Raul Alvarez is transportation coordinator for People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), an environmental justice group based in East Austin, Texas. He is also environmental justice director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter in Texas.

Monday, 23 Aug 1999

AUSTIN, Texas

I am happy to report that I had a productive yet enjoyable and restful weekend. I was fortunate enough to see a performance by the New York City salsa/latin jazz band, Manny Oquendo y Grupo Libre, at Antone’s, Austin’s Home of the Blues. This is not a typical act for Antone’s, although Poncho Sanchez, Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeno Band, Ruben Ramos, Flaco Jimenez, Randy Garibay, and other latin acts with diverse repertoires have played there in the past. One of the benefits of Austin’s growth and popularity is the quality of performers who make it through town. This summer, international superstars Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Caetano Veloso, Chucho Valdez, and Arturo Sandoval paid a visit to the capitol city. The next few weeks will bring performances by Ruben Blades, Gilberto Gil, and Larry Harlow. Having hosted a salsa/latin jazz program on a community radio station in Austin (KO-OP, 91.7 FM) for almost three years, I am ecstatic about the fact that artists of this caliber are coming to town and I appreciate the opportunity to take a break from the community work that is necessitated by other aspects of Austin’s growth and popularity.

Austin has become one of the places to be. The city offers a great variety of educational, recreational, entertainment, and employment opportunities. In addition, Austin’s relatively small size, natural landscape, and reputation as a liberal city make it that much more attractive as a place to live. Not surprisingly, Austin is growing at an incredible rate. The rapid development that Austin has been experiencing now threatens the quality of life and character of the city. Public officials and concerned members of the community are engaged in a debate about how to best combat urban sprawl and are working to achieve “smart growth.”

I tend to view my work on environmental and economic justice issues as being directly related to ongoing efforts to define “smart growth” at the local and national levels. My work with PODER has focused on the impact of local land use and transportation policies and decisions on East Austin, a predominantly low-income African-American and Latino community. PODER has worked with many other neighborhood associations and community organizations to call attention to and address the adverse impacts associated with existing and proposed industrial facilities as well as unsafe streets and intersections. In addition, PODER works towards systematic change in the local planning and decision-making processes that have allowed these problems to materialize in the first place.

The problems confronting East Austin may not be solely attributed to local decision-making. Inequities in the permitting of industrial facilities and the enforcement of environmental laws at the state and federal levels have also contributed to the serious public health hazards that exist in East Austin and other communities of color around the country. On the transportation side, state and federal transportation programs that focused almost exclusively on highway building for the better part of four decades have depleted the resources that are available to create safe, walkable, and livable neighborhoods. I am fortunate that my volunteer work with PODER and my “day job” at Sierra Club have allowed me to work toward institutional and policy changes at all of these different levels.

This being my first diary entry, I will not delve into specifics about my work on the issues mentioned above. I would, however, like to share the following. I am currently reading the book Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. The book explores “shared beliefs about the delicate interrelationship between humans and the environment that are contained in both Western science and the age-old wisdom of Native peoples from around the world.” Although the holistic view of nature held by Native peoples has greatly influenced my own personal views on the environment, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the insightful observations made by scientists of varying disciplines whose life work has focused on different aspects of nature. It is unfortunate that these scientific views are not more widely held.

“The statement that the earth is our mother is more than a sentimental platitude: we are shaped by the earth. The characteristics of the environment in which we develop condition our biological and mental being and the quality of our life. Even were it only for selfish reasons, therefore, we must maintain variety and harmony in nature.”
— Rene Dubos, microbiologist, as quoted in Wisdom of the Elders