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Sylvia Herrera

INTERVIEWEE: Sylvia Herrera (SH)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 16, 2003
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Dave Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2259

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 16, 2003. And we’re in Austin, Texas at the headquarters of PODER—People Organized in Defense of Earth’s Resources. And we’ve got the good fortune to be interviewing the Health Coordinator, Sylvia Herrera. And I wanted to thank her for taking time to talk to us about her work in environmental justice issues here in East Austin. Thank you very much.
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SH: Thanks for inviting us to participate in this project.
DT: Thank you. Well, I thought we might start by talking about your early days and how you might have gotten introduced and—and exposed to working in—in environmental justice issues. Is there a starting point that you could tell us about?
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SH: I think that going through the educational system here as a native East Austinite, and attending the school in East Austin is something that had an impact in terms viewing the world in a way that—how people were perceiving the people in East Austin through the educational system. But there was a—a point when I was in high school that I decided that the—the insults and the different forms of discrimination that I felt was something that I couldn’t take anymore. And I dropped out but then I became involved with a project of some students from UT [University of Texas] and they were reaching out to the community, and we got involved in a theater group—a street theater group to present social justice
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issues at the time, and this was in the late ‘60s. And so there was a lot of social justice movement primarily through the Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, there was a lot of—of political movement in terms of the Vietnam War, and—and so that was to me a starting point in getting involved in issues, and I was fourteen at the time, so that was the starting point that I—that I feel was important for me to in—initiate those steps of involvement.
DT: Can you tell about any of the plays that you were in or the—the rolls that you might have taken?
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SH: Yeah. There was one—one skit that we would do, again, reflecting the experience of many of us attending the public schools in Texas and in Austin, where our names would be changed to—for—from Juanito or Maria to Mary, and the skits were done in a way that would be humorous of—of experience that had been very negative to us. And that was a way for me to—my experience had been that I started first grade just speaking Spanish, and actually my mouth was taped because I spoke Spanish in first grade. So that was a way for us to identify those issues as not on an individual basis as—but as a community. And so those skits, people could identify with that experience.
DT: Well, you mentioned that you—you dropped out but then eventually you returned to your education and—and…
SH: I…
DT: …actually went on to get a Ph.D., is that right?
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SH: Correct. That experience with being in the theatro, being involved gave me that—that strength along with my parents saying don’t give up, you know. There is a—a—racism out there, there is the discrimination, all those attitudes that you’re going to confront, but don’t give up because that’s what they want you to do. Be strong and move forward. I—I went back to school and got involved with farm worker issues with the political social issues that were happening in East Austin. And—and so that’s why I continue to maintain and—and say education is important so that you can articulate the needs and concerns of your community.
DT: Than—and can you tell us how working with—with the Farm Workers Union helped kind of expose you to some of these problems with—maybe you could tell us about some of the projects that farm workers were working on.
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SH: Well, at the time there was the awareness of the working conditions of farm workers. But I always say that Caesar Chavez one of—was one of the front leaders of the environmental movement because we were also talking about the pesticide issues as—and concern of the farm workers, and the—the fruits and vegetable that were also being sprayed that we were consuming. And so, but I think at the time the issues was framed as a labor issue. And I also saw it as an environmental issue at the time. The boycott of the grapes and the boycott of the lettuce were the pressing issues at the time.
DT: I understand that—that your Ph.D. is in Health Education. Was this pesticide problem one of the factors that led you to be interested in health issues or was there something else?
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SH: There was a number of—of—of things that influenced me. My family in terms of the way—a perspective of looking at the environment. I grew up on Oak Springs in East Austin, and that particular area has natural springs. And so I grew up right there with lots of pecan trees, areas that were just beautiful. And we would go down the street to get water out of a—a—a spring. And so that influenced me along with my grandparents, and my grandfather had been involved at a social movement of his time here in Central Texas for the Mexican community. So I ended up working with the elderly and working—because they have such telling stories in terms of the experiences that they had had growing up in the area. And that influenced me to also take into consideration health issues in our community.
DT: And once you got your degree how did you put that to practice? And maybe you can tell how it might have had a roll in the formation of PODER.
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SH: Well, I was concerned about the general of health problems in our community, diabetes and—and other illnesses and—and diseases. And as I was working in the—in the field that I became aware of—of the environment impacting our health, and so I wanted to continue to do that kind of work. And as we were working to form PODER that was just, you know, a component of the work that we were doing when we were addressing the tank farm. It was the chemicals that were being emitted from that particular facility that was unknown carcinogen. So, again, we talked about health and all the different campaigns and projects that we worked on.
DT: Well, maybe you can tell us about how the East Austin Tank Farm issue helped galvanize you to put PODER together and—and try to work to close down the—the Tank Farm.
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SH: Actually, the formation of PODER in bringing together individuals that had already been working social justice issues in East Austin for many years came to—to a point in—in ’91 when we are looking at the siting of the high-tech companies moving into Austin. And we had already made some connection to groups outside of—of Texas on the regional level and had identified this trend that was happening looking at Silicon Valley and then looking at Silicon Desert in Arizona, looking at New Mexico and then Texas. And we were seeing the trend that the high-tech companies were going to come into East Austin in the guise of providing economic development. And so that’s really
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how we came to address the issue of tax incentives in East Austin from high-tech companies. But shortly thereafter I read a public notice where Mobil wanted to expand its facility into—continue to emit the benzene and other chemicals into the air. What struck me about that public notice was that the tank farm was located like a block away from Springdale and Airport, and that’s the neighborhood that I live in. And so it hit me not only on a—on a level that—of concern for the community but on a very personal level that I was in the area of—within three hundred feet of the facility and I was my—myself and my children were being impacted by the emissions.
DT: And how did you all organize to try and shut down the tank farm and—and cure the problems?
DW: And then the tank farm – is this facility—to those of us who are not familiar with the history of the story—the tank farm—it wasn’t a refinery, it was—for those of us from out of state if you could help explain.
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SH: Okay. The Tank Farm was six major oil companies that had aboveground storage tanks. There was also three major pipelines that fed into the facility, and so they would have eighteen wheelers that would come and load and unload gasoline, and also jet fuel. And so the facility had been there but they wanted to expand and add more tanks to the—to the area. What we did was we had—we went door to door and we actually initiated our first health survey, which is a very short one-page survey, a check-off list, to make a determination or to document what was happening in the community. We looked at general health issues and we found out that a lot of children respiratory problems, had asthma, had nose bleeds, and as well as adults having some cancers, that it was not just an individual family but it was that whole neighborhood surrounding the tank farm.
DT: How did you get their concern once you had done this survey? How did you get them to come to meetings and help support your effort?
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SH: We provided information in regard to—and we also for ourselves we went through the application and the—which was part of the permit that they were seeking, and we began to see information where they had had violations of air emissions, where they had had violations of—of ground water contamination. So we began to inform the community of what was—had happened and what was happening in that area. And we were able to, again, link it to the possible health problems that were occurring. So people became very interested and very angry to the point that they—they participated. It was the providing of information and the sharing of information that people began to participate. Before that people had not been informed. They didn’t know what was happening to them. So they were not—and those individuals that had participated had
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tried to call and complain but they got the run-around. They would say, “Well, this is not the number,” or, you know, “Call over here,” or there was never a—a—a way for them to really respond and complain as a community. And so that’s really when—where we drew the community together and having our community meetings. The other part to the tank farm issue was that we did a—a toxic tour for elected officials, for school representatives. The Tank Farm is in a residential area, but within a one-mile radius you have elementary schools. You had quite a number of elementary schools along with the high school for East Austin, which is Johnston High School. So we go those parents involved. We got the teachers and administrators involved. And we actually went around the facility so that people could smell the odors that were coming out of that facility, so they could see the run-off of the byproducts of the tank farm coming into the community. So it was that visual that—and they could really see what the community was experiencing that really opened up a lot of—of—of people’s minds as well as the investigation and the involvement of the people outside of our community.
DT: Well, speaking of the people outside of the community, what sort of reaction did you get from the oil companies and from The Air Control Board and some of the other regulators?
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SH: They were downplaying a lot of what had happened. I think that they felt well, you know, we’re just going to go in and—and say everything’s okay, and—and then the people will be, you know, fine with that. And—but the community asked a lot of pointed questions and they said, well, if there’s been contamination, what kind of cleanup process. And, you know, there was so questions that the community was not going to be satisfied just saying, you know, accepting that everything was okay. The—what the community did which was also instrumental was we created a monitoring committee on the issue. And the importance of this was that it was representatives from the different groups and different neighborhoods surrounding The Tank Farm along with PODER and the African-American Coalition of Neighborhoods, which was East—East Austin Strategy Team. And we all came together and said okay, we’re going to call in the
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outside entities like the State, Government, corresponding agencies that should be involved. We’re going to call in the city departments to come in. We’re going to call all these agencies to come and respond to our questions. We had in the past whatever issues were—were brought forth, the city or county or state would respond and say okay, we’re going to deal with this issue. We’re going to create an ad hoc committee or a task force and then you get to select one community representative to be on this fifteen member committee, which was pretty much controlled by the—by the public agency. And so we said no, we’re going to have a format—a forum where the neighborhood is going to be in—in control of that agenda. And we feel that that really made a difference in terms of how they were responding to us. What we would have the format where they would be
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coming in and reporting to the monitoring committee and reporting to the community. And so that gave an opportunity as well as the different agencies starting to communicate with each other. The—that had never happened before. The Air Control Board knew there had been air violations. The Texas Water Commission didn’t know that there had been air emission violations. They knew there was ground water contamination. And so we started a real good dialogue where people were becoming aware of what was happening and having a total picture of what had happened and what was happening at the tank farm.
DT: What do you think was said that was pivotal in—in not only getting attention to the problem but actually getting them to shut down a facility which is, I think, very rare?
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SH: I think it was a number of people that were coming to the meetings. It was people that had never participated before. It was people that had, you know, started coming to the meetings and it was more and more people that were involved directly from the community. We wanted to make sure that the people that were directly impacted and affected by this issue were at the forefront, that it was not someone else speaking on behalf of the community. And that really made a difference. That we felt that that community—those neighborhoods, that we were speaking for ourselves in terms of what the issue was. And that—and also the—the work that we did with bringing the County involvement in really helped to look at the issue in terms of pressing for civil charges or criminal charges. And so we ended up having allies and supporters in these different arenas that came in and supported what we had already documented.
DT: Maybe we can talk about some other campaigns that you’ve had and perhaps you can tell us what you learned from the East Austin tank farm issue and—and—and used to your benefit when you were perhaps dealing with Browning-Ferris Recycling Center or some of the other issues that you’ve—you’ve addressed over at the Holly Street Power Plant just a block from here.
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SH: I think one of the things that we learned from the tank farm was that after we shut down the tank farm, which was in an incredibly short amount of time which was eighteen months, after they removed the tanks, that shortly thereafter there was someone else that came in and was using the property to store earthmover, these huge tires, and they started stacking them up on the property. And we said, “Wait a second. What’s going on?” Well, it—we realized that we had not really—we had only tackled part of the problem with the tank farm. But then we started asking why someone else could move in and do something that was just as dangerous or creating a public health hazard. Well it turns out that it had to do with zoning. And we realized that we needed to change the zoning of these properties. So that kind of lead us into looking at other facilities in East Austin, and started realizing that if we were going to be tackling hazardous facilities in East Austin we also needed to look at zoning and the land use. And when we took on BFI that was
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one of the factors there. Again, it was the factor of health because we had noise coming out of the facility. They were operating beyond the hours of operation that they had stated, they were crushing the glass, they were—the newspapers were flying into the neighborhood, and so forth. They—they had created a rodent and roach infestation into the neighborhood. And so these were public health issues that people were concerned about. But the other part was the whole land use, and they were also zoned “industrial” just like the tank farm. At that point we started asking the City, you know, what is the zoning in East Austin? What are the problems? There was also something that occurred. A chemical storage facility caught on fire in the ‘90s. And so we, you know, we had had a series of fires as well at—there was one in—at BFI that also brought the issue to the forefront in terms of the danger of this facility in a residential area. So these were some of the factors that we were having to—to deal with. And part of that process we were
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able to get the City to do a land use zoning map, and that was again the visual representation of what was happening in East Austin. Well, what we found out that between sixty to ninety percent of neighborhoods in East Austin were industrial. And this was on the broader level, that this was the zoning of industrial was all in East Austin. And that zoning, we went back and reviewed the records of how did this come to—to be. And we looked and found out that in the ‘20s—late ‘20s there was actually a public document that was called The City of Austin Master Plan that stated that all industry would be located in East Austin along with African-American neighborhoods or communities that were scattered throughout the city and the Mexican communities that would all be relocated in East Austin. So this was a major factor into looking at our community and saying, “Oh, this is where it’s come from. This is how we all ended up being in East Austin living next to these hazardous facilities.”
DT: Sylvia, can—could we resume? We were talking just a moment about The Master Plan of 1928 and how it’s influenced the layout of the city and how it led to a lot of segregation, not just of people but also of industrial uses. Maybe you can talk about how that played out with the Holly Street Power Plant.
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SH: The Holly Power Plant is another example of a facility that has impacted the community in terms of the health problems that are encountered. And again it’s a facility that’s sited in a residential area. You wouldn’t find this type of facility in any other part of town that—or even in the country where it would be right next to a—a residential area. The health problems have to do with the noise that exceeds acceptable HUD levels at—the noise is such a tremendous force here in this neighborhood, and the way it impacts your health is that noise disrupts the acco—the concentration and your focus. We have a school—elementary school that’s less than a block away. And so we’ve encountered a lot of learning disabilities among the children that are not able to concentrate at home if they’re doing their homework, or at school. They can’t focus because of the level of noise that has been—is being generated out of the power plant. Also, noise disrupts your sleep. So if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you know, there’s problems during the
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day or whenever you’re trying to get some work or learning done. And so that’s another way that our community has been impacted. The electric magnetic fields are very high in this area, and they also have been known to cause cancers in children. And we’re looking at our vulnerable populations. We’re looking at populations of children and elderly that are vulnerable populations and—and the health problems. We have a rec. center that’s directly across the—the way from the power plant that also houses the nutrition program for the elderly, so you have these populations that are in very, very close proximity to the power plant. And again, those exposures—and even populations and individuals that have other types of—of chronic illnesses or diseases that will aggravate and those conditions as well. So the power plant is something that we see as directly affecting the health of this community. We’ve done a health survey that has documented just the very issues that I’ve—I’ve spoken about, and we’ve updated that. I think the other aspect of
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our health that sometimes we don’t think about but is the whole mental health, the whole aspect of living in an area or attending school with the noise that’s generated out of a power plant. And most recently on 9/11 the power plant gave out a tremendous noise where the children at Metz Elementary were traumatized by the fact that the noise was not the same kind of noise that had—that happens in the past, and—to the point where they were screaming, they were crying, and the whole feeling that they thought that they were going to die. And how do we deal with that kind of trauma and mental health that these children, and residents are experiencing? The other component of the power plant is the nitrogen oxide that is emitted and contributing to the ozone, and contributing to the bad air quality that we’re having in Austin. And that’s something that affects all of Austin, not just the neighborhood. And I think that people need to realize that as long as the power plant stays open we’re not going to reach that—or—or continue to have the clean air quality that we’ve had here in Austin.
DT: Sylvia, earlier we were talking about the 1928 Master Plan and how it’s cemented in place the African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods on the east side of town as well as a lot of the industrial land uses. And you were just telling me off camera how those kinds of plans and patterns are not just in the past but are actually ongoing. You mentioned that some of the Smart Growth Initiatives and how they maybe repeat some of those same mistakes of the past. Can you explain what you mean by that?
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SH: Yes. The Smart Growth Initiative designated two specific areas that bring land use to the present in terms of how the East Austin community is impacted. One created an area west of—in West Austin—Western Travis County—that’s called the Drinking Water Protection Zone, and also crated an area in East Austin called the Desired Development Zone. And the Smart Growth Initiative actually produced a Smart Growth Relocation Map. And of course the whole initiative is to bring the urban sprawl or bring that population into the city rather than spreading out, especially into the protection of the aquifer, which is a good thing. But in that whole process of designating East Austin as a Desired Development Zone we’re looking at a neighborhood and community that’s already in place. And so that whole initiative is sort of stating as if it’s open prime property for people to move in and with no consideration to those people that are already here. And what’s happened is that now because we are considered, you know, you can, you know, be down—we’re practically downtown, that people are moving into our
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neighborhood and the property taxes are going up, the people are losing—that have had property here in East Austin for generations are losing their property because they can’t afford to live in the community any longer. And so we’ve reviewed the foreclosure listings and have found that the majority of foreclosures are happening in East Austin. And the—what is happening is that people are coming in, buying property off the court yard or court steps and then flipping those properties around and selling them for outrageous prices. And so any real estate sales that happen in our neighborhood are impacting everyone in that neighborhood. And then we also found that people are coming, buying property, and then also filing for historic exemption or historic zoning,
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which leads to the tax exemptions as well. And then—so then they’re not paying taxes or very minimal taxes, and then the other residents continue to have to pay these taxes that really they cannot afford. And so this has created the beginning of gentrification directly east of the highway and now is moving—moving further east into our community. So again, the land use is something that we’re very concerned about in these plans that are being put forth through Smart Growth.
DT: You explained how Smart Growth, well intentioned as it is, is causing gentrification and problems that disrupt your neighborhood, and—and I was wondering if that puts you at odds with some of your environmental partners in nonprofit community that are more White and middle class?
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SH: Well, it has to be an explanation or a discussion on how do we put forth these plans that are all-inclusive or take into consideration how as a community, as neighborhoods, how we’re going to be impacted. At—you know, we are all in favor protecting the environment and protecting the aquifer. This—the same issue or the same discussion was held when we were fighting BFI and we were saying we’re not against recycling. That’s a good thing. But where does our recycling go to? When you have over three hundred-and-fifty households that are recycling and your recycling is coming to my
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backyard and we have all that trash, then it becomes a problem. So we have to think of the—we have to create these plans where the discussion is held, what are going to be all the impacts and not just saying, okay, this plan is going to address environmental issues. And really, that’s what we put forth as an organization that the environmental also includes the people, the residents, and not just about the birds and endangered species of—of plants or—or animals. We are also part of that equation in terms of how are we going to continue to, you know, be in our neighborhoods and be protected of the environment, of the water, of the air, but also of our residence.
DT: We’ve talked a good deal about environmental problems that effect the whole community and policies that effect the whole community, but I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit about how these same issues effect you and how you’ve managed to maintain your—your role as an activist and advocate despite the challenges?
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SH: I’ve seen it as something that—it’s a daily ceremony if you will, is that it’s not a job that I’m doing but rather it’s a way of life. It’s something that—that I have to address on a personal level that can make my environment, my community a better place to live. There’s a lot of good qualities, a lot of good things that we have in our community in terms of nurturing our community, of—of respecting our community, but at the same time there’s been all these issues that we’ve had to address and how do we empower which PODER means empowerment or power in Spanish. How do we empower our
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residence and as someone that has some information it’s something that I feel that I have to share that information and—and those bits of—of knowledge that I’ve—I’ve gathered throughout the years, that I have to share that, not only with my neighbors but with my community. And also, in that process something that we have to share with our younger people. And that’s what maintains—or keeps me going in this in that we’re transferring that knowledge that of—bits of—of information that is going to generate the discussions with the larger community. But it has to come from the East Austin residents themselves of them saying, you know, this is what we need to have in place, and bringing those on the broader—to the broader Austin community of how we can all make a change where
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all of us are living in neighborhoods that have the same, you know, concerns or have—wanting that good quality of life. And you know, where we’re able to sit in our backyards and enjoy the beauty of Austin, because we have a lot of beauty. But, you know, how do we raise that awareness? Those—those are the things that keep me going, but I think that it’s maintaining that balance of—of—of the way we view in our indigenous ways that perspective that’s holistic and respecting Mother Earth. And PODER, you know, we have her resources because it’s Mother Earth that we’re respecting, and the representation of what that means to us is something that my parents instilled in me and that I, you know, am instilling in my children that—that respect for one another that we need to have.
DT: Is—is there anything else that you’d like to add to conclude?
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SH: I’ve talked about so much. I don’t think…
DT: Any—any particular achievement or accomplishment in your mind that stands out as—as the significant—as the significant one? And one battle that—or interesting enough for activists? Any one that you lost and a lesson that was learned from it that other activists could—could learn from? (?) It sounds very successful but I…
SH: Mm-mmm.
DW: …I, as a—as a, sometimes as an activist I worry about the burnout factor myself. That you’re—you’re down and how do you pull yourself out of it?
SH: Mmmm…
DW: Have you encountered that in any of your struggles?
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SH: I think that the one thing to me that we still need to address and it’s—it’s an ongoing issue is that the school system is still in place and it’s—it’s taken different shapes and forms, but basically the same attitude is still there in our schools. And that’s still a very big concern for me, that I feel that we haven’t been able to achieve that equitable system or that, you know, things haven’t changed in the school system when, you know, when I was in AISD. And—or even at the university level, I think that right now that’s one of the issues that I feel that is—is still there and that I would want to address.
DT: Is there any sort of advice that you would give to your children on how to carry on the kinds of concerns and work that you’ve been involved in, whether it’s in their schooling or elsewhere?
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SH: I think it’s something that in our youth we really have to point out that a lot of times the assumptions are made that because things have gotten better or we have made a difference that sometimes we’re—we don’t continue that level of involvement or that level of awareness that things might change a little bit but it’s still not an equitable system, and that we always have to keep our ears and eyes open to our surroundings to make sure that—that, you know, we still maintain that level of—of—that we’ve achieved. And I—I think that for me it’s been the—the recognition from the community itself that has given me a sense of—recognition of terms of—of nurturing the work that we’re doing, but also the recognition that—that I find and I see when someone, you know, says I’ll go ahead and I’ll take, you know, I’ll go ahead and do a public statement or go before the school board, someone that’s never been involved before. And that’s
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something that keeps me going, to—to know that the people are out there. They just need to be informed. And knowledge is power and that there—there are other people that will step forth. And that’s something that even in the work that Susana and I do, but—but also to know that there are other people that can jump right in and take—take the lead on these different issues. It’s not about one person. It’s not about Sylvia, or Susana. It’s about the community. It’s about PODER as an organization. It’s about East Austin as a community. And it’s the collective that we bring forth. And—and that’s something that’s very important that we have been able to gather that as a—a neighborhood, as a community, as East Austin, to really make a difference.
DT: You mentioned that East—East Austin—you said earlier there’s a lot of beauty—beautiful things. I’m wondering if there’s one particular spot that you particularly like to spend some meditative or contemplative time. Is there one particular place that’s special for you?
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SH: There—there has been. I grew on Oak Springs and one of the disturbing things that I’ve seen in the last couple of years, and again it has to do with the Smart Growth Initiative, and the so called Affordable Program for Smart Housing that has really destroyed my area. And it has to with that Oak Springs neighborhood where housing is being built in that area. And that’s something that’s been very disturbing to me because that was a place that I saw as being environmentally sensitive and where we saw grasses and we saw a whole area that is now being destroyed as I speak. It’s being built on and that was an area where I felt that—because I grew up in that area and we have the natural springs and that’s something that—where I used to go and there was a big oak trees that were there and now they’re being destroyed by the view and you no longer see that beauty there. And that’s something that’s very disturbing in terms of the respect that it’s not been necessarily—unless we point it out and we really drive it and drive it and drive
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it, that’s something that—that has happened in the last couple of years, and to me that’s something that—that part of me is—is being destroyed as well. And I think that we need to continue to, you know, take those things into consideration that people’s neighborhoods are being destroyed. And that’s something that maybe people from other parts of Austin don’t have that connection. You know, they don’t’ have that historical framework. A lot of people outside of East Austin come from other places and they don’t have the roots—direct roots into the—into Austin, and a lot of us in East Austin do have that. And it—it’s that destruction of the beauty that—that we had in East Austin that’s really devastating to the—the—the—the inner—inner soul and inner work that—that—that we’ve done.
End of reel 2259
End of interview with Sylvia Herrera