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Q&A: CEER’s Iris Gonzalez shares the lasting impacts of climate change and how to combat it

Environment, Health

In the following Q&A feature, Shamar Bibbins, senior program officer for Kresge’s Environment Program, connects with Iris Gonzalez, director of the Coalition for Environment, Equity & Resilience (CEER), to discuss the impacts of climate change as potentially the greatest public health threat of the century. CEER, a grantee partner of Kresge’s Climate Change, Health & Equity Initiative, works to raise awareness of the connections between pollution, place and public health. Since its inception in 2017, CEER has grown to 28 non-profit member organizations all working to advance major policy campaigns that span five counties in Houston, Texas.

Bibbins: Thank you for your time, Iris. We’re elated to work with you and the full CEER team to raise awareness of the connections between climate change , pollution and community health. Tell us more about your organization, why it was founded, and how your coalition is working directly in neighborhoods to improve water and air quality and reduce flooding.

Gonzalez: CEER is a collaborative “born from the storm” and was founded in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Harvey was a big wakeup call that the Houston region is not doing enough to protect people and nature from flooding and environmental contamination. CEER members came together because they were worried about how the spills, leaks, fires and major emission events that take place during and after hurricanes were not getting enough press attention and health impacts were not being clearly documented or communicated. During Harvey, Houston got a year’s worth of pollution in just a matter of days as petrochemical facilities shut down operations and emitted millions of pounds of pollution into our air, water and land. CEER’s founding member organizations recognized that these injustices happen every day in our communities, not just when a hurricane strikes.

CEER is made up of member groups that represent the environmental justice, social justice and conservation sectors. These groups have a history of not building authentic relationships or coordinating efforts or sharing power. As Dr. Robert Bullard, one of CEER’s founders, says, it took a biblical event to bring these diverse groups together to work on a shared vision.

Bibbins: What makes your organization unique? What are the values you stand by to keep doing this very important, yet challenging work?

Gonzalez: CEER is the only collaborative of this size in southeast Texas engaging in this type of collaborative work. Our theory of change includes challenging traditional, top-down environmental management structures that have been unable to protect the environment or the populations that depend on it.

As a collaborative, we adhere to these values to guide our work:

  • Community residents are experts on the same level as technical experts.
  • Lived experience is data.
  • Those closest to the problem have solutions.
  • Innovation requires diversity of thought and discomfort.
  • People over profits: All communities deserve equitable benefits and protection regardless of the cost.
  • Interrupt business as usual: We must examine our history to understand the present before we can imagine our future.
  • Relationships are everything: To uphold just relationships, we must call each other in and speak honestly.

Bibbins: As a CCHE grantee, tell us about your efforts to mobilize communities in the City of Houston to build a powerful movement aimed at addressing the adverse impacts at the intersection of climate change, health and equity?

Gonzalez: CEER employs nearly 20 residents from six neighborhoods as climate ambassadors who regularly engage their networks and mobilize impacted communities to action. Climate ambassadors receive regular investment and training from CEER to prepare them to speak at different meetings and platforms to demand accountability. Recently, climate ambassadors spoke at the City of Houston’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee meeting on new building codes. They shared how their health was being affected by climate change and living in homes that were not equipped to withstand the climate crisis. They didn’t understand why the meeting was focused on profits and negative impacts on businesses rather than how the building codes would negatively affect people.

After the devastating impacts of Winter Storm Uri, climate ambassadors also testified at state hearings held by the Public Utilities Commission of Texas. One of our Ambassadors was featured in a podcast called The Disconnect: Power, Politics and the Texas Blackout. Residents are engaging in spaces where their voices have historically been excluded and their stories are changing the narrative of how Texas deals with climate change.

Bibbins: These are great examples of residents on the ground leading the charge to combat the impacts of climate change. In your opinion, what would it take to truly achieve climate and environmental justice in communities across the country? Similarly, what would it take to truly achieve health equity?

Gonzalez: We have to put our money where our mouth is. We have to rewrite the rules by changing policy at the local, state and federal level. We need to show up in greater numbers at the voting polls and elect leaders that are responsive to community needs, invest in climate work projects and prioritize communities on the frontline. Similarly, since health disparities are based on social determinants, achieving health equity will require not only engaging the health care industry, but investing in housing, education and public health. In other words, correct the racist policies that have produced poor health outcomes.   

Bibbins: Can you share some specific examples where CEER has helped to support the environmental justice movement with equitable health, climate and clean energy policies?

Gonzalez: One of CEER’s early wins was the successful passage of the Harris Thrives Resolution, which calls for measures to implement an equitable prioritization of flood mitigation projects through the use of the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index; instructs county departments to integrate nature-based solutions in flood protection; and establishes a reimagined Community Task Force that is representative of impacted communities that face chronic flooding and other vulnerabilities. CEER is active in the implementation of this policy.

CEER led a collaborative effort to advocate for the passage of the Harris Thrives Resolution, which passed on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey in 2019. Part of the work is to create and introduce new tools and methodologies to reveal the inequities and map out who has been left behind when it comes to flood protection and flood benefit. We believe that we must first define the problem thoroughly before we can define the right solutions. In collaboration with Texas Southern University, CEER authored a policy brief on a new tool that calculates an apples-to-apples comparison on how communities have benefited (or not) from investments in flood mitigation projects. The tool is called the Flood Benefits Index and you can see the brief on our website We plan to use this tool to establish a universally accepted baseline of conditions and from there a list of projects to fill the gaps. The use of this data will be critical as Harris County writes a 2050 Flood Resilience Plan and establishes a new Office of Sustainability to lead the work.

Bibbins: Lower-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollutants and climate change, which directly affect health outcomes. One clear reason is because of power dynamics. How is your organization working to shift power and invest in leaders of color?

Gonzalez: Our climate ambassador program has grown. We now have bilingual and Spanish-speaking ambassadors to reach Latinx communities. We are training residents to build their confidence and demand accountability from their elected officials by providing public speaking and media relations training, building power through values-based community organizing and sharing power between non-profit organizations and impacted community members. The change in the ambassadors’ confidence to speak up and demand to be heard is remarkable.

CEER shifts power dynamics through agreement setting, regular checking in, holding space for transparent conversations and collaborative decision-making. One example is when budgets are drafted or proposals are crafted, we convene residents, non-profits and health partners to make collaborative decisions, and we make sure everyone gets to answer the question, “What do you need right now?” This often requires many conversations, navigating conflict in a transformational way and creating Memorandums of Understanding or other agreements that codify the kinds of power sharing we engage in and the kind of relationships we want to nurture. A particular challenge has been pushing up against our health partners and the broken systems they operate within where their work and worth is heavily monetized. Sometimes it feels like we’re speaking from two different dictionaries and are in two different worlds. We’re learning a lot about what it takes to push through that and see beyond the way it has always been. 

Bibbins: A decade from now, what do you hope we will have accomplished? How do you see the world in 2031?

Gonzalez: We asked our members this question at a recent meeting. Here’s what they had to say:

“In 10 years, CEER will be known for leading the passage of policies that made the Gulf Coast resilient against climate change and electing leadership that prioritize climate and environmental justice.” 

“Newly elected governor credits training from CEER for inspiring their desire to enter public service.” 

“In 10 years, CEER will be known for playing a leading role in building the largest climate justice movement in Texas, by and for underrepresented communities.” 

“Shifting expectations, changing process for policy making.” 

“Bringing together an effective coalition of environmentally-minded organizations and how to advocate more effectively for equity.” 

“Fast-tracked flood control projects benefiting low-income communities along Greens Bayou and Tributaries show benefits to residents.” 

“In ten years CEER will be known for creating a more equitable and just community throughout the region, will ensure that natural infrastructure and nature-based solutions are the first line of defense to increase resilience and make the region safer for its residents, and that elected and appointed officials reflect the values of the community.” 

“Revolutionizing how we address environmental pollution and flooding in greater Houston, leaving communities across the region more resilient to climate change.”

Bibbins: These are all powerful statements! Thank you for sharing. Here is my final question to you: Climate change has been described as the greatest public health threat of this century. For anyone who is still not convinced, what would you say to them?

Gonzalez: The crisis is already at our doorstep as evidenced by hotter summers, stronger hurricanes, wildfires, drought and extreme weather like the Texas Winter Freeze 2021. Each of us can now point to multiple “once in a lifetime” events that we’ve lived through in the last few years. These record-breaking events are displacing people, putting them in difficult situations where they have to choose between feeding their families or keeping the lights on. The impacts on health are remarkable – in Houston, there is a 26-year life expectancy gap between communities of color and wealthier mostly white neighborhoods. These impacts last generations and the injustice of them feels overwhelming. But communities remain determined and hopeful that change is possible if we all work together. Nobody else is coming – it’s our hands and hearts that must create the future we imagine and we are ready to stay the course together.

Learn more: Visit Follow CEER on Twitter at @CeerHouston.

Video: “Hello from the Year 2041!” Watch a recent video featuring Iris titled, Women of Color in the South: Imagining, Leading, and Creating the Future We Want.