Keeping Industrial Polluters Out of Austin's Latino and African Communities: From Dumping Ground to Fertile Fields for Community Action

Abstract

People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) activates the power of the Latino and African American communities of Austin, Texas, to both protect the earth and safeguard community health. By maintaining a reasonable but tenacious approach, the organization has kept polluting industrial facilities out of its residential neighborhoods.  PODER’s ability to form alliances, effectively engage the media, and organize people who are directly impacted, has enabled the organization to go up against multi-national corporations and win.  PODER also consistently brings community involvement to zoning and planning decisions.  Some key strategies include the following:

  • Connect With the Community:  In its first campaign, PODER closed a 52-acre “tank farm” for six petroleum manufacturers and distributors.  It built momentum by going door-to-door, talking directly with residents, and by connecting already organized neighborhood associations.  PODER continues to play a key role in city planning by bringing information directly into the community and eliciting community input.
  • Pursue Reasonable Short-Term and Long-Term Strategies:  To win the relocation of a recycling facility, PODER first negotiated alleviating concerns such as hours of operation and truck traffic.  To achieve relocation, the organization maintained a reasonable, focused stance “It wasn’t anger.  It wasn’t, ‘We want you out!’ It was, ‘We want our community to be residential and industrial doesn’t work with residential.” (L. Riff, BFI community and government relations)
  • Establish Working Relationships With the Media:  According to Sylvia Herrera, a good relationship with the media is an essential component of PODER’s effectiveness.  She says, “We do our homework and have our facts together…And we’re very clear about what the message is.”
  • Engage Young People:  The organization intentionally involves community youth, such as Raul Alvarez.  As a graduate student, Alvarez conducted door-to-door health surveys for PODER and went on to win a seat on the Austin City Council. He says of PODER’s engagement of youth, “Folks like myself get plugged into community issues early and they see the necessity and the value of getting involved in making your community a better place.”

In this leadership story, Sylvia Herrera, Susana Almanza and their colleagues describe some of their major victories and approaches.
 

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