Building sustainable communities encompasses understanding the holistic needs in a community. Climate issues are tied to all aspects of human life, including racial equity, financial health, education, and of course, environmental justice. While many of our PRC partners focus on the intersection of racial equity and climate change, several also look at the needs of the wider community, building grassroots movements from the ground up to address other social justice issues in their communities.
PRC partner La Mujer Obrera (LMO), based in El Paso, Texas, embodies this example. Last year, LMO filed a lawsuit against the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) alleging systemic discrimination against poor, Hispanic, and Mexican-American students. The lawsuit stems from the closure of two schools – the Beall and Burleson Elementary Schools – that are important to the community. LMO centers its work on being a community resource and advocate. The organizing and outreach efforts stemming from the lawsuit filled a gap in understanding and information that the school closures were having on families, many of whom participate in LMO programs.
“These schools were centrally located. They were very accessible to parents,” LMO’s Hilda Villegas explained to ISC. “When they closed those two schools…[they] really did not consider the impact they would have in the community because it separated families. It really separated parents from the school.”
Beyond sending students to less accessible locations, there are also serious environmental and educational concerns that were left disregarded when the children were displaced from their original schools, according to Villegas.
Students from Beall and Burleson were split up and sent to Douglass and Zavala Elementary schools. Douglass, however, is located near a recycling plant that recycles metal batteries fueling concerns of contamination further validated when a University of Texas, El Paso study found “moderate to high” lead levels at its playgrounds, as well as high levels of copper in the soil nearby. Meanwhile, students from Burleson Elementary – which had the resources and facilities needed to support children with special needs – were displaced to other schools not as well equipped to offer services to students in need. Many were sent to Zavala, which is located across Highway 54, a major artery for travel. The pedestrian bridge over Highway 110 that is used to access Zavala at times has large puddles of standing water on wet and rainy days that, according to the lawsuit, can be filled with dangerous debris such as chunks of glass. Both of these issues also brought up additional concerns regarding air quality due to the industrial areas that these schools are located in.
“The damage [to the children] is possibly irreparable because none of this was analyzed,” Villegas added. “The environment wasn’t analyzed, the accessibility of these schools to families wasn’t analyzed. How closing the schools would impact the educational opportunities of the children…they created more barriers for children that are underserved.”
The communities most impacted are communities of color and immigrant communities where many parents do not speak English fluently. That has not gone unnoticed to LMO and others. That is why the team partnered with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid to file this lawsuit, to push for the reopening of the two Chamizal elementary schools that were closed, and also to push the school district to pay for building and environmental safety improvements using money that was offered to nearby schools from a 2016 bond.
Villegas said that right now the team is still in the process of mediation in order to see if the issue can be settled outside of the court, but EPISD shows no real signs of being receptive to working with the community. In the interim, LMO has been helping plan and support protests around the community to ensure that parents are aware of the issue.
“If the news is not talking about it, if the district is not talking about it, these are the conversations we need to have, so we do a lot of that visually here,” she added. “So we do…actions outside of the school to get the parent’s attention in hopes of them listening and joining.” But that was met with an increased police presence that Villegas said intimidated some parents. The district has also faced other issues, including the resignation of its superintendent, Juan Cabrera back in 2020, after his involvement in a California lawsuit that alleges that he and a former EPISD board member defrauded charter school investors. There is still currently no permanent superintendent leading the school district. These are all issues that also popped up under the global context of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that even as LMO and others pushed to address these pressing issues, the community was in deep distress and needed support navigating online education, which many parents were not prepared to handle.
“Education in our communities is an immigration issue. If the families were not established immigrants, then the conversation would be different,” Villegas said. But since we’re immigrant families there is the language barrier and the digital divide,” among the other issues to navigate a good education for the children.
At this point, LMO is just hoping to continue the conversation publicly with everyone, especially the parents involved and viewed as experts about what is happening in their community. More importantly, they want to support as a voice for the community, to ensure that there is some accountability and that the children and their education are safeguarded.
“When you look at it in education, you have to look at the environment, you have to look at what’s happening in our community,” Villegas said. “We had to file a lawsuit to be able to negotiate something for our community, to be able to have some accountability.”
“[This matter concerns] everything, you know, it has to do with the environment and mental health, education, and just really changing the way that children are being educated within the school,” she added.