It’s easy to get a good sense of who Esther Villarreal is by learning how she tended to the community garden at the West Dallas Multipurpose Center. One of the garden’s most dedicated volunteers, Villarreal often visited to check on the plants, but grew tired of having to ask the groundskeeper for the water spigot to be turned on — so she started bringing her wrench to twist the mechanism open herself.
Having been inspired by some of her favorite green spaces in the area, the spunky, high-energy mother of three (Emory, 9; Elio, 6; and Ever, 4) moved to Victory Gardens with her husband three years ago. This past summer, District 6 City Councilman Omar Narvaez, who represents West Dallas, appointed Villarreal to the newly created Environmental Commission, whose charge is to advise the City Council on environmental and sustainability concerns affecting the city and implement the city’s Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan, or CECAP. Villarreal will serve for a two-year term.
Tell us about yourself and what your advocacy has looked like in West Dallas.
We moved down here in 2018, and I just fell in love with the Trinity River. As soon as we moved here, I looked up all the green space we have access to. I didn’t know anything about the Trinity River.
The second thing I looked at when we moved into District 6 was, you know, all the politics: Who were the people to know? What is my neighborhood association called? How do I join it? Then I found West Dallas 1.
Shortly thereafter, we created the environmental justice subcommittee — my degree is in English and political science. I’m a middle child, so I’ve always had a heart for justice, and I love to root out injustice. “That’s not fair!” — that’s something that really drives me.
I’ve been working on the environmental justice subcommittee with West Dallas 1, led by Jeffrey Howard, for three years, and have been active in the battle here in West Dallas that is showing heavy industry that you’re no longer welcome. That the residents here are sick and tired of their air being polluted by heavy industry. So that was something that really invigorated me, and I found I had some skill set to fight against [it]. So that’s how I am integrating my experience with political science, and English, and writing, and speaking and environmentalism — environmental work.
Since college, I have always been a tree hugger. I rely heavily on my education with the Master Naturalist course, and with Downwinders at Risk on community organizing. That was super helpful.
I’m just happy to be here in District 6. I think it has so many gems and treasures. I would love to see my neighbors gaining access to all the gems and treasures we have, environmentally speaking — all the green spaces that are underutilized.
Are you from the Dallas area?
I am not. I’m from the suburbs of Chicago. I moved here when we got married in 2011. My husband is from Oak Cliff.
Did your environmental activism start before you arrived in DFW?
I think I was a junior in college when I first heard the term “environmental racism.” And up in Chicago, we were working on the outside of the city, outside of Chicago, in a heavily Latino population. And the same thing — they were experiencing higher rates of asthma. And everybody looked around and said, ‘Well, you know, no wonder: You have a ton of heavy industry concentrated in this area.’ And for years, they’ve gotten away with it because the citizens didn’t speak out against it.
So right when I left Chicago, about 2010-2011, that issue of environmental racism was getting spotlighted statewide and on a national level. Those residents were being empowered by other environmental activists and other nonprofit groups over there, to speak up and say, “Hey, this is not OK. You can’t do this in our neighborhoods anymore.”
What are West Dallas’ most pressing environmental issues?
Definitely the intersection of zoning and environmental justice. Standing up and showing people how the industries being concentrated along the Singleton corridor equates absolutely 100% to environmental racism. There’s a lot of drivers: economic drivers, capitalism. And I have found that the residents, the citizens of District 6 that have lived here their entire lives, are tired of it. And they’re stepping up. They’re getting courage, and they’re getting tools, and they’re being empowered to stand up and say “No longer are we willing to raise our children next to factories belching out smoke 24/7 and noise pollution.”
It’s really invigorating. It’s a really exciting time to be involved in neighborhood empowerment. I’m so honored to live in this neighborhood and listen to my neighbors and hear their histories and stand up with them and say, ‘We’re not gonna stand for this anymore. It’s too long.’ Too long: poor air quality; too long: noise pollution; too long: having health problems, asthma, children missing school because of complications.
Councilman Omar Narvaez, who represents West Dallas, appointed you to the city’s new Environmental Commission, which was established this year. What is the commission’s role?
We’ve been given the task of supporting the CECAP goals. Omar appointed me to represent all of District 6. It’s huge. It goes far north, far west and east; it’s just enormous. So, I understand that folks north of the Trinity River are going to experience different environmental issues.
The City of Dallas as a whole has a pretty solid environmental plan in the CECAP that Councilman Narvaez put together a few years ago, and that’s gonna bring the whole city into, I feel, much better compliance. They have some goals for 2050 that will reduce air pollution; that will increase our accessibility to renewable energy sources. [They] will increase wind energy that can clean up the environment and put Dallas on the map in leading acknowledgement of climate change and actually do[ing] something about it. So, I’m excited to support that as an environmental commissioner.
I know sometimes it’s easy for folks that work in politics in the City of Dallas to be a little bit removed from what is happening on the ground in their districts. I think this citizen-led mission is really important. This was something that we asked for for years when they started working on the CECAP. I remember West Dallas 1 made an effort and encouraged everybody to sign up and write these comments. This is the result of that. It’s kind of exciting to see it actually be successful.
How do you approach environmental care in your personal life?
I wish I could show you our front yard. I love to garden. I really want to bless my neighborhood and make it a beautiful spot. So I have a ton of flowers.
We have always tried to live more sustainably. For a while my husband biked to work every day. We had one car, and it was a low emission vehicle. Like, we’re really crazy — I will set the thermostat super high in the summer and super low in the winter.
We are working on asking neighbors to host air monitors to give citizens access to those numbers so we can really see how unhealthy our air is here. I vegetable garden, I grow a lot of our own food and veggies. I have a ton of okra to share. I’m active in the community garden at the multipurpose center.
My other job, I’m a preschool teacher, and I teach preschool and forest school twice a week in a little school in South Oak Cliff, so we do a lot of gardening over there. That’s a big project of ours.
What keeps you motivated in this work?
I believe the created world points us to a creator. So, I am a Christian. I believe that the beauty of nature all around us points us upward — points us to the divine. And I believe we as citizens of the earth have been given a mantle of stewardship, and not to destroy the Earth and pillage it for whatever capitalistic needs.
It keeps me intrinsically motivated to care for this creation, to fight against degradation, to fight against misappropriation, to fight against pollution, to protect this fragile Earth. I am a mother. I am concerned about what we’re going to leave for the future generation, of course. I fight as hard as I can — with as much energy as I can spare— to put safeguards in place for the future.
What would you like to achieve within the first year of your appointment on the Environmental Commission?
I personally would like to come up with some permanent zoning restrictions at the Singleton corridor from any more heavy industry or even light industry. As much as the Environmental Commission can, I want to protect the residents’ rights over there.
They’re our homes, they’re our neighbors that live right in-between GAF and Argos. They live across the street from the batch plants, and they have no protections because they live in an industrial zone. That is an injustice. That is a grave injustice.
What other hopes do you have for your West Dallas neighbors?
I just want to see my neighbors out and about. I want to see us getting out into nature and experiencing the benefits. I mean, lower blood pressure, lower stress off your body. I want to see us getting physically healthier, mentally healthier. It can be rough living in 75212, and I would love to see more access to the beauty that surrounds the City of Dallas. We have so many resources. We have so many beautiful, healing, restorative, redemptive places in nature, and I just feel that they’re kind of under-utilized and nobody knows about them! And making sure that’s healthy for them, making sure that it isn’t going to affect our asthma if we go outside and walk on the trails.
Looking forward to her submitting a Council recommendation/resolution in January to amortize GAF as the Singleton United neighborhood association is requesting.
A wonderful interview with Esther Villarreal. Oak Cliff has needed this kind of voice against environmental racism for many years. Thank you, Dallas Free Press for amplifying this voice.