Austin's Sustainable Secret
Student-founded Green Is the New Black makes renewable energy at Huston-Tillotson
In many ways, Green Is the New Black is like any other student organization on a typical college campus. Based at Huston-Tillotson University in central East Austin, the group holds events, raises funds, and advocates for its cause: environmental awareness. However, GITNB has tackled these projects with the energy of 10 such organizations. Within just a year of its founding, the student-led group has won $85,000 in grant and scholarship money for the university, and has even trademarked its name. Granted, the name is more than just a clever moniker. "Green Is the New Black" is a spirited declaration of purpose – an explicit invitation to explore the underappreciated intersection of race and environmental issues. GITNB hopes not only to address these issues in its own neighborhood but to see the emergence of sister chapters exploring similar themes on campuses throughout the country.
When she was growing up, says GITNB co-founder Angelica "Jelly" Erazo, environmental awareness was not a big part of her life. "You know 'Don't Mess With Texas'? I had no idea that was about trash," says the Houston native, who laughs about it now. Nonetheless, she says her family was in some ways unintentionally green. "Girl, turn off that water!" she says, impersonating her mom. "Turn off that light!" Erazo likes pointing out now that, contrary to conventional wisdom, being green can save money. Having grown up in a low-income community where "there was no voice for the Latinos," Erazo returns often to themes of communication when talking about GITNB. "When we wanted to form as an organization, I thought it would be important [that] the people we're trying to relate to are also minorities, young adults, people who are not so familiar with sustainability issues," she says. "How do we communicate with them in a language that they understand and we understand?"
Effective communication has been especially important for GITNB because one of its objectives is to help promote a seemingly confounding endeavor: a sustainable-design experiment in which faculty and students are transforming a 6-by-6-foot Dumpster into a tiny, livable home. The Dumpster Project has become a surprisingly versatile locus for cross-disciplinary experimentation, data collection, and curriculum development adaptable across grade levels. Nonetheless, it is most well-known for its unmistakable element of performance art, thanks to its bowtie-clad inhabitant. HT University College Dean Jeff Wilson, an environmental science professor, became a living part of the "less is more" experiment when he moved into the Dumpster last February, with plans to stay for one year.
Erazo and GITNB co-founder Evette Jackson were both working for Wilson as work-study students last fall when he first announced the idea. Jackson – an East Austin native who plans to go to law school when she graduates – says she grew up thinking about sustainability issues. "My mom's a real freak with recycling," she says. "And my grandma loves gardening." Nonetheless, she and Erazo were both taken aback when Wilson told them his plan. "We looked at each other like, 'You are crazy,'" recalls Jackson.
Although skeptical at first, they soon came around, perhaps partly out of respect for the charismatic Wilson. "A lot of us look up to him." says Erazo. "If he tells you he's going to help you, he doesn't wait. He does it right then and there." Erazo and Jackson shared the concept with other students, and the idea emerged for GITNB – a group reflecting the whimsy of the Dumpster Project ("fun, witty, yet productive," as Erazo puts it) and the unique perspectives of its members. The Netflix series Orange Is the New Black was popular at the time, and Victoria's Secret was doing a "Pink Is the New Black" campaign, recalls Erazo: "We were like, you know what? Green is the new black."
In part, GITNB and the Dumpster Project reflect the broader aspirations of a small school to make a big difference on several fronts. According to public relations director Linda Y. Jackson, the administration began actively looking for ways to reduce the school's carbon footprint in the early Aughties, and has been steadily implementing sustainability measures since then. In 2011, the school was recognized by the National Wildlife Federation for its energy-saving and recycling efforts, which included an 80% reduction in municipal waste on campus. "People think that African-Americans don't care about the environment," says Jackson, "and that is absolutely not true." In fact, she says, environmental problems "affect African-Americans disproportionately to other populations."
Among the many ugly truths about environmental degradation is the fact that it is so often distributed along lines of race. Famously, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published a study in 1987 finding race to be a more accurate factor in predicting the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities than household income, home value, education, or the amount of industrial waste generated. A 2007 follow-up study reported even greater racial disparities than the first time around. Relative to white Americans, the findings show that African-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Asians/Pacific Islanders are, respectively, 1.7, 2.3, and 1.8 times more likely to live in a neighborhood with hazardous waste facilities. At the same time, minority communities often have the fewest resources to devote to lobbying for environmental protections.
"The Green HBCU"
Historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) face a similar challenge. The 2014 HBCU Green Report, a survey of HBCU sustainability efforts around the country, notes that many HBCUs struggle with "diminished resources, declining enrollments, deferred maintenance, debt and deficits," all of which can eclipse environmental concerns. These challenges in part reflect a unique history going back to the post-Civil War era, when most HBCUs were established as institutions for educating freed slaves. (Huston-Tillotson can trace its origins back to the founding of Tillotson College in 1875, bearing the distinction of being Austin's oldest institution of higher learning.) In the first half of the 20th century, black Americans seeking higher education had few options beyond HBCUs. Opportunities grew after the Sixties, but HBCUs remained important. As recently as 2007, a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that a substantial percentage of black professionals were HBCU graduates, including 40% of congressmen, half of all lawyers and non-HBCU professors, and 80% of African-American judges.
Nonetheless, today's 106 HBCUs operate in a competitive environment. Most HBCUs have diversified their student bodies, but they have also stayed true to a legacy of educating minority and low-income populations. Among HT students, the majority are African-American (73%), a substantial number are Hispanic/Latino (18%), and 4% are white. (The remaining 5% are international, Asian, Native American, two or more races, other, or unknown.) Notably, 73% of the student body is eligible for federal Pell grants, which are reserved for students with the greatest financial need; by contrast, only 28% of UT-Austin students qualify. As a result of these priorities, HBCUs excel at catering to the educational needs of underserved students, many of whom are part of the first generation in their families to go to college. At the same time, in serving a population with financial challenges, HBCUs themselves face similar challenges on a larger scale.
The 2014 HBCU Green Report finds that, even under these constraints, eight in 10 schools surveyed are either creating a sustainability plan or already have one in place. The report also notes that a focus on sustainability opens up "tremendous business opportunities" for HBCU students graduating into a greener economy. In line with this outlook, HT received accreditation this year to offer environmental studies as a major. Jackson says the coursework will cover environmental justice, global warming, conservation biology, renewable energy, air and water pollution, and environmental law. "These of course are major issues that affect especially our student population," she notes.
Huston-Tillotson's actions reflect the school's desire to be "ahead of the curve" on green initiatives, says Jackson. However, GITNB and the faculty who support the group talk of a more ambitious goal: to be "the green HBCU." Admittedly, says GITNB adviser Amanda Masino, "being the greenest is a ridiculously audacious goal. We are tiny. We have few resources compared to some of the big-name HBCUs like Spelman or Morehouse or Tuskegee." Nonetheless, she believes HT's disadvantages are also its opportunities. "Having a focus like that can have a big impact because we're small, because we're under-resourced."
A Better View
HT green coordinator Karen Magid says a proposed installation of solar panels on campus – granted performance-based incentives by the city in September – could be complete as soon as March of 2015. It's unclear whether the school will be able to install the maximum amount under consideration, but if so, she says the project would give HT the distinction of producing more renewable power per student than any other private HBCU. Beyond the environmental benefits, Magid sees such projects as a means of raising the school's profile. Even here in its hometown, where it has been tucked away on a quiet East Austin campus for nearly 140 years, Huston-Tillotson has the air of a well-kept secret – as many students have discovered. "Huston-Tillotson is older even than UT," says Wilson. "Imagine going out on Sixth Street and saying you go to Huston-Tillotson and people saying, 'Where in Houston is that?'"
One upshot to being a well-kept secret is that the campus, at Seventh street and Chicon, remains an untarnished gem in the center of one of the country's fastest-growing cities. A westward-facing terrace connecting the campus chapel to an instructional building offers an unobstructed view of the Downtown skyline, just a little over a mile west of campus. "It's the best view of Downtown in Austin," boasts Wilson. Thanks to a $10,000 award GITNB won last year in the Home Depot "Retool Your School" competition, in November the modest balcony is scheduled to be transformed into a lounge where students can study while they enjoy the view. Of course, it will be a "green" study lounge, equipped with rain barrels and furniture built from sustainably harvested materials.
In just its first year, GITNB achieved much. Members worked with kids at nearby Blackshear Elementary School to build gardens on campus. They won the honor of "Best Booth" at the Austin Earth Day Festival last May. They also competed against some of the most prestigious HBCUs in the country to win the $75,000 top prize in the Ford HBCU Community Challenge in December. Now in their junior year, Erazo and Evette Jackson describe the journey as transformative.
"Now we can get in front of a camera, no problem," says Jackson. She and Erazo say they both used to be terrified of public speaking. "I used to cry," says Erazo. Five GITNB members traveled to Michigan to present their final proposal – about the Dumpster Project – for the Ford competition, and Jackson describes the hours before the presentation as a grueling affair. "Jelly had stress balls. I was pacing back and forth," recalls Jackson. "But if you want to be a lawyer, if you want to be a feminist, you need to learn to talk in front of people."
Bringing the top prize back to Austin was a watershed moment for the group. "We didn't know how to handle it," says Erazo. "All these people coming up to us like, 'Congratulations!'" Buoyed by her success with GITNB, Erazo decided to apply for the United Negro College Fund All-Stars scholarship, a prestigious award presented to recipients during "An Evening of Stars" – a glitzy, televised event with big-name celebrities like Usher and Cedric the Entertainer. She won the scholarship and flew to Atlanta for the big event. "Mack Wilds [Michael Lee in The Wire] handed me my award," she says. "It was magical, honestly."
Bikes and Gardens
Entering GITNB's second year as its new co-chairs, Erazo and Jackson have big plans. They are working with Adrian Lipscombe of the city of Austin's Transportation Division to expand student transportation options. Although most upperclassmen live off-campus, few students ride bikes. It's not that it's not allowed, says Lipscombe. "It's just not done." One reason may be that while HT has 973 students, it has only one bike rack, and it's located outside the science building rather than the two dorms. Prominent placement is important, says Lipscombe, "so people know there's an option to ride a bicycle on campus."
Another problem, she says, is the absence of a bike policy advising students about where they can or can't ride. She and GITNB are working with HT administration to create such a policy, beginning with development of a student survey to gauge interest and to better understand how students currently get to, from, and around the 19-acre campus. Ultimately, expansion of bicycling culture at HT will likely require addressing student concerns about connectivity and safety. "One of the main questions is, 'Yeah, I know how to ride a bicycle, but I don't feel safe riding a bicycle,'" she says. To address these issues, she recommends GITNB promote social rides, scavenger hunts, and Traffic 101 classes.
Beyond being affordable and green, bikes have the less obvious benefit of expanding food access for students in an area of town long beleaguered by a combination of factors common to food deserts – few grocery stores, an abundance of fast food, and low-income residents without independent means of transportation. On HT grounds, there are no dining options beyond the campus cafeteria ("other than the Honey Buns in your room," says Erazo). According to Lipscombe, students without cars walk about a mile if they want to eat elsewhere: "A bicycle gives them an average of two to three more miles to check out places to go eat."
Economic revitalization on the Eastside has ushered in new restaurants, food trucks, and coffee shops that are attractive to students but not accessible more broadly, particularly to low-income residents. For addressing food access issues, programs at area farmers' markets and the opening of the new H-E-B at the Mueller Development are more important. However, Naya Jones and Kevin Thomas – co-founders of local research and advocacy organization Food for Black Thought – point out that in communities with these concerns, it's important to look beyond "commercial" solutions. GITNB is working with FFBT to better understand the issue. "In actuality," says Thomas, "there may already be solutions being enacted by those communities that we simply just need to give more resources to." For example, says Jones, "If you talk to black folks and Latinos, there's a rich tradition of people cooking for community members and neighbors and churches ... and growing food." People not only cook for their neighbors but often do so in exchange for food or money, says Jones, and these long-established networks may be at risk as members leave the urban core.
Austin has in fact lost more than 5% of its African-American population over the last decade, even as the city grew overall by more than 20%. This unusual combination of factors makes Austin a demographic outlier. Among the country's 10 fastest-growing major cities, Austin is the only one losing black residents. Moreover, they are not simply leaving the urban core, but leaving the city altogether. These findings come from a study published in May by UT's Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis. The report was co-written by Eric Tang, a featured speaker in September at an environmental justice summit co-sponsored by GITNB.
GITNB stands out because it approaches environmentalism as a set of interrelated issues, including structural inequalities, cultural shifts, and access to affordable, healthy food. Vegetable gardens built by GITNB and students from Blackshear Elementary School have provided students an opportunity to learn how to address such issues in small but potentially far-reaching ways. "We are not exactly competing with the fast food venues," admits Masino, but the food they grow – herbs, peppers, okra, and onions, so far – is free to all students, and the project gives GITNB the chance to enlarge its scope. "I'm glad we're reaching out to different elementary schools and to minorities ... and mentoring them, because most of them don't have mentors," says Jackson. "That's why I want to be a lawyer," she adds, "because of my mentor."
GITNB's work illustrates how seamlessly environmental and justice concerns intersect, and its projects attempt to build on resources the community already has. In the case of gardening, of course, this approach assumes the soil, water, and air are clean. As part of the Blackland Prairie, Travis County's eastern half boasts some of the world's richest soils, deeper and less gravelly than those underlying the Edwards Plateau zone to the west. At the same time, East Austin has a history of heavy industrialization owing to zoning policies established by the city's 1928 Master Plan, which intentionally segregated the city.
The effects of that legacy remain. "People have questions, and we want to make them aware of the resources that are there," says Masino. "You might want to be able to know, 'Okay, can I test my soil for lead, for arsenic?'" She says that urban gardeners can start by learning from public databases about the land's exposure to industrial activity, and GITNB can play an important role in connecting people with such resources. "It would be nice to have people who can help each other figure out, 'Am I in an area where this matters, or was it always pretty much residential?'"
Ultimately, Masino believes that the idea of being the green HBCU makes sense because it reflects the concerns of the community and the students. Moreover, she sees the endeavor as an engagement and retention tool that presents students with "real problems that require that you actually care about them in order to make a difference." As an assistant professor of biology, she says, "When I'm teaching environmental biology to students who come from communities that are affected by these issues, it becomes an environmental justice lesson."
Erazo describes visiting Central America when she was young and walking a mile to get water, which she would have to boil to use. These trips, says Erazo, were her mom's way of making sure she understood how valuable it was to grow up in America. It seems today that she has come full circle. Faculty and students working on the Dumpster Project collect water from Lady Bird Lake, about a mile from HT campus, and lug it to the Dumpster, where they can practice testing it, sanitizing it, using it for irrigation, and (in Wilson's case) making Turkish coffee. The larger lesson is not much different from the one Erazo learned as a child, and it applies easily to all of GITNB's work – to appreciate what is easily taken for granted, be it clean water, healthy communities, or the creative potential of a small group of people with a little bit of whimsy and a lot of big ideas.