Todos Somos Esperanza: A Summer of Social Justice in San Antonio

I finished my summer internship at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas last Friday, August 19th. It was a (dare I say) fun and educational experience that taught me about San Antonio, myself, and social justice.

I met my learning goals in that I learned more about water justice and environmental issues in San Antonio. I especially learned how communities interact, shape, and benefit (or not) from the many aspects of “environment”—health, schools, safety, neighborhood cohesiveness, and gentrification, along with natural elements such as water and air quality. While I went in with a general context of my home city, I explored causes and effects of various environmental issues by working with people and policies.  This meant that I needed to do extra research, and push harder to keep informed about various topics like affordable housing rates, San Antonio’s history of ‘urban renewal’, impact fees, and more.

screenshot of the SA Tomorrow hearing
Screencap of my presentation, 8/11/16.Video

I’m most proud of my growth in public speaking. I have always dreaded public speaking and I managed to avoid it for part of the summer, despite the encouragement from Esperanza’s director from the get-go. I avoided saying anything at the first few community meetings, including the one that I helped plan. Eventually, I had to start phone banking and reaching out to community members for events. Then, I had to prepare to speak about affordable housing and the SA Tomorrow Plan. I was nervous speaking both times in front of the Housing Commission and even more nervous my first time in front of the San Antonio City Council.  I ended with a presentation on impervious cover, something I believed needed to stay in the already weakened SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan. The director of the Esperanza told me that every time we speak to advocate for change, it is a gift to the community. I’d like to think that my voice along with those of other allies helped push for community and environmental justice in San Antonio.

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Staff and interns at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, Summer 2016.

I think my summer internship at the Esperanza Peace & Justice center helped affirm my interest in community organizing and social justice work. I enjoyed working in a collaborative community with other interns and with other staff members. The work reflected communities we were trying to serve (and that people were from). On a personal note, I learned intersections of my identity such as class, being Mexican-American/Tejana, and queerness. I also learned that community members must be included in social justice work and must be empowered to make change in affected communities; otherwise, those trying to advocate for change follow the same pattern of patronismo—saying that they are doing things for people’s “own good” without actually consulting those affected—as the current forces in power. I learned that while I like working well in a collaborative setting, I should structure my own time a little better.

My advice for someone seeking to work at the Esperanza is that flexibility is key. Oftentimes, Esperanza and our team of interns had to work with various people. Sometimes people would side on progressive issues, who usually would not; other times we watched presumably liberal city council representatives vote for more conservative measures. Dealing with community members often required all sorts of flexibility, like speaking Spanish or talking about another event that wasn’t originally on the phone banking script or trying to explain the concept of privilege. Time-wise, we would often have to drop or focus less on certain projects if other events came up, such as votes on an affordable housing bond or even building maintenance. Everyone had their own schedule but we would share what they were working on, either at staff meetings or debriefs with the intern supervisor.

Also, the nature of the Esperanza Peace & Justice (and hopefully other community/social justice organizations) is to acknowledge and fight against oppression from all angles. This means it was difficult to focus on a single issue—I was involved in “Queer Corazones” outreach, a gentrification event called “Take Back Our City, affordable housing meetings, phone banking for different cultural performances, along with my “primary” focus on SA Tomorrow. I went in thinking that I would focus on one issue, but I ended up with a taste of different types of experiences.

Overall, my summer at the Esperanza was an amazing one. I learned different skills that I can take with me on campus and beyond and hopefully I will be able to return next summer and for years to come.

Anastasia Christelles, ’18

Social Justice WOW Fellow

A Summer of Hope: Thoughts on Working at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center

At the Esperanza, I enjoy not just working but living as a part of a community. Everything done here reflects the values of inclusion and community. One of the aspects of working at the Esperanza includes self-reliance. Since our community is predominantly working-class, many folks don’t have the privilege of paying someone for building maintenance. The interns spent a couple of weeks repainting walls after taking down an art exhibit. Everyone takes turn cleaning bathrooms or mopping before a performance, and we invite community members to help fold La Voz before mailing out the magazine.

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Photo courtesy of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. I’m on the scaffold.

As far as outside of the workplace, I already knew that San Antonio is extremely economically segregated, but my time at the Esperanza reminded me how true that is. Early on, the director and other staff members took us to different parts of town—Eastside near the Hayes Street Bride and the near Westside—to learn the history and conditions of people living them. Developers have started targeting the Westside, a predominantly Mexican/Mexican-American working-class side of town. Many cities have been hit with gentrification and displacement and San Antonio is no different.

Working in the real world back at home feels like more of a relief than working in college. Although I have to drive nearly everywhere I go (welcome to Texas), I know where I am and can often navigate without the assistance of GPS. My internship feels like a full time job, considering I spend more than forty hours a week at the Esperanza. More importantly, I feel like the work I do affects people other than those that live in a campus bubble.

One significant change is my outlook on meetings. This summer, I’ve observed city council, comprehensive planning, and housing bond committees.

Photo from The Rivard Report. That's me in the hat.
Photo from The Rivard Report. That’s me in the hat.

Many meetings I’ve attended in college revolve around planning events or discussing long-term organizing strategies. The meetings I’ve sat at (or spoken at in some cases) affect the lives of the over one million people living in San Antonio. It amazes me that policy can be decided in a simple conference room. For example, I recently attended two meetings surrounding San Antonio’s affordable housing bond. This bond had the potential to provide affordable housing and emergency repairs to families. At the meeting—in which the committee had to make draft recommendations for affordable housing—members were surprised to learn that they could not pass most of the policies for legal reasons.

Much of the work for SA Tomorrow involved reading, research, and coming up with creative solutions. One of the other interns majored in urban planning and environmental policy, so while she already had background education around sustainability, I have to read extra to understand some proposals in the works. Hopefully this extra work will pay off when studying for my environmental studies minor.  I’m also learning to take the initiative on certain projects. One of the interns and I are spearheading a social media campaign talking about water in San Antonio. This will build my social media skills, which I can transfer to campus organizing.

Anastasia Christilles, ’18

Social Justice WOW Fellow

Starting at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center

This summer, I am working at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, located a bit north of downtown San Antonio. The Esperanza Center serves primarily the Westside of San Antonio, but also reaches out to other underrepresented and marginalized folks—women, people of color, queer people, the working class and those with low income. The most condensed way to explain what Esperanza actually does is arts programming and community organizing, but that includes a broad spectrum of activities. The Esperanza Center will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary in 2017.

Esperanza Peace & Justice Center (photo: A.Christilles)

Since there are only five full-time staff, interns take on various responsibilities. I am more involved in Esperanza’s environmental work, which consists primarily of reading and analyzing the SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan and writing about the proposed Vista Ridge Pipeline. SA Tomorrow is a three-part future plan for the city. This week, my job has been to read and critique the Sustainability portion. Often, “sustainability” or “green” measures detrimentally affect low-income and marginalized people by raising prices and forcing people from their neighborhoods. Much of the critique I am doing revolves around implementation of the plan and gentrification. Representatives from Esperanza and the greater community will meet city officials to address these concerns while the draft undergoes finalization this summer.

I will also keep track of the Vista Ridge pipeline. The proposed pipeline will transfer water from Burleson County south to San Antonio. The pipeline poses different issues pertaining to privatizing water. The financial instability of the project, only recently addressed, and steep water rate hikes are the top of these concerns. The Esperanza Center and other organizations like Mi Agua Mi Vida Coalition have demonstrated against the pipeline’s construction.

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Proposed Vista Ridge Pipeline (image from the San Antonio Water Authority website)

With all of the other events going on at the Center, information about this deal has fallen to the wayside, so part of my job is keeping folks updated about this through La Voz, the Esperanza Center’s monthly publication.

I’m excited to be back home and interacting with the issues that first led me towards environmental justice. I have already seen firsthand how climate change affects my home, and I appreciate the opportunity to approach these issues from an intersectional perspective. Environmental destruction affects people on different axes, and the Esperanza Center takes this into account. I find it more productive to work in a place where I grew up and where have context. I also appreciate the opportunity to work off of a college campus. I hope pursue a career in grassroots activism and social justice work, and this would internship would grant me the opportunity to see how it works in the real world and not just a campus bubble. This internship will guide me in exploring parts of the city I’ve never seen before and hopefully inform me more about my Chicana culture as well.

Anastasia Christilles, ’18