Power of PODER
Susana Almanza Fights for Environmental Justice
By Valerie Menard
Like in the tale of David and Goliath, smaller forces can overcome larger ones on a fairly regular basis. For example, in 1991 five people decided to take on a tank farm in the middle of a neighborhood made up mostly of Latinos. With little funding to fight petroleum giants, the chances of winning were unlikely but the cause was so just that they persevered. That was the year People Organized to Protect the Earth and her Resources (PODER) was born and 31 years later Susana Almanza, one of the original founders, remains at the helm, continuing to take on one giant after another.
“Shutting down the tank farm was definitely our biggest victory,” she says. “It was done with a grassroots effort and just $2,000—we would ask for nickels and dimes at every meeting. Mothers and grandmothers got mad and then got organized.”
Almanza and fellow co-founders, Sylvia Herrera, Gilberto Rivera, and Sylvia Ledesma grew up in the sixties, surrounded by Chicano activism that would provide a strong foundation from which to draw strength. The fifth co-founder, Antonio Diaz, was a bit younger. “The founding members continue to be guided by our indigenous principles and perspective as basic human rights,” shares Herrera. “We ground ourselves on mother earth, recognizing her as a living entity. This was an important discussion when we were choosing a name. It also connected to how the movement had been female led.”
In the nineties, a migration began that saw hi-tech companies heading south. The trail included California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Despite its reputation, the technology industry is not clean. Keeping semiconductor chips clean requires harsh solvents that are stored onsite and can leak, like they did in San Jose in 1981. This concern promoted the formation of the Electronic Industry Good Neighbor Campaign. In 1991, they attempted to meet with SEMATECH, a partnership between the federal government and a consortium of semi-conductor companies located in Austin at the time.
“After that meeting there was a major blowout,” Almanza shares. “They did a briefing for the press. Everyone went back to their own states but we decided to form PODER.”
Only months later, a report reached PODER that a tank farm, run by six major oil companies, had applied for a permit to expand operations. Neighbors had complained of health issues but nothing had been done by local government. PODER began to investigate and what they found would expose one of the largest examples of environmental racism in the country.
They invited scientists to test the site but after an hour, they began to ask for aspirin.
“When I would go out there, I would get a rash and a splitting headache,” admits Almanza. “When the scientists had the same reaction, that’s when I realized what residents had been living with.”
The tank farm had been emitting benzine but according to the state agency that regulated it, the emissions were within acceptable levels. PODER, however, discovered that the state was regulating the tank farm as one entity when in reality, there were six tank farms on the site so that cumulative emissions were five times the acceptable level. The second problem was that the city had zoned the area industrial which allowed the tank farm to locate within a neighborhood.
“That is the definition of environmental racism,” asserts Almanza. “Once we got the tank farm to shut down and relocated, the residents would tell us they had forgotten what fresh air smelled like. Environmental racism is the problem, environmental justice is the solution.”
After the tank farm, PODER took on and successfully closed the Holly Power Plant in East Austin. Like the tank farm, it was located within a low-income neighborhood and had been emitting noxious fumes and electromagnetic radiation onto nearby residents.
Most recently, PODER turned back the city’s rezoning plan called Code Next that would have continued the growth of high-density multi-family housing, i.e. apartments, over single -family housing. The effect would have decimated what remained of home ownership among low-income families.
“One of the key lessons I learned at PODER was to resist the temptation to be rigid and to be top down when addressing problems, which was how I was trained and raised,” shares Paul DiFiore who worked as a community organizer for PODER before leaving to enter law school with plans to focus on environmental law. “Problem solving as I knew it was very structured but PODER remains flexible to best respond to the community. Being in touch with the community was a very important lesson.”
While victory is sweet, there have been disappointments. At the start of this year, PODER learned that despite the city’s history with tank farms, another one was being planned to house jet fuel at Austin Bergstrom Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was at the lead on this project. With multiple sites to choose from, the FAA chose a location only 400 feet from the nearest resident. PODER sprang into action but the process had been fast tracked. The FAA determined that it did not need an Environmental Impact Statement and residents were not informed of the project, which was only mentioned on the website.
PODER tried to take the FAA to court but it was tossed out due to a technicality. “It was very disappointing and painful for the community, especially considering the city’s history with tank farms, but we’re not going away,” says Almanza. “We will start air monitoring before the four tanks get up and running. We also want the city to adopt a policy about notification to we make sure we notify people, not just on the internet, but door to door and in the language of residents.”
To cope with disappointments, Almanza goes back to nature. She walks on the grass in her bare feet to feel the earth and lets the sun shine down to re-energize: “I’ve always been very spiritual, I work to keep a balance and believe in the power of prayer. Morning and evening, I call out to ancestors to guide me, friends and allies, healers, if my energy is low, they call me to keep me balanced.”
A native of Austin and the middle child of nine, Almanza learned early leadership lessons from her parents Miguel and Tomasa Renteria. In order to reinforce her Spanish skills, they took her into the community, at age five, so she that could help translate for her neighbors. That early training gave her confidence.
“They gave me a voice at a young age,” she recalls. “I grew up talking to adults and that put me on a path of not being afraid of public speaking.”
In high school she worked on the school newspaper, which helped her communication skills and she even credits white students from the University of Texas, who would visit her high school to organize school walkouts to protest the Vietnam War, for opening her eyes to world outside of Austin.
The first Latina to attend an all-black middle school and one of few Latinos to attend the predominantly white Austin High School, she shares that counselors showed little interest in encouraging her college dreams so she didn’t go. Instead, she sought out internships to learn what she wanted to learn, like newspaper publishing and radio broadcasting. She even published her own newspaper for a time, appropriately named El Coraje, and PODER would also broadcast a regular radio program for ten years.
“I received on-the-job training for the things I wanted to do through internships,” she says. “I never went to college but if I had, I would have a Ph.D. by now.”
But she got a job out of high school at the East First Street Neighborhood Center, where she worked side-by-side with mentors who would become the first Latino elected officials throughout Central Texas, her professional goals crystalized. “I worked for the late John Treviño, the first Latino elected to City Council, and Gonzalo Barrientos, the first Latino elected State Senator for Travis County, and other leaders who were running the Vista program at the time,” she shares. “But it was also the place where the Raza Unida Party would meet and Chicano groups like the Brown Berets began to form. Anything that had to do with the community, this was where the organizing would take place. I was with them, participating, and taking notes. I started with civil rights, then joined the Chicano movement, and then onto environmental justice. I was always sensitive to the earth and my indigenous roots.”
Almanza now has the same effect on the workers and interns she hires. “I feel Incredibly lucky and grateful for meeting Susana and working at PODER,” says Paul DiFiore. “Susana thinks about things in a different way. She has an incredibly powerful worldview and her perspective is sorely needed in Austin. She’s a powerful and natural leader and one of the savviest people I know.”
Almanza has also challenged mainstream environmental groups for their lack of inclusion or recognition of communities of color. Some have stepped up like the Sierra Club.
“Historically, environmental justice groups have been left outside of the mainstream environmental movement and that’s a problem because they also receive less funding,” shares Dave Cortez, director of the Sierra Club Texas Chapter.
Alliances between large and small groups, however, have started to make a difference.
“In Texas, big well-funded organizations are not really winning as much as think they are,” adds Cortez, who continues to build alliances with PODER. “We get small gains at great cost. We get better results from bridging communities, sharing struggles, and moving together. When we do that, we win faster and more.”
Undaunted, Almanza continues to focus PODER where it’s most needed. Among her priorities are the Voter Education and Registration program to register voters, Fair Fares to keep bus and rail fairs at the same rate, the Colorado River Conservancy to protect the river from looming development, the Solar Equity program to bring solar energy and jobs to the Montopolis neighborhood, and the Young Scholars for Justice program that trains new young leaders about environmental justice.
“I’m amazed at the courage residents have shown to stand up to multinational companies and the city of Austin. It takes courage. Once informed, that’s when they were empowered,” says Herrera.
“Testing tells you how people are living and what they’re suffering,” adds Almanza. “People understand health issues like cancer and that’s how we’re able to organize.”