Lessons from the Gulf Coast: How Disaster Brought Me Into The Environmental Justice Movement

My experience as a Black queer urban planner and environmental justice advocate in Houston, Texas has pushed me to reconsider my understanding of “the great outdoors,” “nature,” and “the environment.” Nature isn’t simply a playground for outdoorsy, crunch-granola white people. As Eurocentric concepts, they have been used to deem our ancestors primitive “jungle” people and, in the name of either conservation or profits, dispossess us of land and other resources vital for our survival and well-being. Our relationships with the environment differ greatly due in part to environmental racism. How we experience the environmental burdens or benefits of development has had everything to do with race, class, and gender. As a result, this has everything to do with us as QTPoC.

The environment is all that we see, touch, feel, and conceptualize around us; it’s multifaceted and simultaneously natural, built, and social. Our environment is made up of immensely complex systems that force us to think and act collectively across many scales.

Environmental racism is yet another form of structural violence that we grapple with and fight against.  For too many of us, our surrounding environments often resemble battlegrounds instead of oases, where our health and safety are under attack on all sides.  Although environmental racism is systemic and exists practically everywhere, it was in Houston that I learned the magnitude of the problem and committed to the environmental justice movement.

Before Harvey, I saw Houston’s stark inequalities as I walked the city streets. Maseratis roared past homeless encampments. The bizarre lack of sidewalks, curbs, and storm drains as I walked through low-income and non-white neighborhoods. Downtown streets were almost dead since corporate employees avoided the heat and the homeless through underground tunnels. At work, racism manifested across all my maps as residential segregation. None of these issues, I thought, were clearly environmental.

It was in the wake of natural disaster in Houston that I witnessed the consequences of the man-made disaster of environmental racism. As a recent graduate who had moved to Houston just one month prior, I first saw environmental racism through the lenses of housing and disaster recovery.

Soon after Harvey, one of my tasks was to locate residents who were displaced after the storm and look out for possible violations of tenants’ rights. Unfortunately, tenant rights are weak in Texas and largely favor property owners, disproportionately harming poor Black and Brown renters. The Texas Property Code permits—and in fact, requires—landlords to evict tenants in the wake of natural disasters. Where they end up is neither the landlords’ concern nor their responsibility. Through my work I learned that these evictions are often swift and can happen just hours after the storm.

Even in subsidized housing, where tenants have the strongest legal protections in Texas, Harvey revealed to many the egregious case of environmental racism at Clayton Homes. Built in the 1950s as segregated public housing, the complex sits between ever-expanding Interstate 45 and the banks of Buffalo Bayou, facing the double threat of floods and air pollution. After having watched rescues of children from the second floor on the local news, I visited the complex town, with 40% of its units deemed uninhabitable, with doors still open, reeking of mold—surely a public health hazard. Even to their former neighbors, it is still unclear where the displaced tenants have gone.

I tried my best to memorize the disaster recovery process in theory while I was the intermediary between displaced residents, legal aid attorneys, activists, and policy advocates. It was only by witnessing the lived experiences of displaced Houstonians that I learned about the process (and its loopholes) in practice.  

As QTPoC who advocate principles of environmental justice, we have the power to not only protect our communities but to also redefine what it means for urban development to be “sustainable” and “resilient.” Sustainability doesn’t and shouldn’t just imply a “cleaner,” “greener” capitalist status quo. Green spaces and green infrastructure can’t be a luxury exclusively enjoyed by the affluent gentry and suburbanites. Environmental justice isn’t only about putting out the fires of injustice; it’s also about reclaiming our relationship to land and our ecosystems in order to sustain and empower ourselves.

Though we may not often frame our issues as spatial or environmental issues, what lies at the heart of many of our struggles is the right to reclaim and protect our communities in their local environments. We’ve struggled to stay in place amidst gentrification, to create and occupy safer spaces of our own in the face of exclusion, and to protect ourselves and loved ones from violence through community policing, shelters, and networks. We’ve been fighting hard for our right to safe, affirming, life-sustaining environments.  Our lived experiences position us to reframe discussions around environmental justice, sustainability, and urban development. In a sustainable city black lives indeed matter; queers of color can exist whenever, wherever, and however we want; and our ecosystems work to nurture all of us and our beloved kinfolk.


Follow Devin on Twitter @devinaoliver and Instagram @bald_n_bougie. 


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