut off neighborhood, and until ten years ago, access was across a railroad (a bridge has since been built).  In more than one instance, residents died waiting on emergency services that were delayed by a passing train. Other efforts have included advocating for the relocation of Cesar Chavez High School to the southeast of Houston, near Pasadena.  The school is presently located in threatening proximity to three industrial facilities.

The Yates CAMERA project is honored to have t.e.j.a.s. as a partner in its effort.  Working collaboratively with Ms. Webb and Mr. Carrington, Bryan Parras of t.e.j.a.s. will develop the content for and lead the fall student workshop. His methods for engaging communities in a conversation about environmental justice have typically included innovative approaches such as video-voice and applied theater. Video-voice techniques involve giving local people digital cameras to record their thoughts and experiences in real-time. Applied theater, or drama therapy, involves inventing a scenario that local people can act out and use to tell their story and begin to solve problems.  These methods have been very effective in elevating a community’s understanding of local environmental justice issues and at achieving catharsis.

Stage 2: Capture the Images

The quality of the photography produced by Mr. Carrington’s students is remarkable. It is a testimony to both the high caliber of mentoring and technical instruction from Mr. Carrington and the innate creativity and drive of his students. Since 1995, the students’ work has been showcased in an annual exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston.  The project, called “Eye on Third Ward”, is one of the museum’s most acclaimed exhibits and is the only of its kind among the nation’s major metropolitan art museums. Each year, visitors are inspired by the profound wisdom and gravitas these young peopleYolanda Rogers, Motherhood Cycle convey through their photography.  The images, shot in black and white and using 35mm, are exceptional in quality and reveal a technical expertise more typical of seasoned professional photographers.  Each image is accompanied by a short reflection composed by the young photographer. These comments contribute greatly to the inspired nature of the work.

During this second stage, students will do what they have done for more than eighteen years in Mr. Carrington’s classes at Yates High School. Mr. Carrington will take them to “go walkin’” as he classically calls it.  Under his guidance, students spend class-time walking around the area of the Third Ward in proximity to their school and capture the images that define their neighborhood.  Their images are of people, places, urban landscapes, and at times, seemingly nothing at all. They capture on film whatever captures them – a woman with her grandchildren, a pair of abandoned gas pumps, a man feeding pigeons in a parking lot. In subtle, but profound ways, their pictures tell the dramatic, and often unknown, story of the Third Ward.

For this project, Mr. Carrington will encourage his students to lend some of their attention during their walks to scenes that represent to them environmental injustice. Reflecting on what they discussed in the framing workshop, students may find that their shots do not change a great deal – only, perhaps, their interpretation.  An image of an historic “shot-gun” house becomes an image of environmental injustice if the focus shifts to the littered, overgrown, and abandoned lot it occupies.

Stage 3: Process the Information

As students produce images, the class will select those that most meaningfully capture environmental injustice in the Third Ward. Mr. Carrington will scan and email those to Ms. Webb, who will upload them onto an interactive map hosted on the project website.  The images will be geo-coded to their specific locations within the neighborhood, creating an interactive web-based map. Using publicly available datasets, Ms. Webb will compile a profile of each site. A list of parameters has not been firmly established, but of interest will be data that relates incidents of crime, health or injury reports, infrastructure data (for example, City of Houston 3-1-1 calls  pertaining to the site and Public Works projects and installations at the site).

Also of interest will be property ownership information. These records are available from Harris County Appraisal District (HCAD). The study will not direct efforts at identifying specific individuals, but more interesting to the focus of this project will be whether or not landowners are absent or still residing in the Houston area. It is presumed that a major contributor to the downward trend in property values since the mid-1900s is related to the increase in vacant and tax delinquent properties, held by “absentee” landowners. Property tax delinquency in the aggregate reduces the tax base for the entire neighborhood, translating to less support for vital community services, such as infrastructure needs.

With the data compiled to create a profile for each site, visitors to the website can click on a photograph and identify not only the geographic location of the image on a map, but also a list of facts about the site. As more images are uploaded and linked to their data profiles, trends may begin to emerge about the causes and effects of environmental insecurity in the Third Ward.

A critical component of the processing phase is to present the opportunity for knowledge sharing between students and their community members.  Sustainable solutions to environmental insecurity in a community must come from within the community itself.  While scientists and academics may have capacity to generate datasets and establish correlations, it is at the grassroots level where the issues are identified and the real impacts are articulated. People from outside the community do not have an established sense of the history of a particular issue necessary to work toward a long-term solution.

In order to share their photography and insights with the community and to gather crucial feedback about other important instances of environmental insecurity, students will organize and host a community gathering. This event will take place in the early spring of 2012. A informal introduction to the project will be made, and then students will have the opportunity to share their photographic reflections of environmental injustice and the accompanying stories.

The students’ images will be printed on quality photographic paper, professionally mounted on foam board, and affixed to their site location on a large format map of the Third Ward. This map will be assembled and displayed on the wall so that guests can view it. There will be an opportunity for guests to make comments directly to the map.  By placing stickers, drawings, written comments, and other symbols, the community representatives present at the gathering will have an opportunity to enhance the students’ research with more in depth local knowledge. These two perspectives combined will provide a more complete mapping of the environmental justice issues in the Third Ward.

A particularly innovative component of this project is the method used to reach out to the community to inform them of the students’ CAMERA project, its focus on environmental justice and the project goals. A rotating exhibit of the students’ photography will be established in three to four local businesses. Ms. Webb will work with Mr. Carrington and the students to identify the exhibit sites. The sites will be selected based on the volume of Third Ward residents that visit regularly. Sites that attract some portion of the population that is less mobile and has less access to the internet will be targeted. For instance, churches would be chosen over universities. Potential sites include Unity Bank (a small local bank) and Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Working with property owners, Ms. Webb will coordinate the curation of the exhibit: mounting and arranging the students’ photography; preparing, mounting, and arranging accompanying narratives; and serving as the point of contact for any questions or feedback pertaining to the exhibit. Media cards with the project logo, a tagline about the project, dates and locations of the community forum, and other pertinent information will be available at the exhibit.

Stage 4: Expose the Issues

The Yates CAMERA project concludes in the spring with a student-hosted exhibit of their work and the study findings. Third Ward residents as well as members of the news media, council members and others from local government, land use planners, developers, and other local decision-makers will be invited to see the finished product and to engage in a discussion on how to prevent and resolve environmental injustice going forward.  The conversation will focus on the specific environmental threats encumbering the Third Ward and will be set against the backdrop of the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification. Expected outcomes of this forum are to build consensus around what leads to environmental insecurity in the Third Ward, who plays a role, and what the various players can do to prevent or minimize the recurrence of these issues going forward. This type of dialogue between residents and decision-makers is opportune given the current redevelopment plans that will reshape the community and that will no doubt impact the current residents.

Krist Bender, Houston Advanced Research Center (PI)
Ray Carrington, Yates High School HISD
Bryan Parras, T.E.J.A.S.
Amy Webb, Houston Advanced Research Center