By fighting for others, you fight for yourself

Bryan Parras – Environmental Justice Advocate & Organizer, Sierra Club, Houston, Texas

Article | Houston, TX | 13 September 2021
For Bryan Parras, his work as an Environmental Justice Advocate for Houston’s Sierra Club is personal. Growing up he suffered shortness of breath and headaches from all the toxic chemicals in the Gulf Region. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I grew up with asthma, headaches, and I was feeling tired and fatigued all the time,” says Bryan Parras an environmental justice advocate, and organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels program in Houston, Texas.

Parras’ passion for community organizing, fighting injustices, and advocating for vulnerable people stems from his family history and background.

“My dad had worked with Greenpeace and some other non-profit organizations and labour, because he was a union organizer for AFSCME for about 15 years. So going with him to labour meetings was a part of my childhood,” Bryan fondly recalls.

“But I think I get my emergency response work from my mom who is a nurse, and throughout my childhood always wanted to fix and address issues that bothered me immediately.”

A Texas native Bryan explains how his family were originally from Big Spring and Forsan, two small towns located in the middle of the Permian Basin, one of the largest oil fields, before moving to Houston.

“They moved from the Petro Patch as they call it to basically the oil capital of the country and possibly the world,” he shares. “I remember a lot of trips back and forth, being very mindful of the smells, headaches, the nauseous feelings and also not being able to drink the water. No one drank the faucet water in Big Spring, if you did you got a really nasty, briny weird taste. I remember it smelling like fart or rotten eggs.”
Bryan believes that a collaborative approach, communication and being authentic are key to working effectively with local populations. ILO Photos/ John Isaac

“When I was younger no one believed that I was experiencing these headaches, and I didn’t know what to do when I had asthma attacks. I just accepted and thought it was normal and I was out of breath or tired,” Parras remembers. He recalls how he had to simply “address his health issues,” on his own as he “did not have any medication to help him.”

Apart from his health struggles due to all the toxic chemicals in the heavily polluted air, he says that “there was no real understanding of the magnitude,” of the environmental degradation caused by the oil, gas, and chemical industries.

“This was my introduction to environmental justice, I realized I grew up here and as you start to fight for someone else, you recognize that you are also fighting for yourself,” he stresses fervently.

In order to execute his job effectively Parras, who studied philosophy and psychology, cites communication, authenticity, collaboration and integrating people into the process as critical skills to have.

“I try to make sure that the most vulnerable have an opportunity to voice their concerns,” he says. “I'm also a big believer in bottom-up, organizing and that the folks who are most impacted have the most to offer for coming up with solutions because they live it.”

His personal experiences and understanding of the issues he champions, enable Bryan to engage with communities, and recognize the value of finding local solutions to local problems. “I think people trust me,” he confidently affirms.

Bryan’s concern for clean air and people’s health was a strong motivation in not working for a fossil fuel company. He wants to be part of the solution that promotes a better environmental future for all. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Bryan describes how a multi-tasking approach is crucial to his job as an environmental justice warrior and organizer. In order to make people aware of the various issues he creates video content for social media, organizes townhall meetings where community members, particularly vulnerable populations, have a platform to speak and raise their concerns, while engaging with local politicians, and their congressional representatives.

When asked what motivates him in his work, Parras responds, “being an exception to the rule in this city, and not working for a fossil fuel company in any way. The oil and gas companies fund everything and insert themselves into all of our cultural events and spaces, making themselves prevalent, which makes it difficult for any progress or change to happen.”

“The measure of success for me is when folks stop getting cancer and can breathe clean air. When they have full capacity of their lungs and of their potential,” Bryan declares. For him reaching these goals is very personal as he represents the indigenous and vulnerable populations that know of the disparities and inequalities all too well when it comes to environmental issues.

After many years of experiencing breathing issues, with the help of a steroid inhaler, Parras can now breathe comfortably. “I am just now realizing what it feels like to have a full capacity breath of air! It’s amazing,” he says as he inhales and exhales emphatically.

“I am super grateful to be here and to be getting paid to do the work I do. It’s simply incredible! A lot of the work I did before was volunteer work, but I did it because it was important and fulfilling,” Bryan reveals.

He takes a long deep breath in and breathes out with a sigh of relief, proof of his much-improved breathing capacity. “Just extreme gratitude for everything,” he says with a knowing smile.