INTERVIEWEE: Lauren Ross (LR)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: November 7, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
ORIGIN: HD video
DT: Uh, my name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Austin. It is November 7, 2018 and we have the good fortune to be, um, at the home of Lauren Ross who is a very noted environmental engineer who’s been active, uh, in—in Austin and central Texas and throughout the state really for many years. Uh, and I wanted to take this chance to thank you for spending some time with us.
LR: I am really super honored that you wanted to interview me. Thank you.
DT: Well, honor’s ours. Um, I thought we might start by talking about your childhood and—and ask if there were some, uh, family members or teachers or other mentors that might have first opened your eyes, exposed you in some way to the outdoors or conservation, whatever might have gotten you on this path.
LR: Sure. I grew up in El Paso, Texas in northeast El Paso which is pretty much an adjunct community to Fort Bliss in the 1960s. And, um, there was a lot of, uh, residual Vietnam trauma in that community I think. Um, it was mostly white and very, very middle class, like straight—I—I moved into a subdivision my—in 1960. Ours was the third house in the subdivision to be built so it was mostly just sand, ss—um, aunt mounts, and then open desert right over the back fence. So I grew up being able to climb over the fence and walk through, um, not exactly wild spaces, um, but not—definitely not developed spaces.
And then the beautiful Franklin Mountains were about two miles west from our house. And, um, as I got older, I could go climb in the mountains. Um, there was nothing in terms of environmentalism or even really liberalism in that community. We’ve been talking about the elections because they happened last night. I remember in the 1964 election almost every single house had a Goldwater sign in front of it. Um, and I asked my mom, I said, “Does that—is he going to win” because ev—there—there—all of the signs are for Goldwater.
And she said—she said, “No, he’s not going to win. Johnson’s going to win.” And I learned in that moment that you couldn’t trust yard signs, which was a lesson that I came back to in 1992 when we were, um, in the midst of the Save Our Springs Campaign and there were so many yard signs for the Save Our Springs Referendum but my mind remembered the election of 1964 and I thought, “I can’t count on yard signs because they don’t necessarily indicate how the election will come out. Um, but that—that gives you a sense of how conservative my community was, uh, my neighborhood was.
Um, and I don’t think there was any environmental consciousness at all in the neighborhood, nor in my family. Um, my mother and father were both raised in western Pennsylvania, southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s actually—they were—they’re from Greene County, which is famous for the long wall coal mining. My ancestors’ houses are actually—the last time I was there, um, taped off with caution tape because of the instability of the land underneath it. Um, but that did not translate in any way to environmentalism in my family.
Uh, you’re asking me this question so I’m going to just tell you. Um, uh, this—in 1972, I was asked by my, um, high school counselor if I wanted to take this exam for—that was being offered to the top five percent of the math and science students in, um, junior—junior, uh, junior year of high school. And I remember thinking I—I’m in the top five percent. I mean, I literally had no idea. Uh, it didn’t—it was important in my family to have A’s but your class standing w—w—was not something that my family sort of paid attention to.
Anyway, my boyfriend was going to take the exam and so—I said yes, I’ll take that exam. And we had to come in at 7:00 in the morning. Um, and we to—he was sick that day so he didn’t end up taking it. I took the exam and I got a really good score. I got such a good score that the National Science Foundation said, “We will scholar you sh—scholarship you into any program in the country that you want to go to, and any science field like biology or archeology, chemistry, and they—they were sponsored at colleges all around the country.
There were probably 150 different courses in this course catalogue. And—but they didn’t pay your transportation. There was a six-week course in Dal—at Dallas Baptist College and my mom was willing to drive me there, which is how I ended up in a six-week course that was titled “Environmental Quality”. Total random, like totally—I didn’t kn—I didn’t even know what that meant. I just knew somebody was going to pay me to get out of my parent’s house for six weeks when I was seventeen years old and that was good enough for [laughing] good enough for me.
Um, and it was an amazing program. They put us up in a dorm room. They gave us advisors, a bus. We actually met with three different campuses, uh, for lectures, and there were college professors at each campus that would teach us. We got to stand behind the camera—I’m thinking about this of course because we’ve been doing all of this stuff. I ran into people who became environmental engineers like me because of the course. I also ran into people who became cameramen or were in radio, television, and film. It was that transformative.
And I came back—we learned about climate change. I just want to say, in 1972, they explained to us that there were these greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions that were going to be heating the planet and that that was going to be causing a problem. I mean, the science was laid out in 1972 for a seventeen year old. And so it’s really quite amazing to me that we still have some question about that. In 1972, there was no question in the scientific community around global warming and—and climate change.
Um, I came back home and, um, I was kind of fanatical about turning out the lights. I still am really careful about turning out lights and not wasting anything. And I put a little compost pile in the backyard. And my mother was really happy about the lights because she’s—she says she has Scotch ancestry and so she was always about saving a penny. And the fact that I would go around and turn out the lights made my mother really happy. Um, but she did not get the compost pile. As a matter of fact, she made me take it out.
Um, and years later when I was in college, my mother had purchased stock in utilities that had nuclear power. And I was really horrified that my college education was being partly supported by some nuclear power plant. And in the seventies, all those stocks tanked. And my mother came to me and she said, um, because I had told her to sell them—you need to sell these mom—and she came to me and she said, “How did you know I should have sold those stocks?” And she thought I was some kind of financial wizard. [laughing]
She’s like I should have listened to my daughter because I lost a lot of money but I had no—st—I still don’t really know anything about money but I knew that nuclear power was wrong. And she sort of—she wished that she had listened to me. Um, so I didn’t get any, uh, environmental sensibilities from my mother or my father or my community. Um, it was really grounded in this National Science Foundation program that completely changed my life. I, um, I was actually trying to look through my, um, high school yearbooks—you know how they sign—you get them signed at the end of the year—and I know that a lot of people in my high school wrote something about me being an environmentalist.
Almost nobody knew me. I—I was really shy. Um, but I did stand up in front of my biology class and ask people to sign a petition to designate the Gila in western New Mexico—El Paso’s really close to New Mexico so we have a lot of identity with that state—um, to sign petitions to designate part of the Gila as a wilderness area. And so if people knew me in my high school, they knew that I was a—what we would call an environmentalist. I’m not sure—I—probably we used that word—word then.
Um, and I became a member of the Sierra Club in El Paso in 1972 I’m sure when I came back, um, and did some hikes and some organizing with the Sierra Club, um, in 1972. But that’s really what sort of got me, uh, started on this path. Um, I played music for my church. I—was a small church and they didn’t have anybody else but me to play and I was good. I—I mean, I was—I was a very, very good church musician. I could play both the church and or—uh, the piano and the organ. I was a good accompanymist—uh, accompanist.
And, um, I did some solo performance but I really liked accompanying. I liked being, again, that shyness—I liked being in the background and making somebody else look really great as the soloist. Um, and that was—that was what I intended to do as a career. I thought I would—you were asking me about it, David, like mu—music, uh, uh, uh, as a career but I wasn’t thinking like concert pianist. I was thinking, uh, I’ll teach kids music lessons and I’ll play for a church. This is 1972. There are three jobs that women do in 1972—they can teach school, which is what my mother did.
She taught sixth grade for si—26 years. They could be a nurse and I had no interest really in being a nurse, or they could be a secretary and that seemed even worse, although, of course, I took typing. [laughing] Um, and that was what women did. We—that was all we did. So I thought I would teach music, um, and that that would be my career. Um, I—many times I’ve said—I did my freshman year at the Texas State Uni—uh, University of Texas at El Paso and I transferred in my sophomore year to UT Austin.
And I have—I’m absolutely sure that it’s true if I had started at UT Austin, I would never have become an engineer. We were talking, David, about this, you know, this idea that, you know, if life is a pinball game, that there’s—there’s no way that you would have expected me to end up where I am. It just—from where I come from and it was just a series of these really odd coincidences. My boyfriend was going to take the National Science Foundation exam and so I thought I would do it too. It wasn’t—wasn’t like I was setting out to do something, right.
Um, I don’t know what the life lesson is in that but, um, if I had started at the University of Texas at Austin, I would not be an engineer because, in 1973 when I started my university career at UT Austin, they had these little course catalogues in books and there was a book for the, um, Education Department, there was a book for the National Sc—uh, Natural Sciences Department, and there was a separate book for engineering. And I think the books cost like maybe fifty cents or a dollar. You didn’t get all of them, right.
You just got the one for whatever college you planned to study in. That—you would only buy that one. At UT El Paso, they didn’t have that many courses and they were all in one book. And when I went to orientation, I took the book at night and I read every single course that was offered in any department, in any college at UT El Paso and I put a little pencil checkmark in the margins next to the classes that I wanted to take. And there were four or five classes on waste—how to treat wastewater.
And when I was in that summer program at the National Science Foundation, they’d taken us to some treatment plants and we got to like smell the sewage and it—and hear the, uh, engineers and operators talk about how they were bubbling air through sewage to, you know, have the microbes eat it all before it was discharged to the river. At that time, that was a new thing. Like—and there are still places in this country where this happens where untreated sewage gets sent straight into the river. And we were just figuring out how to do something different than that.
And I thought, oh, I would like to know how you treat sewage, not because I expected to design a sewage treatment plant. I thought that I would give testimony on behalf of the League of Women Voters that would say, “These are the standards that need to be met to achieve good treatment of sewage before it goes into a river.” No concept of a career. Just—I was going to be a well-educated volunteer. [laughing] And all of these courses on sewage treatment were in something called “civil engineering”.
I don’t know if I’d ever even heard those two words together before, quite frankly, but I thought I wonder if I should be studying this major with the courses that I actually want to take. I was actually at a certain way in—mo—intellectually more interested in sewage treatment than I was interested in, um, in music theory. I think that’s still true. I think—I think that was the right choice. Um, I was curious. I wanted to know. Um, and so I start—I enrolled as a music major. I took some great courses.
I got to play on this—they let me play on this org—pipe organ in this church and I would go to this church and practice Bach on this pipe organ but I was also taking a drafting class and I was taking an introductory engineering class. Um, it’s where I learned that women weren’t studying this field because I was the only woman in those classes. But it was 1972 and we were starting to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. We were starting to talk about women’s liberation. Women were burning bras. And I was like I can, you know, there’s no women here but that doesn’t mean I can’t do this.
And I knew that I had done really well on that ni—National Science Foundation exam. I had the mental, uh, capacities and skills to do engineering if that’s what I wanted to do. I bel—I did believe that. Um, I don’t know that I was—I don’t remember exactly when I thought I might practice but somewhere over the course of an engineering program that was not very rigorous in El Paso, let me tell you—I was really lucky that I transferred. Sorry University of Texas at El Paso—I hope you’re doing better now but I was making—I was camping, I was biking, I was having a really great time and I was still making straight A’s and that was actually not okay.
I transferred to UT Austin in the fall of 1974, so I did spring and summer—I mean, I did fall and spring of my freshman year at UT El Paso. I transferred to UT Austin because my boyfriend was here [laughing] and I had a really big awakening because I hadn’t learned very much in those first classes. I was super scrambling to, uh, to—to catch up and to—to meet the academic rigor of the University of Texas at Austin. I remember—I had to de—well I had to develop a strategy for how to, um, do the homework because I didn’t know how to solve these problems.
And my strategy was this—I would work on it at night, fail, not get the solutions that I need like engineering homework, they say okay, uh, like an example might be, um, here is the—here are the structures in a truss and you have to figure out which of the connecting pieces are under compression and which are under tension and what the forces are and you have to so—solve all these problems. And there are answers. It’s not like English where you just write something out. Right. There’s a right answer and you have to get it.
And you’re taking the class because you’re learning how to get it. You don’t know how to get that answer. It’s—it’s hard. It’s funny, I haven’t thought about that in many, many years. But those first classes were really hard so I would sit down and I would try to work the problems. I would try to solve the problems at night before I went to bed. I would completely fail. I would wake up the next morning and I would take a shower and I can remember very many times, I would go ah, yes, I know how to do this. And I got good.
And I will say modestly that I got very good so that, um, uh—well it was hard—I’m going to back up a little bit. You know, I was still one of few women in engineering. There were a couple of other women in my classes at—at UT Austin but not very many of them. And they were way more sophisticated that I was. They knew how to dress. They came from different families and backgrounds than I had and they were not as shy as I was.
And I can remember walking into a laboratory for a class and we were supposed to find a lab partner and just looking at all of these men and just thinking oh my God, I don’t have any idea how—I don’t know how I’m going to find a lab partner. I mean, it was terrifying. Um, [laughing] was—I was terrified. And there was this man Ranny—Randy Hagman, who was in a lot of my classes. He already had a degree in English. He was coming back to get a degree in engineering. So he was a little older and he was married. And he was—he was smart in this way.
He wasn’t the best student but he kind of took me under his wing and he said, “Would you like to be my lab partner?” “Oh my goodness, yes, I would love to be your lab partner.” And he was in all the different labs so he was my lab partner in every class. And, um, and then we would meet in the library at night and I would help him with his homework. I would fig—I wouldn’t do it for him but I would figure out like the tricks. And Randy would then do the homework .Um, and then as the classes got harder and harder and the homework got harder and harder, that group got bigger and bigger.
And, um, I remember one night it was that—it was that problem with all the different structures. We probably had five or six different trusses that we had to do all the calculations for. And I think there were eighteen men in that room who were waiting for me to figure out the trick for solving the problem. I was really—I was really—I was smart. I was smart in that way. There are many ways in which I’m not smart but I’m smart in terms of figuring out how to solve engineering problems.
And, um, you know, I think that’s been—I’m going to pause here for just a minute because I’ve been rambling for a long time—but knowing that I have that ability to solve a problem and knowing how to be really technically solid has been a really important part of my environmental career because in that political mish-mash, if the only thing I’ve really got to stand on when people are talking about the Save Our Springs ordinance and somebody is saying technically it can’t be done, for example, and that was one of Joe Beal’s arguments—he would say, technically, we cannot achieve the pollution reduction standard that they’ve written into this ordinance.
And I had to sit down and figure out, yes, this is how it can be done. So when he and I would come together in a debate, what I had to stand on was knowing that I had a solid, technical foundation. And the environmental work that I do is difficult because there is a lot of money on the other side available to prove me wrong—technically wrong—to discredit me, to make a different argument and I have to put together a really solid, technical argument about whatever environmental issue that we’re looking at, whether that’s, you know, preventing pollution in Barton Springs, uh, treating storm runoff from development, what needs to happen for the Dripping Springs Wastewater so that they don’t end up polluting Barton Springs by dumping it into Onion Creek.
That’s what I have done for, uh, forty plus years of my career.
DT: Uh, you mentioned Joe Beal and—and I wonder if—if that might be a—a segue to—to go from your education at UT to talking about some of your early work in the consulting, engineering world?
LR: You bet.
DT: [inaudible] I guess was one of your first lawyers.
LR: I graduated in 1977. Let me just say before we get to my early employers, that the very last thing that my, uh, undergraduate advisor who had talked me through three years of schooling said, “So, are you going to give it all up now and get married and have babies?” And I thought I was going to pass out. This was a man whose job it was to, um, teach me—to—to—to mentor me, right. That was his job as my advisor was to get me into a career. [laughing] And he was still thinking I was, um, looking for a husband to have babies, which was not okay.
Um, so I graduated in nine—in 1977. I—I—I—I will say there was one professor at UT that did really get me and his name was Dr. Gus Fruh. He died very young. You can go swim in Barton Creek, uh, at a section of the creek that’s named for him, um, and he—he really did—he—he thought I should go to graduate school. And I said—I said, “Dr. Fruh, maybe I’ll go to graduate school some day,” and I did end up getting both my master’s and my PhD, “but right now I feel like I need to learn something about the practice of business” because I didn’t know anything about the practice of business at any level.
My te—my mother was a school teacher. My stepfather, um, who was my father from the time I was twelve taught at the University of New Mex—uh, New Mexico State University. So I didn’t know anything about consulting or business or anything except the world of education. And I knew that it would be important to—for me to sort of get my feet wet in that. Um, almost no jobs in Austin in 1977 for an engineer. You could have worked for maybe the state or SP Houston. I don’t think there was hardly any—any other place to work.
Um, and I interviewed at a few places around the country. I was offered a job in Houston. I was also of—jo—offered a job at the SP Houston office in Austin but I wanted something a little bigger than the Austin environment so I took the job in—in, uh, in Houston. I had put on my résumé that I was a member of the Sierra Club. One of the interviews that I had was with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers—a man. And he asked me nothing during the interview. He spent the entire time explaining to me that caribou could jump the pipeline in Alaska.
It was very clear that he had been triggered by the fact that I had written on my résumé that I was a member of the Sierra Club. There was no way he was going to offer me a job. And what I learned was not to take that off because if somebody had that big of an issue about me being a member of the Sierra Club, that wasn’t going to work for me as a place to work. So I left it on. And, um, I got this job in a pretty small engineering office that was a subsidiary of a much bigger office here in Austin, SP Houston.
Um, Joe Beal would have been Vice President then in the Austin office. And the introduction to consulting at SP Houston, I will say, was a rough ride. Um, I wasn’t—I didn’t know enough to understand sexism. I didn’t know what sexism was. I didn’t know what sexism felt like except maybe that time when he said are you going to have—get married now and have babies. But I didn’t underst—I was not skilled in seeing the cultural sexism.
One of the ways that got expressed at SP Houston was we would have a party or I would just be meeting clients and, in the course of a conversation, a joke would be made about how much it would cost for me to spend the night with a client. And, um, that was really—that was really difficult. Um, painful. I assumed that it was my fault be—or that that was just the price of being a woman in a man’s world and that that was something that I had to tolerate because I was making this really audacious choice to think that I could be an engineer in the man’s world [laughing] and—and that that was just something that was, you know, part—part of life.
There were other things that were happening and I’m just going to—I’m just going to say this straight up. Um, I—my—my boss—his name was Paul Barker—he’s still around Austin—um, he opened up the newspaper and showed me the campaign contributions to the City Council and Mayoral races from engineers that we knew and were working with. And he said, “The people that get those campaign contributions from those engineering firms are the ones that are going to win.” It was common to, uh, take clients to, uh, titty bars, to strip joints, and entertain them.
I was never invited, thank God I guess, to help to entertain the clients in that way, um, although there were—those jokes were being made. Um, there was—my office door was across the hall from the door into the conference room. One of the pieces of work that SP Houston did was they had contracts with the federal government to determine the width of the hundred-year flood plain in Fort Bend County. Fort Bend County is flat. The width of the hundred-year flood plain establishes developable land. If it’s narrow, the landowner makes a lot more money because they can squeeze in more lots.
If it’s wide, that landowner or developer loses a lot of value for that land. I remember hearing across the hallway jokes being made about how many thousands of dollars it would cost to reduce the height of the flood plain by a foot, which in Fort Bend County would have opened up lots of extra acres for development. At the same time, SP Houston’s clients were both the federal government to set the width of the flood plain and the developer to lay out the lots, the roadways, the wastewater water supply infrastructure, the civil engineering infrastructure on the same land.
So there was a huge conflict of interest there. And Bill Bunch has a letter that documents that SP Houston was willing to change the flood plain level for money. So I—for me it was an apocryphal story. I shared it with Bill and he said, “I have a letter that documents that.” And we saw that—we saw that when, uh, Onion Creek neighborhood flooded in, uh, the Halloween 2013 floods. Water was eight feet deep in people’s houses because an engineer had mischaracterized the hundred-year flood plain and those houses had gotten developed at about the same time in the—in the early 1970s.
Um, I had never worked for a consulting firm before. Paul Barker said, “This is just the way business is done.” And he’s right about that. In that world, that’s how business is done. Um, and that world has huge impact on all of our worlds. Um, I didn’t think I was going to be able to do that. [laughing] There are s—there were lots of things that were happening I guess in my mi—yeah, there were lots of things that were happening in my mind and in my—in my, uh, what would I say, the development of my soul in that moment.
Um, there was a woman named Roberta Harris who was 36 years old. I adored her. She was actually hired as an artist. That was her job. She was an artist. She wasn’t an engineer or technical person at all. And, um, she was a little bit older. Her family were Shell executives. She was really sophisticated. She had navy blue sheets on her bed. We got really drunk at her house one night and she let me spend the night [laughing] rather than send me driving on the Houston roads drunk. Thank you, Roberta.
Um, and, uh, she started handing me books like Games Your Mother Never Taught You, books on feminism. She also handed me Dress for Success for Women. Thank you, Roberta. Um, and so I was starting to develop that sense around sexism and I was starting to say this is not—what’s happening to me is not okay. I remember after one of those parties, uh, Roberta, uh, walked past my door at about 9:00 in the morning and our work day started at 8, so she was coming in an hour late. I can see her walking past my doorway. She disappears. She turns back.
She comes in, she slams the door. She sits down in—on the chair opposite my desk and she says, “Uh, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to come in to work today. I was so depressed because at the party on Friday afternoon, John Michaels was introducing me to the clients with a joke about how much I could be had for a night, how much it would cost to have me for a night.” And this light bulb went off. When they said it—when they made that joke about me, I didn’t think it was wrong. When they made it about Roberta, I knew that was not okay.
Um, I—I—it was—it was so interesting that I had to see it on so—with somebody else, right. Um, that relates to my work in environmentalism in this way—um, you know, the men were smoking cigars, taking the clients to bars. They were—and—and some of them were the same men that I had helped with their homework, [laughing] John Jansing in particular. Um, they were establishing the foundation for their career. And I knew that I was never going to be able to follow the path that the men were taking, I mean, for a lot of different reasons.
One is I couldn’t have tolerated it but they were never going to let me do that. As long as I was being introduced to the clients in that way, I was not going to be taken as like a engineer with serious, um, career potential or—anyway. I realized this consulting thing is not going to work for me. Um, and I decided to go back and get my master’s degree. I was still wanting to learn. Um, and when I finished my master’s, I promised myself that I wouldn’t make myself do consulting.
I actually worked for a couple of months at a—uh, as a cook in a kitchen, um, so that I would—I did that so that I would finish my thesis because I felt like I wasn’t finishing my thesis because I thought if I finished my thesis, I would have to go back to that horrible consulting environment. And so I made this deal with myself. [laughing] Just finish the thesis and I promise you sweetie, I will never, ever make you do that again. Um, I did my thesis on—is this okay—are we sort of like?
DT: I’m curious. What did you do your thesis on?
LR: I did my thesis on soil transport, uh, uh, soil and pollutant transport in s—in, uh, wh—sorry—water and pollution transport in the vadose zone, which is the, uh, section of the earth above the groundwater table. It has very complicated differential equations. Those are very complicated processes of movement. I did that study because I had read an article before I went in on how much genetic damage was being done by haz—by the disposal of hazardous chemicals.
I wanted to either study hazardous chemicals or nuclear energy and nuclear waste disposal because I felt like those were the—the technical areas where we, as a culture, were most vulnerable. And no—that’s where I wanted to work. I also felt like there was so much money and power in the nuclear energy that I would just—in the nuclear energy industry that I would just end up being sucked into being a promoter of the industry, that that would be where all the jobs were.
I don’t know why I thought it would be different in hazardous waste but this California Berkeley biologist said we’re going to have a lot more genetic damage from hazardous waste than from nuclear waste. And so I was like okay, done, going to go study that. Going to study how to manage it. So when I graduated in 1983, um, ’82, sorry—I graduated in 1982—Ronald Reagan had just been elected. A woman named Ann Gorsuch was head of the EPA and the—the country thought okay, we’re—we don’t have to do that environmental stuff anymore.
There were no regulations being promulgated. I spent a year doing computer science because the only job offer I had was from SP Houston to design subdivisions over the Texas Hill Country and I said, “I will be barefoot and pregnant before I do that.” I wasn’t going to do that. And then in 1983—in October of 1983, there was a consulting firm called Underground Resource Management who hired me to work on managing waste, uh, hazardous waste and particularly what I got to do was I got to design the groundwater monitoring systems around these waste disposal sites and evaluate the data to determine whether or not there needed to be a cleanup.
That was the focus of my work in my second engineering consulting job. And I have to say it was really night and day from SP Houston. Our clients were industry [knocking on door]—Shell, Texaco—I guess I’m going to see who’s at my door.
DT: Um, research on monitoring, um, the, uh, because the area above the—the aquifer and do you think you can go from there?
LR: Yes, I—I—I—I’ve had two consulting firm experiences in my life in the forty years of my career. I worked for SP Houston for 2 ½ years and I worked for Underground Resource Management also for 2 ½ years. The rest of the time I’ve been, um, running my own show. And I’m really grateful that I had a chance to work for Underground Resource Management. I was explaining that our clients were Union Carbide, Phillips Petroleum, Texaco, Coke. We actually worked for the Coke family on a refinery in Corpus Christi.
And one of the things that I found is that even though those are big polluting industries, it was much easier to consult for them than it was for the government because they were focused on a product and I could deliver a product for them. And I sometimes ask myself like what’s an environmentalist doing working for a refining company? And the thing that I said to myself is that if all the people of conscience refused to do this work, then only people who have no care or concern about the environment is going to do it.
And so I was really comfortable working for these clients, doing the work that I did. And I—I learned a lot and it was a really positive experience and sort of, uh, uh, a way very different. I felt like that firm had a lot of integrity. You know, Bob Kent was very committed to telling clients bad news if they need—if, uh, the news was bad, he was going to tell them that. And so I feel like I got kind of night and day and a chance to see that, um, consulting firms were—were different. Um, I left SP Houston to get my master’s.
I left Underground Resource Management to go back and do my, uh, get my PhD. Um, and, um, so when I started on the Save Our Springs campaign, I was a graduate student. I had some private consulting clients of my own. Um, I left SP Houston and the day I left; they gave me consulting work so that was great. Um, no sorry, no—not SP Houston—Un—Underground Resource Management gave me consulting work the very day that I left. And, um, that got me started in realizing that I could work for myself.
DT: And how did you first get involved with the SOS ordinance and—and the whole, uh, issue of development over Barton Springs [inaudible]?
LR: I was at a meeting at the Sierra Club. Some—some group—small group of environmentalists—I can’t remember how I got there. The facilitator was a woman named Pamayla and I don’t remember her last name. Um, I don’t think I knew anybody in the room. Um, I don’t think I knew anybody in the room. I think I came because I was interested in the issue. At some point, George Cofer stood up and said to the room, he said, “Even if we had the money to pay them, there is not engineer in town who’s willing to work for us.
They’ve all been bought by the other side.” And I had my registered PE license with the State of Texas at the time and I went up to him and I said, “I think I’d be willing to work for you. I need to check with my family.” I was going to actually ask my husband and I did. I said to my husband, I said, “Do you care if I never work in Austin again?” And he was like, “I guess that could be okay.” I mean, he—he was—he wanted me to finish my dissertation but he didn’t have a problem with me working for Save Our Springs. It wasn’t Save Our Springs then.
It was just a coalition of people that had arisen out of the Barton Creek, um, planned unit development, the all-night—we call it the all night PUD hearing on June 7th. There was a community of people that understood that Austin ordinances needed to be robust against the kind of development that Jim Bob Moffett was proposing on the cr—on the banks of Barton Creek. And Austin Lee Brock with the City of Austin, had said our city ordinances are not designed to achieve non-degradation. They won’t completely prevent pollution coming into the aquifer.
And those of us who cared about Barton Springs said, “We cannot tolerate degradation. It has to be—it has to stay the way it has always been for ten thousand years.” So we were sort of ginning up into what do we need to do to make sure that development regulations protect Barton Springs. We—there was something profoundly important that happened on June 7th of 1990 in the City of Austin. At 4:00 in the afternoon, there was a public hearing that was scheduled for the council to consider whether or not to approve four thousand acres of development on—for Barton Creek properties.
The developer was Jim Bob Moffett who was one of the richest men in the world. He came in with David Armbrust, real estate attorney. And on the other side of him was Coach Darrell Royal of the UT football team. That’s what constitutes deity in the city of Austin, the coach and particularly Coach Royal of the UT football team. Jim Bob Moffett had played football at UT. It’s how they had that relationship. Those men would not have walked into that room for the hearing unless they had already counted their votes.
So I assume and I think it’s—it’s a—it’s a very solid assumption that at 4:00 in the afternoon on June 7th, they had the votes lined up on the council to approve their planned unit development, this big, long, fifty page contract that would let them do what they wanted to do. And it would also extend sewer service out there for them to tie into the city sewer system. The public hearing started and it went all night long. People came down and spoke. It was profoundly moving. It was broadcast on KUT. I listened to it for a while.
I went down at some point just—just to be there. I couldn’t even sign up to speak because the—the waiting was hours and hours. It was going to be, you know, early in the morning and I had—I had a two year old baby at home. I couldn’t—couldn’t stay all night. Um, but I listened. I went down. I came home, I listened. I listened all the way until morning edition came on. I called KUT Radio and I said—I said, “Take that news story off. We have to hear how the council’s going to vote. And, um, at about 6:00 in the morning, the city council voted unanimously to deny the proposed PUD ordinance.
There were hundreds of people in the room and thousands of people in Austin who had a taste of their passionate conviction changing a political outcome and not just an insignificant political outcome and not just insignificant players, but really countering the most powerful forces not only in the city, but if you take Jim Bob Moffett and his gold mine and his lunches with President Bill Clinton at the time, one of the most powerful forces in the world—we did that. We did it as a community. There was nothing that we thought we couldn’t do if we could do that.
And some of the political operatives—I’m going to just use the—that word—the political operatives like Mark Yznaga, for example, who’s not an environmentalist—he would say straight up I’m not an environmentalist but he—he understands the energy of—of people. And he ran—he’s runs political campaigns and he understands when an issue is moving people. And so he got involved with the SOS campaign because he wanted to be part of moving people.
And there was lots and lots of back and forth and so many egos getting played with Mayor’s task forces and the Planning Commission and Gary Bradley, I mean, the whole community of politically active people were in this game to determine, not just the development standards, although obviously those were tremendously important to people who wanted to vel—to develop land, kind of in the same way that that hundred-year flood plain was important to—to the developers in Fort Bend County but there was a lot more at stake than just development regulations.
One of the things that was at stake was who decided and who was going to hold power. And that’s what got Mark Yznaga hooked and David Butts and Dean Rindy, right. Who is going to decide? And, um, I think that the Save Our Springs referendum was as much about pollution of our political process as it was pollution of our iconic springs. Um, it was a very important and powerful, um, moment in Austin history.
DT: Uh, and I guess in the years to come, after this all night meeting, um, the—the ordinances passed but, uh, to restrict development in the Barton Springs Watershed but it sounds like there were many challenges after that to the ordinance and then to application of the ordinance and grandfathering and can you give us some examples of how that first battle wasn’t just the end of it, that—that there were many more steps after that?
LR: You know, there’s always going to be a tug-of-war. There’s a lot at stake. Um, there’s business interests. There’s environmental in—interests and, um, and there’s that question that who deci—who decides. Um, there’s also the dynamic between what’s seen as liberal Austin and the very conservative Texas context. So, uh, there were a couple of things that happened that limited the effectiveness of the Save Our Springs ordinance. The first was that the council was able to delay getting the ordinance on the ballot from the May elections to the August elections.
That allowed anybody who had a piece of land to bring down some napkin of an idea and submit it to the city for, uh, approval. They had the months of May, June, and July—three months—to get some—something sort of thrown together and establish a project. Then the Texas legislature came back and it was the same lobbyists—Jim Bob Moffett, David Armbrust, and Darrell Royal, strolling the halls of the Texas legislature. I used to see them down there in that triumvirate. What they got the state to say was that it’s not fair to change the rules in the middle of a project.
So if you have some application into a city, you get to develop under the rules that were in place at the time that you submitted an application. So now you can see how important that three month delay was in establishing an entitlement to development that would not be allowed under the Save Our Springs ordinance. Um, and virtually every single piece of land within Austin’s jurisdiction that the Save Our Springs ordinance would have applied to got something in on a piece of paper that allowed them to be grandfathered.
And so we have few—few projects that have been completed to the standards that the Save Our Springs ordinance set. Um, the other—the other challenge, in terms of just protecting Barton Springs is that the city only controls about, a third of the entire area that contributes recharge to Barton Springs and the communities that control the other areas are largely Dripping Springs. I mean, way bigger than the city of Austin is the area within Dripping Springs city limits, which are tiny and their ETJ which is huge.
So you have these conservative, rural republican, business friendly political environments in which most of the decisions are being made. And they—they pass ordinances that say we’re not going to let pollution happen but they give variances. The sci—science underneath it isn’t sound and basically people get to build a lot, sort of whatever the market will bear in most of those communities.
DT: Um, I understood that—that the SOS ordinance—one of its sort of lynchpins was limiting the am—amount of impervious cover per acre and that that was one strategy for trying to control non-point source pollution, in fact, the springs and the creek. But that another approach was to, uh, install detention ponds and retention ponds and filtration devices and, you know, that one was sort of a—a more, uh, natural approach, the other was more built. And if—that’s kind of simplistic but—but can—as an engineer, can you talk about those two strategies and how they compare?
LR: Yes, yes. Um, and let me just back up and say, uh, the SOS and the ordinance says three things. One is the impervious cover limits that say how much pavement and parking lot and building you can put on any site and it’s on a site-by-site basis. So you don’t get to sort of trade out valuable impervious cover here for less valuable impervious cover out in the boonies. The second piece of the SOS ordinance says there will be no increase in the average annual pollutant load for fourteen different constituents—lead, arsenic, cadmium, volatile organic compounds, total suspended solids, e coli.
They took a list of fourteen things and said, “You cannot increase the average annual load from a site even with the development for these four things.” The third thing that the SOS ordinance says is you cannot give a variance to the terms of this ordinance. Austin had water quality control requirements as part of their regulations since the seventies and the comprehensive watersheds ordinance, which applied to the whole city was passed in 1986. Eighty-four percent of the development hadn’t complied with the requirements that were on the books in Austin at that time.
And so we wanted to really say no, no sweetheart deals here. Everybody’s going to have to comply. So let’s go back and look at what that compliance looks at—looks like in terms of impervious cover and the water quality controls. The engineers—my community—will come to you and say, “We can put anything we want on the—on the site and we’ll just, you know, sort of spaceship design it.” Um, we have all kinds of great ideas—great ideas—like let’s just take all the storm water runoff from the Barton Springs so—contributing zone and we’ll—we’ll pipe it over the divide and put it in the Colorado River.
That’s what we do with a lot of the wastewater, right, we just pipe it over the divide and then it won’t pollute Barton Springs. Well if you take all the water and put it over the divide so it doesn’t pollute Barton Springs, you have no flow in the springs. It dries up. Um, so part of what we needed to do was not only limit pollution but we need to—to keep that spring flow coming from the recharge in the watersheds upstream, which means it wasn’t enough to just eliminate pollution, we also had to make sure that there was enough base flow.
And that base flow is the water in the creek between the storms. You know, we’ve had all of this silty water that’s been coming through the Colorado River. Well during the storm events, Barton Creek can be pretty silty as well. Onion Creek can be pretty silty as well. But they don’t last in that condition for a long time and then they start to go into this clean, clear base flow condition. Right now Barton Springs is flowing at about, uh, 75 cubic feet per second and it’s crystal clear and it’s been doing that for weeks now.
And the weeks of that clear water coming through is what feeds the springs, what emerges out because cars—caves don’t filter anything. Whatever goes in is pretty much what’s going to be coming out. And so we needed to limit the impervious cover so that you could get the water soaking into the soil, moving in the subsurface, coming out into the creeks and feeding and sustaining that long base flow. The engineered solutions—I mean, I—I have been paid to design a lot of them. They help but they’re—they’re subject to a lot of failure and I’ll just give you an example.
Um, I helped design the retention irrigation system for the H-E-B at the intersection of Brodie Lane and William Cannon Drive and that’s a beautiful facility. They’ve got rain catch, um, tanks. They have, uh, very carefully designed lighting to protect the dark skies. The building was built with low VOC paint—paints, and the storm runoff is collected in this big basin and then they—it’s also SOS impervious cover compliant so they have all of this juniper woodland behind. And they catch the storm runoff in a basin.
They run it through a pump and they send it out to sprinkler heads out into—in these—in this wild area and they irrigate it onto the land so that it can do that thing of slowly filter through and recharge the creek. They—the pumps fail all the time. The sprinkler heads are broken all the time. I mean, I’ve gone out and inspected these things many times, sometimes for Bill Bunch, sometimes when I was a—the Water Quality Engineer for the City of Sunset Valley that had similar regulations. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to inspect one that was actually working.
Like the heads get broken. The pumps get clogged. The ponds stay full so that when the next rain comes, it all gets bypassed directly into the creek. And the reason, David, that that happens is because if I’m the manager of the H-E-B grocery store, I’m trying to make sure that your apples are fresh, your seafood is free, the cans are stocked, the employees are paid, I have a gazillion things to think about and whether or not there’s some sprinkler broken out in some field that I can’t see isn’t part of my—my concept of my job description.
And that’s true almost everywhere, that we—we need a, um, we need a culture of care and maintenance of these facilities that doesn’t exist. It’s a social infrastructure or a—a—a—a business infrastructure that we can put them in the ground, we can, you know, operate them for a little while, but we don’t have the social infrastructure that we need to say it’s important to keep them maintained for a long time.
DT: Um, maybe another way to sort of slice this whole history, uh, a lot of the, uh, controls I think were on residential, suburban bedroom communities and you mentioned the AQD example where there are indeed some commercial and some big box stores. Are there kind of different approaches that—that SOS and other folks who are trying to protect the watershed have taken, um, to deal with some of these really large, commercial operations?
LR: So, residential w—w—uh, water controls are—in the City of Austin are actually maintained by the City of Austin, by the Watershed Protection Department, which is a really unique and interesting bureaucracy—governmental bureaucracy in this way. I don’t know of any other department in the City of Austin—I actually don’t know of any other governmental bureaucracy anywhere that has an accountable relationship to a community. The city’s Watershed Protection Department does. They have been our targets.
We have had expectations of that particular department for decades and they’re pretty good. Like if you—if you’re a young engineer and you come to me and say where should I go to work because I really care about the environment, maybe the first place I’ll recommend that you go to work is the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department because people really care. But the reason why they care and the reason why they’re allowed to care is because there is a whole community of activists over four—three or four decades—going back into the seventies when Mary Arnold organized Austin as our gift to the, uh, bicentennial, 1976 bicentennial was going to be clean creeks.
So we have, in Austin, a cultural infrastructure that says natural, clean creeks that we can wade in and swim in are something that are important to us as a community. That’s—that is part of—you used the word zeitgeist—that is part of the culture of this community. And so we have this department in the city that’s responsive to that culture. We don’t have the same community culture around something like water conservation.
We don’t have the same—we’re starting maybe to get it around energy and climate change, um, but I—I—I—I—I—I think this is—as we look at what we as environmentalists are able to do, I think it’s important to understand that w—we can go down and speak all day long at City Hall. We can offer our opinions. We can offer our passion. It doesn’t matter at all. People don’t actually care what I think. [laughing] They don’t actually even care about my science until there is a political will that says you have to pay attention to that.
I mean, it’s just straight up the truth. We have technical answers to all of these problems and they’re not achieved because we don’t—they’re only achieved when we have a culture that says this is what we care about. And I think one of the big challenges for Austin and I’m a local girl—there are people that are out there playing on the global stage—I’m so proud of them. I’ve, you know, I pray for their work. I’m really happy for them. My work is local. Um, I’m concerned about the fact that we have so many people moving into Austin and yes, the traffic’s worse than it was and yes, we have pa—taller buildings but I don’t really care about that.
What—what concerns me about the people that are moving into Austin at the rate that they’re moving into Austin is that they bring with them different values, not necessarily wrong values, but different values. And they bring with them a connection—to the extent that they have a connection to a landscape is with a beach in California. It’s with the Sier—it’s with the Sierra Nevadas. It’s with, you know, some, uh, Cape Cod. They don’t have a sole connection with the Texas Hill Country.
They don’t know—they don’t have the history, the cultural history of having worked on all these ordinances going back to, you know, the Barton Creek Ordinance and—and all of th—all of the community that we have carefully built around this is what is important to us and we’re going to—this is how re—it’s going to be. And then all of these other people come in and somehow we can’t—we can’t all get together on the same page fast enough because people are coming in and going too fast. I—that’s my—that’s my deep concern about Austin’s future.
DT: Um, I think earlier and maybe off camera, you had talked a little bit about, um, I guess sort of cultural constraints. Um, you mentioned earlier sexism, um, but there’s also racism that may be limiting how much progress we can make on environmental issues and—and on bigger sort of issues of how we treat one another. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
LR: I’d love to. Um, since, uh, pa—2013, for the last five years, I focus my volunteer work on, uh, addressing racism and white supremacy in Austin. You know, there were many different sort of sparks in my life around that. I’ll say that one of them is a meeting on changes to the city Water Quality Protection ordinances. And I was listening to the staff—they—they put up maps showing erosion sites and unprotected flood plains in the city of Austin.
And you had almost none on the west side and then the east side of Austin—what we call the eastern crescent—those neighborhoods east of IH-35 were like chicken pox with red dots for these erosion sites, graphically demonstrating the difference in environmental protection between west Austin and east Austin. They put up photographs of the natural channel through Pease Park at Shoal Creek, versus the gabion and concrete in Boggy Creek. The natural channel of Barton Creek versus the trapezoid with fence lines right across the edge in east Austin and they talk about it as if it’s geology and soils.
And it’s—and they don’t talk about the—the racial implications of that. They don’t talk about the fact that the areas that have these sites that they’ve identified where somebody’s fence or outbuilding or even the edge of their house is falling into the water are the same sites where you have, um, bad schools, where the storm infrastructure is too small, where those FEMA maps were wrong and people are flooded out. They don’t talk about how the city’s provision of water quality protection, development standards, a sense of we care about the environment maps onto the racial demographics of the city. There’s a—there’s a video online.
It’s a super embarrassing video because I am cr—I am so teared up that I can’t actually say—try to get it out of my mouth and Roy Whaley’s kind of behind me and he puts his hand on me to just kind of say it but I hang onto the microphone until I can sort of and in a barely embarrassing way choke out this is racism and this is not okay. And this room erupted like Mary Gay Maxwell gave me a big lecture afterward around, um, you can’t talk about that. The city staff, my—my beloved Watershed Protection Department that I just praised and I do love them so much, you know, they were like really offended that I would be talking about their work in this way.
And I went to the facilitator, a paid, uh, city staff facilitator not from, um, any particular department and I said it’s your job to get that community into the—these meetings because we were the same people. We were me and Mike Barrett and Hank Smith and the same people that had been putting those ordinances that protected west Austin in place for twenty years and the east Austin community, Susana Almanza, Daniel Yanez, uh, Carmen Yanez, none of those people were in that room and none of those people were ever going to make their way into the community stakeholder conversation that was now planning to go and put regulations in their community.
That was so wrong. And I said to the facilitator, I said, “It’s your job to get those people in this room.” He’s like, “I” and I’m like “I don’t care, you are paid facilitator. You’ve got to get those people in this room.” And that was one of those sparks that was like okay, so how are we going to change this community so that we can have the people who are most affected by those regulations, the people who are most impacted by the city decisions, in terms if they don’t have—like I get gentrified. Yes, this neighborhood is gentrified.
You can go walk—I mean, you can walk the blocks. Every other house is gone. This is a—we’re sitting in a house as old as I am, 63 years old; we were both born in 1955. Yes, I’m getting gentrified but I have the resources to go someplace else and a lot of choices. It’s really different for me to be gentrified than it is for east Austin to be gentrified and for us to lose, um, the afr—the percentage of African-Americans in Austin over the last decade has dropped from maybe 13 percent, 12 or 13 percent—I think 12.7 percent’s the number in my mind—down to a number between 6 and 7 percent.
I mean, we are losing the African-American community. And when you ask them please stay, they’re like I can’t raise babies here. Nobody knows how to do my hair and there’s not enough of us to really make a community. We are absolutely making Austin white. It’s part of the reason why I was opposed to CodeNEXT. Let’s just get really political why I supported Prop J yesterday, um, to require a city vote. And we are successfully—my community—this is—I’m so proud of this work. It means as much to me as the Save Our Springs referendum, which is definitely like a lifetime highlight.
But we are changing Austin and we’re changing this conversation. And yes, we are lucky enough to be in a, um, in a culture that’s talking about racism in a really big way. But, in Austin, we’ve been able to lay a foundation to have—meaning not just a volatile conversation, not just a volatile confrontation, but to actually have a meaningful dialogue about—about how to look at racism and white supremacy in the context of what is traditionally seen as a white issue like stream protection or drainage criteria. I’m super passionate about it.
DT: So, Lauren, uh, earlier we were talking about this, uh, sort of troubling connection between, um, racism and—and environmental construction and degradation and can you talk a little bit more about that and maybe also I think you’ve mentioned that there’s a issue that perhaps is connected with liberalism and maybe some things that we don’t understand as well as we should.
LR: Sure. Um, in June of 2013, a woman whose name is Wendy Venegret, sent me an email and she said, “We are having an issue around racism in the drag queen community—drag queen as in queer, people dressing up in drag and doing performances. And actually she was talking about a subset of that community called shock drag. I had to Google it when I read her message. Um, and she said we want to have a conversation about the fact that they’re using brown face and, uh, racial references. White people are using racial references in this community as part of their performance.
She—uh, she also said we have five or six people of color who we’re contacting to facilitate but we need somebody who’s white who has an analysis about racism so we wondered if you would be part of a team of five or six people to help facilitate a community conversation in the shock drag community, in the drag queen community, on racism in Austin. I was like I’ll have to get back with you on that. [laughing] Um, I certainly didn’t feel qualified to do it. I did some prayer about it and, you know, agreed.
And all of the other facilitators except, uh, one professor, a black man, who was a drag queen himself, a university professor—I don’t think he’s there anymore and I’m sorry that I can’t in the moment remember his name—but a black man, university professor, was the only other person besides me who said he was willing to facilitate this conversation. I went in it with this condition for myself, knowing that I would absolutely screw up in some way, that this was not something that I knew how to do, that this was a very challenging community, in terms of political correctness, political edginess, sort of way beyond my cultural references.
Um, it was a profound night. I did screw up. But one of the things that I took away from it that was tremendously important to me was a black woman who stood up and said Austin is so—they see themselves—we s—Austin sees itself as so liberal, progressive, and green that we don’t see the racism. And I knew that she was talking about me and my community, that we are so caught up in how good we are as environmentalists, how good we are as liberals, that we don’t see the way that we are very, very blind to the suffering that is created by what we’re a part of.
Um, and I—I think it’s important that Austin change that. And I think it’s important that the white environmental community, in particular, understand that we have sucked up a lot of the liberal conversation. We have sucked up a lot of the political space in this community and there are other voices that are not our voices that need to be heard. One of the profound successes that I have had in my life, one of the profound satisfactions was a hearing on police meet and confer.
When my undoing white supremacy white supremacy Austin community came down to support the people of color communities in their demand that the city vote against the proposed contract on police pay and accountability. And what was so fantastic for me about that night was that, first of all, you had a lot of white people who were donating their three minutes of time so that people of color had more time in front of co—city council to make their support. And then, and this glorious thing that happened, Mayor Adler would call Jayna Simms’ name, uh, because you—to donate your time, you have to be in the council chambers and somebody would say Jayna is minding the children in the back.
And the mayor would have to wait for Jayna to come back out and be in the council chambers and donate her time. And then that happened over and over again that he would call white people who were donating their time and they would be out in service to a black community. And finally the mayor just sort of let that go and would just let the names go and we didn’t have to bring people back so that the thing could more quickly. But we were—we were turning things on their edge that night.
We were white people giving time and making space for black people’s voices on this issue and we were being seen in service. Something in Austin shifted when that happened in the city council chambers. Um, and the environmental community—and I want to say in particular the environmental men—and I have a personal mission that I haven’t yet fulfilled, which is we have a lot of women environmentalists in this community. Robin Schneider is a leader in this. I’m a leader in this. Bridget Shea is a leader in this.
Um, there are other people who—uh, other women who are coming together as white environmentalists to talk about wh—how we are in relationship to racism. When we brought that group together, we said we’re not going to talk—we’re not inviting the men to participate. The men actually have to have their own conversation on this in the same way that white people have to have a conversation about racism. We cannot let people of color do our emotional work and white men in the environmental community cannot let white women do their em—emotional work on their behalf.
So I organized 2 ½ day undoing racism trainings that are facilitated by a black led group from New Orleans called the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. I have been part of bring—a community that’s brought a thousand Austinites through that training and a lot of them in my environmental community because if I’m close to you and we’re going to work together in the long term and we’re going to have a relationship, at some point, you have to do that training because we have to have that common analysis and language.
So I’ve gotten Bill Bunch in there, Roy Whaley in there, Bobby Levinski—did Bobby win? Do you know? Anyway, um, uh, David King—a lot of the men environmentalists have gone through the training but they’re not—they’re still operating out of white male dominant culture. And they need to be coming—Roy Wh—I’ll give you—give you an example. I was in the middle of a training in July of this past year and I get a text on my phone from Roy Whaley who is Conservation Chair of the Austin Sierra Club and he says in the text, he says, “Um, can you recommend a young woman of color from the east side for the conservation committee?”
And then he says, “Is that profiling?” And I’m texting him back like no, Roy Whaley, that is not pro—profiling. That is tokenism. And I got on the phone and I had a two-hour conversation with him. And he said, “We can’t get—we can’t get—not only can we not get young black women from the east side to serve on our committees, we can’t get women in per—period.” Like women will not sign up to serve on this Austin Sierra Club Executive Committee.
And I’ve been talking to R—Roy about that for years. Those men, Bill Bunch, Roy Whaley, David King, Cyrus Reed, Smitty—Tom Schmitt—Tom Smith—Smitty, Luke Metzger, Steve Beers, those men have to come together and they have to say what is it about our culture that means that no one wants to play with us? The women don’t want to play with you.
The people of color don’t want to play with you and you guys are so busy standing up in front—front of city council and being really brilliant and thinking that because you had drinks with some Texas legislature that you are doing something from the Tex—for the Texas environment and you are totally being used by the forces that are exactly opposite from what you’re trying to achieve because you somehow think you’re—your white maleness is so special.
And you guys really do have to—I realize I’m not actually sitting in the right spot but you—you have to figure out and have this conversation amongst yourselves, what—what is it that we are doing that—that separates people, that fails to build culture, that the only thing that will actually effectively counter the forces that—of greed—is a community, is at some sense that there’s something more important than the model and make of my car or the square footage of my house or the zip code I live in. And that sense of what is more important than my personal wealth is something that we share as a community.
And if we’re going to share it as a community, then we have to know how to be part of a community. And white maleness is a culture that leads us away from community, that leads us towards isolation, that leads us towards individualism, and fundamentally erodes the very thing that we need to build to be successful in our environmental endeavors. Now I want to go back to that liberalism thing for just a minute. Um, I consider—I have a few spiritual paths and I consider undoing racism to be a spiritual path. I think my definition of spirituality is something—is a practice that allows me to see the world in a clear way.
Um, it allows me to have a connection, a felt connection with what I value and what I hold to be sacred. Um, the environmental—the white environmental community rooted in liberalism cannot access the language of sacred. And part of it is because racism is so morally repugnant that it—when you—when you don’t deal with racism, you have this seed of—I’m going to use the word immorality and I said earlier that I don’t like the word morality or immorality but I don’t have a better word for it, but there’s something in the—in the—in the violence of racism that we are perpetuating as part of our white culture.
There was an indigenous woman at Standing Rock who talked about whiteness is a measure of the distance from the violence that it takes to support our lives and she said we need to become a lot more aware of the hidden violence, which would be, um, the hidden violence in a package of meat. I eat meat. When I get it from the grocery store neatly wrapped in plastic, never any blood or any animal being killed that I have to experience, right, I’m disconnected from the violence.
Or another kind of violence is the violence that’s woven into the fabric of this cloth that was made—actually this might be a little bit better than this—but when I wear cloth that’s made in China and tiny little hands that, uh, children that were, um, uh, tiny little children’s hands that stitched the fabric and the dyes that are dropped into a river that I will never see, right. I mean, there is a violence in whiteness that remains hidden and that violence erodes the moral ground that we need to counteract those bigger forces of greed.
And I think when you look at the environmental movement; you see this kind of tension. So liberalism makes it difficult for us to come to a conversation about the spirit, uh, about the sacred. We also have a problem in that we have different spiritual paths and so it becomes problematic to try to get all on the same page about one, particularly when you have a very, um, Christian connection to white male superiority, um, you know, those two things both carry the I’m the only one value.
Um, and I think you see the—the way—the—where you see the environmental movement sort of wrestling with these issues is something like the Dakota Access Pipeline or the Keystone Pipeline, or even in some of these conversations about, uh, taking water and bottling it. A lot of times environmental communities are coming back to indigenous communities and relying on the moral character, the moral traditions, the spiritual practices of indigenous communities as something that is underneath our environmental work because we don’t have that as white environmentalists.
So we’re trying to access something there that we need. We run the danger of cultural appropriation and tokenism and we absolutely have to drop into our own conversation and understanding of what is sacred and important in a way that lets everybody come to the table about that conversation. Now I’m saying things that I certainly have never tried to say on camera and have mostly just thought so I don’t know if I’m being very articulate or not. Um, but this is sort of my edge and where I’m thinking about how are we going to get to where we need to be as an environmental community and it absolutely is why I think that the work of undoing white supremacy.
I don’t even say anti-racism anymore because I actually feel that anti-racism is language that has a lot to do with the work of the black and brown communities and indigenous communities. My work is really very directed to challenge the culture of white supremacy and the way that that permeates our environmental movements and the world that I live in, in a way that is hugely destructive.
DT: Um, let me ask you a few questions and—and maybe you can, uh, budget in your mind what—what deserves mo—most time because we—we unfortunately running out. Um, I think your—your spiritual practice of how you find peace and serenity especially with these challenges about environmental destruction or about white supremacy, um, you know, if you could talk to us a little bit about that and—and how it might affect your life, uh, that’d be, uh, of interest. Um, value—um, also, uh, if you have some advice that you might give to future generations, um, be—could hear that. Um, and then I know that you’re a kayaker and if you—if there are, uh, places that you enjoy visiting that are restorative to you, I think that would also be, uh, you know, productive stuff. And, of course, there are many things I’m sure you could add as well but those are three things that come to mind for me.
LR: Sure. Um, I think the question of how we sustain ourselves is really important and I am asking people all the time what are your resiliency strategies. So I’m going to share with you what some of mine are. I think you have to have community. I remember when I was dealing with all that sexism, uh, there were women that I was talking with. I had a strong women’s community and I have always had a—a—women to hold me accountable and to hold me as I deal with a very world, uh, dominated by men.
I have an anti-racist, undoing white supremacy community. I think that we all have to have that community, not only as a resiliency strategy but also to keep us accountable. And I have always had environmentalists who have kept me accountable so that I don’t drift off into some other world. Um, personal practice is really important to me. Um, I think the Buddhists have great technology for the mind and we live in a world that’s very distracted and becoming increasingly more distracted. I meditate every day. I don’t, uh, do Facebook.
That’s a whole ‘nother conversation. I, um, I pri—prioritize, um, analog experiences. I say racism is an issue of the flesh. I want to deal with you in the flesh. I want to—I want to have a physical experience with you. I don’t want to even talk with you on the phone so much or email with you. So as—as the whole world gets sort of swept into a digital experience, I’m making sure that my life is very carefully centered in flesh, sensory, experiences that are unmediated by digital media. I think that’s really important.
Um, and I’m an introvert so I spend time by myself, um, and a lot of it in my kayak. Um, kayaking could definitely go on the list of spiritual practices. I’ve done many 23 to—it’s usually about three weeks solo trips in the wilderness and, um, I call that pressing the reset on my I don’t care button. It’s so easy to just get caught up in really in a—in a tizzy about the state of the world and about what I need to do and there’s way more than any one person can do. And so for me to go out and just spend a day or, um, a week or a month in my kayak is essential.
And to hold onto that as, um, to hold onto that is essential because there’s the voice and sometimes there are external voices but the voice in my head is plenty capable of saying it all by itself, it says you should stay and work, you know. And—and I’m—I’m really clear that my good work depends on, um, going out and being by myself, facing physical challenges because I’m, uh, a rough water paddler so I kayak the coast of Ireland or the coast of Rhode Island, um, big twelve foot waves, big—big surf.
And, um, there’s this moment when I and any paddler in that kind of condition is like am I going to do this or not, you know, challenged by choice is what my coaches say. I have five kayaking coaches. Um, and I have to look inside myself and sort of we—measure risk versus benefit, right, risk versus reward, not benefit really—reward—risk versus reward—and—and make a choice. And I, you know, I bring that back. Like the risk versus reward of the decisions that I make around projects or speaking out.
You know, that night that I described in the—in the city council chambers—every other seat was occupied by somebody in the police blue t-shirt. They had police blue t-shirts and the black woman who spoke was arrested 28 times in the next—well no, she wasn’t arrested. She was pulled over 28 times. There are very real consequences for challenging—I’ll just say challenging white supremacy—challenging the powers—the consequences are real. And so I’m making the same risk versus reward calculation but it’s a little bit more abstract.
And when I can really look at a rock in a big wave and no—imagine how fun it’s going to be but see that I could also get hung up or crashed or, you know, capsized. It—happen—it’s a thing—that happens. Um, it—it—there’s something really helpful about that. Yeah. [inaudible 01:44:46] my soul.
DT: Well and—and for what you’ve learned, whether it’s from the people in your community or from that rock and that wave, is there some kind of, um, advice that you could give to, um, a younger generation?
LR: I think what I want to say to them right now is practice courage. Um, I think both courage and telling the truth. You know, when I get sworn in on the witness stand, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And we say that as if we can just do it. But telling the truth is a practice and courage is a practice. You have to—you have to develop the muscle of truth and the muscle of courage the same way that you would flex a bicep.
And so the same way that I will hardly ever take an elevator, I run the stairs, I would invite your listeners to start to notice where in their lives they can practice te—speaking the truth, speaking a truth, speaking their truth in the moment, and where they can practice courage because we really need them to do that.
DT: Uh, I guess we’re close to the end here. Is there anything you’d like to add?
LR: Um, one of the People’s Institute principles—they have ten for undoing racism. And I think it’s the first one. It may not actually be the first one but I think of it as the first one—is to know your history, that—that understanding history is a foundation for making positive social change and so I really want to acknowledge the work that you do, the work of the Texas Legacy Project, and how important it is that we study and learn from our history. Thank you.
DT: Thank you. Nice to hear. Appreciate your time. Um, I guess that’s a wrap.
[End of Interview with Lauren Ross – November 7, 2018]