Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:00)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination Podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Climate change is upending our world. We're seeing flooding, disasters, massive wildfires and brutal heat waves with the hottest days ever recorded.
And the US isn't the only ones feeling it. Those temperatures are reaching all over the globe earth reaching its hottest day ever recorded for three days in a row. From July 3rd to the fifth.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:36)
Finding solutions is urgent.
This is not just about saving our humanity, this is about saving the only planet we call home.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:49)
And nobody has a better understanding of what's at stake and what must be done to address this crisis than communities that have been hit first and worse. In today's episode, we hear from two climate advocates who are working with and in frontline communities to build authentic responses to this global threat. First we hear from Doris Brown who is co-director of community research, organizing and special events at West Street Recovery in Texas. She is also co-founder of the Houston-based Northeast Action Collective or NAC. The two organizations formed after Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas in 2017 collaborate to help disaster survivors. Doris, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Doris Brown: (01:34)
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:35)
West Street Recovery, along with the Northeast Action Collective, focuses on helping disaster survivors come up with their own solutions for both historical and ongoing injustices. Based on what you've experienced in your own community in Houston, can you talk about how climate issues are connected to or perpetuated by the broader issues of housing, infrastructure and government funding inequities?
Doris Brown: (02:00)
Because our communities have been historically disinvested, we have been discriminated against and even though we pay taxes, the money just does not seem to come back to the neighborhood in any economical way. Our infrastructure's antiquated, crusted out. Getting in touch with our governances has been a problem. We have been fighting this fight for a long time and it just got to the point of where we was just disgusted and frustrated.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:30)
Well, tell me a little bit about your connection to the community. I was recently reading something about the fact that the state of Texas has one of the largest black populations of any of the states in the United States, and yet the inequities continue. And believe me, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, so I know a lot of what this is about, but I'd just love to hear you talk about your experiences there.
Doris Brown: (02:52)
I have stayed out here in Houston for 56 years. When we first moved out here in 1967, this was a thriving community. We had grocery stores. We had jewelry stores. It was beautiful out here. We were getting regular maintenance and everything, but then as more Black and Brown people moved into the neighborhood, I guess you could say we had something like white flight. And from then on it became clear that we were no longer going to have these services nor these stores, because they started to move out, things started to change and they did not change for the better, they changed for the worse. The city services and everything started to dwindle and lag and then eventually they just kind of went away even though we were steady paying taxes, people moving in, and by the nineties everything had just changed so much.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:58)
What you have described is something that I certainly experienced in St. Louis and I was just reading about it in a book called The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. And what he describes is how systematic that was in urban areas all across the country. As they became more Black people living there, the cities began to disinvest in those communities. And just what you said began to happen. Were there other things that you had heard about from people who were there before you or things that you saw happening in the broader community that contributed to what has become communities that are suffering from extreme neglect now?
Doris Brown: (04:38)
Well, we had never really and truly experienced this because uh, we came from [Noun] gardens and it was already predominantly Black. And I was 17 years old and two weeks after we had moved out here and we got a cross burnt in our front yard because we were the second Black family in this neighborhood, in this community right here that we're in now. We were here and we just decided that we were just not going to go anywhere else.
It is the strongest storm to hit the United States in 12 years and already it is dealing a devastating blow to the area. Even the most dire warnings couldn't prepare people here for the amount of rain that's fallen in the last 24 hours. So gar, water rescues have topped 18,000 and more than 32,000 people are packing shelters.
People trapped in their flooded out homes, they're fleeing to their attics, taking to social media, begging for a rescue. Then there was the more than 4 billion Congress approved for flood control projects. Houston and Harris County got none of that infrastructure money even though it was among the hardest hit areas.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (05:56)
What made your community so vulnerable to the impact of Hurricane Harvey?
Doris Brown: (05:59)
The drains are antiquated. The infrastructure is antiquated. No one has did anything in the last 50 some odd years out here 'cause we've been here 56. So as the climate changed more and more, the neighborhood went down more and more. We tried to get the little fewer amenities that you did get, like the cutting of the uh, trees off of the power lines. I mean this was from the city utilities. This was something that we were paying for through our bills and we still could not get it. We paying for all of these amenities and not getting them, they were in the affluent areas. This was just devastating us 'cause we didn't really understand it. But once we started to look at our bills and different things and realized that we were paying for it, it changed our outlook on the city governorment that were in charge.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:56)
West Street Recovery and Northeast Action Collective were both created after Hurricane Harvey devastated the mostly black and brown communities in Houston. How has this disaster created an opportunity for community organizing and allowed people on the ground to lean into their power?
Doris Brown: (07:14)
I guess you could say that was an awakening for us. West Street Recovery was uh, about 12 or 13 millennials that came down from different parts of other states to help us because they saw how this neighborhood northeast part of Houston was rundown, how we had a problem getting out. We were prisoners essentially in our own homes and our homes was flooded. We could not get out, no one could get in. They did not come to evacuate us. A lot of people out here had a really horrendous experience and this kind of led to a lot of trauma for a lot of my neighbors. But these young ones came down and they helped evacuate us. This was the first time that someone had actually came into our neighborhood, said they was gonna do something and they actually did it. It was just a beautiful thing to see because they did not care what color our skin were, what language they spoke or anything. They just came on in and started doing what our Governor should have done for us.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:28)
I am curious, Doris, how did they happen to find you? Were you already an activist, already engaged in your community?
Doris Brown: (08:34)
I've already been an act since the age of 12. I started shooting hookit at around about 1112 once I got to high school so that I could go to TSU College while they was catching the buses and every day they would go down to FW Woolworth downtown and sit on stools all day long. They would not serve us any food even though we had money, they would not give us a drink of water. We did this every day and that was woo. But I did it 'cause I wanted to be a part of this movement. This became a passion of mine and I'm still at it. My house had gotten flooded though. This is how I met them. I met them through a pastor friend of mine. They were going around to different people's houses that they saw with those blue tarps and everything and asking them what they liked for them to fix their roofs and different things like this. Well, my neighborhood and communities were not used to this, you know, and they fixed the people's houses, didn't charge 'em anything. They redid my whole house. It is just so amazing. We meet every week. We started out with 12 people. We now have over a hundred and some members in the Northeast Action Collective is the community, the northeast community.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:01)
Can you share examples of how your organization has helped people in the disaster recovery process, both in the immediate and long term?
Doris Brown: (10:10)
These last five years have been such a joy. We have fixed and completed over 400 homes. We fixed those houses because these people have nowhere else to go. They, their plumbing is bad, their roofs leak and no one bothered to fix this. So this is what we do. This is when we started a program called Hub Houses. We had this un unprecedented freeze here in Texas, totally unexpected, and it just caught everybody off guard.
Arctic air power grids failing and millions left to cope with the bitter cold. Cars and trucks sliding off the road, tow trucks out rescuing drivers as temperatures drop near zero part of the Lone Star state hitting record low temperatures not seen in a century and people are cranking up the heat, which is taxing the state's electrical system leading to cascading power outages and rolling blackouts.
Doris Brown: (11:06)
The grid went down. We had a lot of people that passed during this time trying to keep warm. And I almost froze in my home because my home is all electric. But West Street and the knock, we have a way that we communicate because we are usually, uh, boots on the ground first. We have emergency protocols that we practice. We check on everybody to make sure everyone's all right. And we had, uh, plumbers that were in the neighborhood and different things that were going around and cutting people's water off for 'em because it had froze and the pipes were busted. So we had these emergency standbys and that's when the hub house idea came about. At present, there are four hub houses. People in their garages, you know, spare spaces that they have, and they, uh, have generators. They have kayaks in case we have to evacuate someone, we have equipment that will address the cold and the heat.
Doris Brown: (12:06)
We have medical supplies. We are getting ready to do SERP training. I have been trained in C P R and different things like that. We have, um, 10 houses that have solar panels on the top of them, three of 'em that have batteries. These batteries make us kind of independent of the grid. People can come to your home, they can cook a meal. These batteries allow people to come charge their phones up. And as a disaster recovery organization, that is what West Street does. And its by the grace of God that we're able to do all this. But we survive on rents and the help of donations from other people that see what we are doing and you know, it's just helping the public.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (12:53)
In June this year, the City of Houston increased their own budget by $40 million to address drainage issues. And this was after long sustained efforts from organizers like you to push for change. Tell me about the struggle to get millions of dollars in drainage to come into your community.
Doris Brown: (13:12)
Well, we were disappointed behind the budget because there wasn't any money in the budget for drainage and everything. And we were tired of flooding out here. So we all went together and learned about getting information. Once you get information and data, you can go to the county and the city and present your findings. We filed four years, we do research. We enlisted the help of the media outlets. We went to City Hall three months straight every Tuesday the mayor and look up and see us coming and they just drop their head in their hands like, oh, here they come again. We, we love that effect because they know we coming and we coming armed. We got information, we got data, we know where the money's going, we wanna know why it's not going here. And we've been in that fight about the historic disinvestment in our neighborhood for three years and this year we won. We won millions of dollars that would help our neighborhood drainage systems. We won a lot of respect. And we're not gonna quit. We're not gonna back down. We're gonna fight this all the way.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:24)
It's a wonderful effort. And on the state level, the Northeast Action Collective also filed a complaint with the Texas Department of Housing and Urban Development, citing that the General Land Office discriminated against black and brown communities when it came to the distribution of funding after Hurricane Harvey. Can you talk about that effort and what's next? Woo.
Doris Brown: (14:45)
That is monumental for us that we would have the nerve to do that to the state of Texas. You know, it's time someone stood up to them because I perceived them to be bullies in a way. Now you fixed and gave money to more inland affluent neighborhoods and counties. But Harris County, Port Arthur Beaumont down in the valley, Adam City of Houston, you did not give us a dime because we have the largest concentration of black and brown in these counties that I just named. But you didn't do anything for them, for us. So we filed a civil rights 1964 suit. 'cause that criteria was made to discriminate against us. We got people whose houses after all this time still have not, no one has still stepped up and rebuild the house. We're moving through the courts. We are eventually we're gonna take all the way to Department of Justice.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (15:55)
One of the things Dorris that I love about everything that you have told me is that the West Street Recovery and the Northeast Action Collective look to community members, neighbors, the leading voices about what should happen. Talk to us a little bit about why frontline communities are best positioned to take on this work. What solutions have you seen that have come up that just wouldn't have come up if you had relied on outside agencies to look in and say, oh, this is what you need.
Doris Brown: (16:23)
Because the community has been there longer. They are the experts, things that is happening in their communities and things that are not. West Street did a research with the NAC and the different community members and wrote a paper. It's called "Community as Experts". We know better than those people setting up that data that's 10 or 15 years old. Oh, they need this, they need that. We might have needed that 10 or 15 years ago, but we are talking about what we need now.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:57)
What would you say to other communities who are thinking about these issues of inequity and injustice when dealing with climate crisis?
Doris Brown: (17:04)
I tell 'em to stand up, speak up, become an advocate. You know what's happening in your neighborhood and you are really tired of it, but you are afraid. Do not fear. People don't really realize that climate change is part of what's happening now. We know that in our neighborhoods we no longer hear frogs, can't even look up in the sky and see the constellation of the stars. This is things that I miss and I saw these as a child. Didn't we had a freeze here in Texas. Can you imagine a freeze? Pipes broke, water froze. If you don't start this change now, the children will suffer and the children are our future.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (18:00)
Doris, you and your colleagues have really just done something extraordinary in terms of recognizing the power that you have, the creativity and the innovation that you're capable of, the coalitions that you can build. You have certainly warmed my heart and given me hope, but I'm wondering what makes you hopeful?
Doris Brown: (18:23)
. It makes me hopeful that we can change things. This is a passion. This has always been my passion to help other people and to bring on salon. You do something, we wanna do something better for ourselves, so we're going to continue this fighting. We are not going to give up. And my mantra has always been, if it's not right, I'm going to fight. I'm still at it. I'm 73 years old, I'll be 74 soon. And this has been so invigorating for me. It just, it's what gets me up in the day when I get up in morning, I look in the mirror and I say, have you done enough? I can hear that voice. Nope. Something else out there that need your attention, . That keeps me going. .
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:12)
Oh, Doris. Yeah. It keeps us all going.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:16)
. Doris, thank you for talking with us. Thank you so much.
Doris Brown: (19:21)
It was wonderful. Thank you for having me.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:29)
Doris Brown is West Street Recovery's Co-director of Community Research Organizing and Special Events and Co-founder of the Northeast Action Collective. Next up on Radical Imagination, we continue the conversation about how communities are mobilizing their power to find climate solutions.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:09)
We are now joined by Anthony Giancatarino, Strategy Partner at Taproot Earth, an organization that works with frontline communities to advance climate justice. The organization is using a process called the People's Movement Assembly to engage community residents and others in coming up with climate action plans. Anthony, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Anthony Giancatarino: (20:32)
Thank you Angela. It's great to be here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:34)
Taproot Earth has been using the People's Movement Assembly Process, PMA, to go beyond conventional solutions to climate change. First, tell us about Taproot Earth and then walk us through this PMA process.
Anthony Giancatarino: (20:49)
Taproot Earth formed about 18 months ago out of the sun setting of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy and created as a new international organization that works across the Gulf South, Appalachia, and the Black Diaspora in the world. We are an organization that is deeply committed to changing the systems and cultures of extraction towards collective governance, stewardship, and self-determination. We are really deep believers that the people have the answers. So we have utilized what we call the People's Movement Assembly Process, which is a process deeply rooted in the tradition of the Southern Movement Assembly and global south movements, particularly in Latin America and South America, as well as parts of Africa. At the basic core of a PMA is you bring in communities on the front lines of experience, and then we pair that with other folks who are either researchers or academics, lawyers or other organizers or advocates who offer some additional kind of political education, analysis, and support so people can see how these systems are connecting.
Anthony Giancatarino: (21:59)
One of the key roles of the PMA process is to create a space for envisioning possibility. What is the research we need? What are the policy and legal strategies that need to happen? How do we kind of create the social, economic and political structures for these solutions to take root and and grow and to really a co-creation cultivation space that grounds community and frontline experience. At the core, it's a system of accountability. People walk away with a deep accountability to each other, and as Taproot Earth, we co-design and help facilitate and invest in the leadership for these assembly processes to continue to move and grow and expand.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:41)
Anthony, your explanation was so full of the kinds of things that never happen when we're trying to solve big problems that impact the lives of low income people across the earth. Could you tell us why you've chosen the PMA process to get into this?
Anthony Giancatarino: (22:58)
You are right. It is not conventional and it is something that takes time in the climate conversation. What we don't have is time, right? Everyone is on the rush to get the, the silver bullet to the climate crisis. What is the biggest solution that can happen? It's the wrong frame to this, this crisis, yes, there's urgency, but to act with a sense of urgency and not any accountability to community is to just replicate the extractive system that got us in this mess in the first place. The People's Movement assembly process is grounded in intentionality and it is grounded really, again in the concept that the people closest to the pain, the people who are experiencing the hardest and the worst damages or troubles are the folks that have experience, who have learned how to survive and know how to move through solutions that are connected to people.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (24:00)
And you've described the people's movement assembly process as a way to decolonize knowledge. Let's step back and talk about what this word means and then tell us what does it look like in practice to decolonize knowledge?
Anthony Giancatarino: (24:14)
When we talk about decolonizing, it's really about how do we 1) decenter ourselves as the as needed to be in the middle and controlling everything. 2) it actually means how do we repair our relationships to the earth and to each other? And that's seeing ourselves as actually a part of something bigger and a part of each other in, in a shared family and a shared earth. And it's also mean like how do we actually really take a deep look and understanding around the political, economic and social systems that have shaped us. When we actually do a lot of our gatherings, we don't gather until we ask for permission from the the tribes whose land we're on. So we start by just honoring and asking, not just naming the land, but actually asking for permission to be on the land. And then when we are in the Gulf South in particular, we always start the process with Indigenous drums and prayer. And then elders from the African American and Black community will come in and do African traditional drumming. So we actually start with music and we don't start with words, we start with with the drums.
Anthony Giancatarino: (25:30)
And I think that just also sets a a different tone. And then when it gets into the words we start with the voices of communities first impacted.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (25:39)
It sounds so thoughtful, respectful, and powerful. I'm curious whether any radical solutions have emerged so far from the process. Can you be specific around that?
Anthony Giancatarino: (25:52)
So when we did this particular P M A process, we called it the We Choose Now Climate Action Strategy Process, and we focused on four states, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas. Just looking at Louisiana for example, not only is it most often the first hit state around the climate crisis, it's also the state that has the highest incarceration rate. Over 1000 people per a hundred thousand are incarcerated in Louisiana. That's nearly twice the US average. And every time there's a disaster, whether it's a climate disaster in terms of a storm, or whether it's a oil spill, like the BP oil disaster, the folks who are cleaning that up are folks who are incarcerated. So it's another level of forced labor exposing people to toxins or to unhealthy workspaces with no pay. So one of the solutions that came out of that process was we need to invest in more beds, not beds in a prison, but beds in a home. How do we actually get people housed in ways that are healthy? Because the majority of folks who end up in prison is because they don't have the access to the most basic needs that we have. It seems obvious, but our country doesn't like to prioritize the solution. So it becomes a radical vision.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (27:15)
Do you know Anthony, often when you talk about the climate crisis, there's a heavy sense of doom and gloom. That's not what I'm feeling as I talk to you. What keeps you hopeful?
Anthony Giancatarino: (27:29)
We have a term that we use today. We call it the Liberation Horizon. We have seven years to 2030, which all of the climate science says is it's the end of the world. And we're like, well, it could be, but we all have a choice and we could choose to envision possibility and how do we get there? So we like to use that as a Liberation Horizon. But to be quite honest, Angela, I have three daughters and sometimes I've wondered like, oh, we brought them into this world. Like what did we do? You know, this world is, it's falling apart. The democracy is under attack. The climate crisis is here, but they are empathetic. They're joyful. They are creating solutions. So I have a lot of hope because I think my kids and the kids that they play with and the kids that are here to come are gonna be better than us. I really do believe that we can make this world a better place. We owe it to them. I think we owe it to the generations after them and we owe it to the folks who came before us.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (28:43)
Anthony, thank you for talking with us.
Anthony Giancatarino: (28:46)
Thank you so much. I really appreciated the time.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (28:50)
Anthony Giancatarino is the strategy partner at Taproot Earth. In this episode, we shine a bright light on the promise and possibilities of our climate future. And we dive into the world of frontline communities most effective by climate change and hear how they articulate their experiences, envision possibilities, and lead collective action. Anthony Jean Caterino provides us with a unique perspective on the power of collective action through the People's Movement Assembly process. And I was left in awe from my conversation with Doris Brown. Her joy and passion and personal story of rejuvenation should inspire us all. Both the work and lived experiences of Anthony and Doris remind us of the power of grassroots organizing and the radical, unwavering spirit of coming together to fight for the humanity and the planet.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (30:03)
Radical imagination is a PolicyLink podcast produced by Futuro Media. The Futuro Media team includes Marlon Bishop, Andreas Caballero, Nour Saudi, Stephanie Lebow, Julia Caruso and Andy Bosnick with help from Roxanna Agiri, Fernanda Santos, Juan Diego Ramirez, Roxanne Scott, and Gabriela Bias. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Loren Madden, Ferchil Ramos, Vanice Dunn, Perfecta Oxholm, Eugene Chan and Fran Smith. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Sugira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (30:48)
Join us again next time and in the meantime, you can find us firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember to subscribe and share.Join us again next time and in the meantime, you can find us email@example.com. Remember to subscribe and share next time on Radical Imagination, a reparations framework for housing.
What happens to low-income people who are displaced from the land that they have lived on for 30 years? It doesn't matter if it's public housing or it's private housing or whatever it is, people have a connection to the place that they live and, and work and dream and all those things.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (31:22)
That's next time on Radical Imagination.