In Bianca Ibarra’s neighborhood on Houston’s eastside, the smokestacks are simply a given, part of the landscape.
“It surrounds us,” she said. “When you leave for the first time as a kid, it’s a shock. You see that other places do not have this. We are living in one of the most polluted cities in the country.”
To help others understand that this is not normal or healthy, Ibarra, 18, produced “Houston, At What Cost?” The three-minute video details how air pollution damages hearts and lungs and offers ways for young people to help solve the problem.
Her work won the first video contest sponsored by Environmental Defense Fund for students from high schools near the heavily industrialized Houston Ship Channel.
Elena Craft, senior health scientist at EDF, said the contest provided students with a platform to talk about air pollution, a pressing concern in the eight-county Houston region, which has yet to meet federal standards for ozone, or smog.
“We picked these schools because we want these kids to have a voice,” Craft said. “We saw a lot of passion. We saw a lot of emotion. We heard some kids talk about how their lungs hurt on days with high ozone.”
Through the contest, students gained a deeper understanding about the air they breathe. It also showed how a classroom project could inform and influence the community around them, said Juan Carlos Ramirez, an associate principal at Galena Park High School.
“They have the power of one,” Ramirez said. “They can influence people’s opinions. They can affect people’s consciousness. They can create change through video, through technology, social media, whatever means they communicate with the world. Their voice is heard, and it’s strong.”
With roughly 12,000 residents, Galena Park is located along the Ship Channel, 12 miles east of Houston’s downtown. Nearly all of the high school’s students are Latino or African-American, and more than 70 percent of them are eligible for subsidized lunches. Many of its graduates go to work at the nearby oil refineries and other industrial facilities, where wages can start at $30 an hour.
It is a familiar path to Ibarra, whose father, Cesar, went to work for a manufacturer of building materials after graduating from Galena Park High. He is now a police officer in nearby Pasadena.
“The refineries are here to stay,” said Ibarra, who plans to attend the University of Houston in the fall. “But there are things we can do. The smallest things do count.”
A good first step is planting more trees, she said. “We can put more green in the city.”
Her inspiration is the “The Lorax,” Dr. Seuss’s 1971 book on speaking for the trees and saving the environment. She ended her video with a quote from the book: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Ibarra also contributed to the second-place video, produced by five Galena Park classmates: Eduardo Aguillon, Karina Moreno, Adrian Pacheco, Rosie Salgado and Genesis Salinas.
The video is inspired by the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.” In their production, the students explain the reasons for Houston’s unhealthy air.
Brandon Chacon and Saul Luviano, of Cesar Chavez High School, took third place. They used a drone to follow a boy on his daily run near industrial facilities.
“I was trying to show how close we are to them and how many there are,” said Luviano, whose school is a quarter-mile from three chemical plants. “I can run for a little bit, but I start to feel a certain way that isn’t natural.”
The Furr High School team of Maycol Agreda, Kimberlyn Maldonado and Maria Vazquez earned honorable mention.
EDF will sponsor the video contest again during the upcoming school year.
In addition, EDF is developing youth councils at two of the high schools. The program will give students an opportunity to delve deeper into the health impacts of air pollution and come up with solutions to this persistent problem. At the end of the school year, the students will present their work to their elected representatives.
“We want to continue their good work and foster their interest in clean air,” Craft said.
Galena Park High School
Houston, At What Cost?
Eduardo Aguillon, Karina Moreno, Adrian Pacheco, Rosie Salgado and Genesis Salinas
Galena Park High School
13 reasons why our air is polluted
Brandon Chacon and Saul Luviano
Chavez High School
Maycol Agreda, Kimberlyn Madonado and Maria Vazquez
Furr High School