A Day In the Life of an Environmental Advocate

By Emma Pabst
Environment Texas Associate

A couple times each year, my family and I stumble out of bed at 3:30AM, pile our blankets and pillows into the car, and take an 18 hour road-trip from Austin to Chicago. That said, I’m definitely not the biggest fan of waking up early. But hey, if I can drive 1,100 miles in a day, I can do anything.

On Thursday I hosted a press conference about our new report on illegal air pollution in San Antonio, and I had to wake up at the unholy hour of… 6am. Okay, so, I know I’ve made it through worse, but 6am?! I can barely manage to make breakfast at that hour, let alone pull together the materials for an entire press conference.

But, duty called, so I rolled out of bed, grabbed my gear, shuffled my way into an empty office, and got to work. It was dreary at first -- still dark outside, just me, alone, at the office, having my very own party for one -- and then in walked my former intern and long-time volunteer, Bowen. And, even better, he arrived carrying a huge brown bag of my favorite thing in the whole world: breakfast tacos! My savior. If I wasn’t ready to slay this press conference before, I was ready the second I smelled the savory scent of freshly cooked egg and steak tacos.

Newly energized, I chowed down and printed off the last pages of the report. We hopped in the car just early enough to dodge Austin traffic, rolled onto I35, and put the finishing touches on the event. We made posters, called all the San Antonio news stations, and somewhere in there we even managed to find time to talk about the places we wanted to live one day -- Denver, Chicago, and, if we could make it there, Sweden.

Putting together the final pieces of an event is always satisfying, but I have to admit, my favorite part was getting spend an hour and a half getting to know Bowen. You learn a lot about people from the work they do, but it’s always rewarding to hear why they do it: where they’re from, what they’re up to, and where they’re planning on going next.

The sun came up at around 7:30, and a little while later we touched down at San Antonio’s Plaza De Armas and jumped into setup mode. Cameras, press materials, and suit jackets (well, a corduroy bomber jacket, but close enough) tumbled out of our bags and into their respective places, and then, people started to arrive.

Me talking with Scott and Alan about local environmental issues

First, one of our speakers, Peter Bella, and then, Scott Huddleston, a reporter who’d written a story about the report the evening before. It looked like a pretty small group, and then, at around 10am, folks made it through traffic and started arriving. Judith Temple from Eco Centro, Alan Montemayor from the Sierra Club, a local freelance health reporter named Berit Mason, and finally Jeremy Baker from KENS 5 News.

See how I remember everyone’s names? That means the press conference was the perfect size. Just enough folks to get to know everyone, and look good on camera doing it.

Once Jeremy arrived, it was time to get the show on the road. Off came the bomber jacket, on went the Environment Texas pin, and then, our statements began. We dove into the issue of illegal air pollution, each giving our piece on how Texas’ environmental regulatory agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), lets our state’s biggest polluters off the hook.

According to the report, Texas industrial facilities released more than 63 million pounds of air pollution linked to health problems such as fatigue, asthma, and permanent damage to lung tissue without authorization in 2017. While the TCEQ could have issued fines as high as $2.3 Billion (with a B) for violations in 2017, the agency only levied a total of $1.2 Million (with an M) in fines in 2017. That’s about 1/20th of 1 percent of the maximum possible fines -- or 2 cents per pound of pollution.

In response to these oversights, we urged local, state, and federal regulators to take enforcement action against big polluters and make our air safe to breathe.

A snapshot from the press conference, featuring (left to right) Judith Temple from Eco Centro, Peter Bella, myself, and Alan Montemayor

Despite the unfortunate subject matter, we all had a great time. It was an awesome chance to get to know my fellow environmental advocates, and in 50 degree weather, it was exactly what I needed: a great group of folks to warm my heart with their passion for social change and love for their city.

And thankfully, Bowen caught it all on camera. He gotten into photography a few years before, and had taken it upon himself to go where no one from Environment Texas could before: the wide and technologically-inclined world of professional photography. Thanks to Bowen, I’ve got a folder full of heartwarming photos of my first day doing on-the-ground organizing in San Antonio.

Interviewing with Berit

Sadly, it turns out that no matter how heartwarming an event, standing around without a jacket in 50 degree weather isn’t the best idea. I was shivering by the time we wrapped up, and I don’t think it was from all the excitement.

So, we said goodbye, and went to cap off the morning with a warm bowl of tortilla soup at Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery.

It was 11am, and the day had only just begun, but thanks to a great group of people, I was ready for the rest of it. Advocacy can be difficult, but when you’re doing it with people that you admire, everything gets just a little bit easier. After learning how much work goes in to being a professional activist, I’ve grown an immense appreciation for the time and effort that my fellow organizers put in to making each of our events the best it can be.

Whether it’s taking time out of our day to photograph a potential venue for someone who lives in another city (thanks Pete), road-tripping down to San Antonio to photograph an event (thanks Bowen), or booking it to downtown San Antonio the moment the roofers leave your house (thanks Alan), members of the environmental community go to great lengths to support one another, and there’s something special about that.

To paraphrase Leslie Knope, we need to remember what’s important in life: friends, tortilla soup, and work. And this week, thanks to San Antonio’s environmental community, I got a healthy dose of all three.