Maria Jimenez, community activist in Houston’s East End
I grew up at a time when discrimination was open and stark in Houston’s East End. The Mexican children, including myself, played in a park that faced the Ship Channel. You could see oil refineries, freight trucks and railroads right next to the park. The inequities I saw growing up in the East End are what began to motivate me to become active in social justice issues later in life.
I think air quality is probably the single most important issue that faces our community. Right now, I am mostly dedicated to the Metal Air Pollution Partnership Solutions, or MAPPS, project, working with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, Air Alliance Houston, Houston Health Department and Rice University. Many people do not understand what a serious problem metal air pollution is and how different metals impact our health. The MAPPS project focuses on evaluating potential health risks associated with metal air pollution and finding out about residents’ views about environmental health.
The MAPPS partners and a community advisory board will use the findings to develop an action plan to improve the environmental health of neighborhoods near metal recycling facilities.
In the East End, it is so common to have the railroads, freight trucks, plants or mechanic shops next to your house and a big industrial facility on the next street over, so I didn’t really come to see air quality as an issue here until later in my life. Even though I would sometimes talk to people about it in the neighborhood, none of us gave air quality the priority we should have because we were more preoccupied with immediate problems like job security, income disparities and lack of access to quality schools more than the air we breathe, because we had become used to and attuned to it. I eventually began to get more involved in this area, even serving on the board of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS, for 10 years. That’s when I really began to understand more and concretely about the issue of the quality of air and how it needed to be dealt with as a social justice issue.
My immediate goal for these affected communities is to promote education and awareness that air pollution does have a dramatic impact on our health, potentially causing respiratory and cardiovascular problems, as well as birth defects. We need to make the community more conscious of the fact that air pollution is a real issue. When 100 trains roll through a neighborhood, it brings more than noise and traffic. They are burning diesel, and we are breathing it. It is only when you understand that there is a serious problem that you can lay the basis to get people to become active and do something about it.
Many local residents, particularly immigrants in the Pasadena community, have talked to me about headaches and other health problems that they attribute to refinery emissions and other pollution sources. When I ask them about their primary concerns, air quality is usually at the bottom of the list because it is still sort of a hidden issue. I believe that once we increase awareness and people will begin to tell their stories about how air quality affects their health and lives, we will see change.