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Environmental Racism Under a Camera Lens | Interview with HTX Artist, Ronald Jones

On January 21, Ronald Llewellyn Jones premiered his documentary, “Again, Together: the Cumulative Impacts of Environmental Racism in Houston,” on Zoom to an audience of activists.  The documentary focuses on the devastation brought to the Kashmere Gardens community in Houston’s Fifth Ward.  The production and dumping of creosote at Union Pacific’s Englewood Railroad Yard released untold quantities of toxins into the water supply and has been linked to a cancer cluster in the area as well as dozens of deaths.  Jones is an interdisciplinary artist based in Houston, Texas. Jones’ artwork explores barriers between artists and audiences, as well as individuals and their communities by challenging their respective perceptions as it relates to access and agency within normative societal structures. You can see more of his work at www.Ronaldljones.com. Section 44 spoke to Ronald Jones about the documentary, which is scheduled to be released at film festivals soon (for updates follow the link here). For background on the grassroots struggle in Kashmere Gardens, see the interview linked here.

What got you started on the documentary?

Carrie Marie Schneider reached out to me via One Breath Partnership who were looking for people to direct, produce, finance, and film this project.  I had previously just walked away from a project that was similar.  The most important thing was that the community was represented properly.  Usually when you watch a documentary it is a lot of infographics.  And something that is 6 to 12 minutes long, you have an individual or an organization using the community as soundbites and filling the downtime with graphics.  I didn’t want to add or subtract anything from the experience of the people and allow them to speak their truth.

What were your takeaways from your conversations with the community?

A lot of what I learned was about the depth of the community.  A lot of the people involved had been fighting since their childhood.  How many people had to deal with so much and how they dealt with corporate greed and red lining and so many legislative miscarriages of justice.  A lot of issues over time.  The continual surge of gentrification and illegal dumping.  It was an accumulation of so many struggles and hardships.  

So this is not just about creosote?

Creosote is not the only thing that they are dealing with.  The community is sectioned off by railroads and highways.  That has not only divided the community but it has also created the toxic air quality that they are dealing with.  The community is dealing with a lot, but we can attribute certain things solely to the creosote.  Any independent study will show that there is no other reason for the cancer cluster to exist in that community other the creosote.  You cannot put leukemia and cancer on illegal dumping and air quality.  There is no other source for their problems than the toxic creosote that is there.  One railroad buys up the other railroad and then refuses to clean up the problem left behind.  It’s how all corporations do business. 

Were there any stories that stuck out to you?

Alice Torres and Joyce Brown.  They grew up in that community.  They lost family members from cancer.  Both have respiratory problems and issues, which have followed them into their senior years.  Alice—both she and her father got cancer.  Her father died from it.  She discovered she had it a little afterwards.  She moved away to another neighborhood.  She survived Harvey but it left her home vulnerable.  It needed repairs.  She and her family got COVID.  Alice’s mom died of it.  She did not receive any of the experimental treatments that she might have benefited from.  You cannot move away from the community and not have the effects follow you.  Her cancer, her childhood: all of these made her vulnerable to COVID.  She called the city when she was 14 years old to report the toxicity and the smell.  These were people who were not standing for it then and they are not standing for it now.  And that’s the story: how hard people have been fighting to survive.

Do you have any hope that the city will do the right thing?

One wants to be optimistic, but none of these things happened because of the city’s good will.  This was the result of a long fight and hard fight.  I am hopeful that the city will listen when people in the community speak out.  

Do you draw any similarities between the movement for Black Lives and what has happened in Kashmere Gardens?

The only reason that these things happen in these communities are because they are in black and brown communities.  Then they blame the community for the problems.  But you can follow it back to the source.  You have homeowners and legislation that redlined the city, degraded certain parts of the city, and allowed dumping to take place there.  A bank will be able to determine which communities were attractive markets, and then red and yellow line other communities and literally destroy them.  You cannot look away from the intentionality that they are literally trying to kill these folks.  They don’t do the same thing to other communities.  From the incinerators to the superfund sites, they don’t do this to other communities.  It makes communities feel helpless, seeing these things happen to them and being unable to affect these processes.  These people—the banks, the corporations—they didn’t care and they did it on purpose.  

So would you say environmental justice and racial justice are related?

Racial justice and environmental justice are the same conversation.  You cannot say we want to end police brutality and not talk about all of the other things that are happening in these communities.  Police conduct is rooted in white supremacy, but there are a lot of other parts of society that have the same roots.  

How does this documentary fit in with your other art?

My art tries to engage an audience to look at how they view their environment, to experiment with how they traverse the spaces that they are in.  I have an installation in the Galveston Art Center that is particular to the black experience.  These black bodies are brought in slave ships, the bodies have nooses around them, represented by zip ties, twelve of them to represent the jurors that were supposed to be peers but who were always white and who always found black people guilty.  Making people servants and slaves to build up this country for a white power.  There is a nonstop commodification of the human condition that is leading us into peril: our environment is being degraded in the search for the next iPhone, the next television, the whatever.  We are riding a wave that is going to crush us.  If you cannot acknowledge the pain and the history of what has happened to black folks in this country, the wave will crash down on you.  You can’t see us and not see the struggle, the pain, and the perseverance that we possess.  The things that we have done have been stripped from us, our achievements, our history.  They had to make a movie to acknowledge that black women played an integral part in getting a man on the moon.  There’s no separation.  The artwork that I do spills into the documentary.  My work is my existence.  I can’t just turn off what I feel and what I am seeing.  IT will bleed over into the next page.  

Any final thoughts you want to share?

I am very appreciative of all of the folks that made space and time for me.  Without them there would be no documentary.  There’s a lot of research that goes into it, but I didn’t want the research to be the documentary.  I am grateful to be able to share their own words, and their own experiences, because this doesn’t exist without them.  And I am very honored by the trust they placed in me.

One reply on “Environmental Racism Under a Camera Lens | Interview with HTX Artist, Ronald Jones”

[…] Like many of Houston’s historically Black and Brown communities, Kashmere Gardens feels the sharpest edge of the city’s economic expansion and waste. Paradoxically, money that is not available to help Black residents who live there is also readily available as soon as they leave.  Real-estate investors are itching to gentrify and redevelop the Fifth Ward because of its proximity to downtown Houston. At the same time, were it not for a racially segregated and oppressed population, disposable in the eyes of the city’s wealthy establishment, it’s unlikely polluters like the railroads would be able continue operating as they do in the heart of Houston. Section 44 spoke with Leisa Glenn, Andre West, Mary Hutchins and Sandra Edwards – residents and leaders of Impact 5th Ward, a grassroots organization leading the fight against Union Pacific – to discuss what’s happened and what comes next. Readers can follow updates on Impact 5th Ward’s work and upcoming events in March at their Facebook page here. This is an edited compilation of two interviews that took place on January 29th and February 4th. Stay tuned for more on this ongoing struggle; an interview with Houston-based artist, Ronald Jones and creator of the recently premiered film, “Again Together: the Cumulative Impacts of Environmental Racism in Houston” can be found here. […]

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