By Steven Monacelli
It isn’t everyday that environmental advocates who have filed lawsuits against the City of Dallas engage in a public dialogue with city officials. But that’s exactly what happened on April 23 inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center as a part of the Environmental Justice Symposium hosted by Paul Quinn College and environmental nonprofit EarthX.
Despite featuring activists whose struggles have garnered attention of the national media, less than three dozen people gathered in a first floor conference room inside the convention center to witness the conversation firsthand. The historic and at times charged conversation took place amid ongoing campaigns by community groups who seek to remove harmful industrial sites in two neighborhoods that lay south of the Trinity River. It focused on themes of discrimination, environmental hazard, city engagement, and neighborhood led planning.
In West Dallas, the Singleton United/Unidos campaign continues to fight for the shuttering of a toxic air pollutant spewing asphalt shingle plant that sits immediately adjacent to residential homes through a process known as amortization. In Floral Farms, community advocates who once sued the city now reflect on the victorious removal of the illegal Shingle Mountain dumpsite as they continue to push for the acceptance of a neighborhood-led plan that would result in the full remediation of the site.
Representatives from community groups in Floral Farms and West Dallas shared a stage with City Manager T.C. Broadnax and other city staff who oversee land use decisions and related environmental issues. Broadnax did not mince words in acknowledging how industrial cites came to be concentrated in predominantly minority communities.
“One hundred years of land use decisions have been made, in many cases in areas that now we predominantly see as Black and Brown and underserved,” Broadnax said during the dialogue. “All the good things went up north, and the bad and unwanted things are in the south.”
Broadnax spoke frankly about the effects of redling — a discriminatory practice in which services are withheld from people who reside in neighborhoods that are viewed as hazardous to investment — and other historic processes that resulted in the city we have today. But he also treaded lightly when it came to commitments that action to resolve these issues would happen any time soon.
“Those things aren’t going to go away overnight,” Broadnax said.
For the part of community activists, they made the case that these processes are not historic, but ongoing. Janie Cisneros, leader of Singleton United/Unidos, framed it as a matter of political will.
“The people who have the power and authority to make changes that can transform people’s lives, should do it” says Janie Cisneros.
Carlos Evans, Director of Environmental Quality at City Hall, argued that progress is being made, citing the recent approval of the installation of 25 air quality monitors by the City Council. Broadnax echoed the sentiment, noting that a year ago one of his staff was questioning the value of installing the meters and emphasizing the potential risks of knowing what’s in the air. It was a casual but somewhat shocking admission — that in the past, some in City Hall would have preferred to remain ignorant of pollution rather than monitor it and be compelled to address it.
At one point, Broadnax argued that residents and activists need to reach out to and work with the city.. “Things don’t just happen on their own,” Broadnax said, to which some in the audience responded with audible scoffs and laughter. Broadnax appeared to humble himself later on, admitting that city officials haven’t had the best track record when it comes to authentic outreach and noting that conversations like this demonstrate they’re trying.
Evelyn Mayo, chair of the environmental activist group Downwinders at Risk that has been involved in these fights, criticized the city for failing to be responsive and proactive while sharing the stage with Broadnax. “We did reach out,” Mayo said. “It wasn’t until the story was in the news that anything happened.”
As the conversation went on, things became increasingly tense and occasionally messy, revealing aspects of the bureaucratic dysfunction that has become normalized at City Hall. Marsha Jackson, the award winning environmental activist from Floral Farms best known for the successful campaign to remove the toxic Shingle Mountain waste dump, brought up a list of requests they had sent to the city which still have not been addressed. Broadnax admitted that there are those in his staff who may be gatekeepers and not acting in the best interest of the citizens, and then requested that they should email him directly (before quickly clarifying that he didn’t just mean that anyone should email him).
Weaving through practically every aspect of the conversation was the issue of the now defunct neighborhood-led land use planning process, which has been used less than a handful of times in generally well-to-do neighborhoods to alter zoning to better fit their needs. The city has said they intend to revive the process under the comprehensive land-use plan called Forward Dallas, but details are still sketchy and neighborhood groups remain in limbo. Not keen on waiting, community groups in West Dallas, Floral Farms, and other neighborhoods have formed the Coalition for Neighborhood Self-Determination as a vehicle to push forward their plans.
During the dialogue, Broadnax suggested that even if there is community support, some things may simply not be possible, and that instead of moving industrial sites, in some cases residents may have to move instead. “If everything around you is commercial…you can’t expect the tail to wag the dog,” Broadnax said.
While activists like Mayo didn’t seem willing to accept that shutting down industrial polluters may not be possible, they did seem to agree that working together is the way forward, and leaned into the need for a viable path for neighborhood led land use plans. “This is a man-made problem,” Mayo said. “And so there’s man-made solutions, through collaboration and listening. And I look forward to that.”