Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell has long been clear-eyed about the historical and widespread neglect of the communities and people across southern Dallas — and the reasons behind it.
“The system worked the way it was designed to work,” he always says.
Sorrell will never forget attending a big “southern sector” plan presentation more than a decade ago and seeing that his southeast Dallas campus and the surrounding neighborhoods weren’t even included on the map.
Or when Dallas decided — with no notice to residents or the college — to expand the nearby McCommas Bluff Landfill into the biggest garbage dump in the Southwest. Paul Quinn students’ ensuing “We Are Not Trash” protest played a big part in getting that terrible idea squashed.
Today, under its new Urban Research Initiative, Paul Quinn has locked arms with the Floral Farms neighborhood and other key advocates to fight some of the worst environmental racism still being inflicted on vulnerable residents of color in Dallas.
Sadly, Floral Farms is known to many outsiders only for the infamous, and now-razed, Shingle Mountain. As bad as that noxious horror show has been, it’s only one piece in this neighborhood’s fight against unjust zoning decisions.
The hell of living next to other industrial behemoths, junkyards and heavy trucking operations remains, as I saw first-hand on a recent Tuesday afternoon:
Little kids dodge 18-wheelers flying up and down narrow residential streets with no curbs or sidewalks. Grit and dust from adjacent industrial properties permeate family homes. Debris washes off commercial lots onto residents’ lawns. Lush pastures, like the one that’s home to a horse named Lucy, are pockmarked with illegal dumping.
Dinged-up and dilapidated siding is all that separates the sprawling industrial-use operations from families trying to hang onto the semi-rural life that brought them here — many of them long before their unwanted commercial neighbors arrived.
Back in the 1980s, decisions made to safeguard predominantly white parts of Dallas against any possible encroachment from hazardous industry pushed those operators into newly available industrial-zoned properties. Those sites, mostly in the city’s southern half, often abutted the residential-zoned home sites of Black and brown families.
In effect, City Hall created sacrifice zones, areas deemed expendable and worth more to Dallas as industrial areas than as communities.
Elected officials gave no thought to whether their decisions threatened the health, safety and general wellbeing of the 150 residents of Floral Farms and surrounding communities.
More recently, some so-called leaders went so far as to deny Floral Farms even qualified as a neighborhood.
Chris Dowdy, Paul Quinn’s vice president of academic affairs, was furious when he heard those remarks. The Urban Research Initiative was his response.
“This is not a couple of people doing a couple of gnarly things in this neighborhood, breaking some rules,” Dowdy told me. “This is the weight of history. … The legacy of a racist system.”
Perhaps what’s most important in Floral Farms right now is what you don’t see — the industrial operations that residents and their supporters, including Paul Quinn, have beaten back.
They’ve recently defeated proposals for two concrete batch plants and, last month, a rock-crushing operation that would have sent another 150 debris haulers into the neighborhood’s small streets every single day.
Dowdy recalled that the first of those fights was touch and go until the final vote. But the neighborhood’s most recent victory over the proposed concrete-crusher came relatively easily.
“What’s the difference?” Dowdy asked. “We have begun to demonstrate how it is possible to imagine the future of this community as not just junkyards and dumps.”
The work has required an army of advocates that starts with the Inclusive Communities Project, Downwinders at Risk and Southern Sector Rising, whose president, Marsha Jackson, has fought for years against the hundreds of tons of roof shingles being dumped virtually in her backyard.
Paul Quinn faculty member Evelyn Mayo, the inaugural fellow in its Urban Research Initiative, told me that fighting City Hall case by case is not enough. Overall land use guidelines must change before Floral Farms is safe.
“We don’t want to have to keep coming down there and making the same points over and over again,” Mayo said.
She also worries that, given the national embarrassment that Shingle Mountain made of Dallas, people just want to forget it even happened. “The truth is, based on our research, this could happen again any day — and could already be happening,” Mayo said.
Floral Farms residents, organized as Neighbors United/Vecinos Unidos, agreed a few months ago on recommendations to guide policy changes and are waiting to get their plan, created with the help of Mayo and other experts, in front of the right people at City Hall.
They want to see a neighborhood park where Shingle Mountain stood as a step toward transforming their community. Just as important to them is a land-use overhaul that would reduce the harm done by existing industrial operations and stop others from trying to come in.
Paul Quinn’s Urban Research Initiative continues to provide data to bolster the on-the-ground experiences of the Floral Farms residents. Sorrell said that’s a real-life example of the initiative’s mission: To serve as a research resource for people across southern Dallas and beyond “who don’t have the time, the wherewithal or the body of data to be convincing on all fronts.”
College students, meanwhile, learn research and data-analysis skills while providing ways to alleviate the suffering of others. “It’s a way to marry their career pathway with social impact,” Dowdy said.
The initiative isn’t the research arm for any particular group, Dowdy said, but rather seeks to share information to help anyone trying to make a good decision.
“We don’t expect every City Council member to be a particulate pollution expert, but someone needs to be,” Dowdy said. “Somebody needs to be making that case clear to people who are making decisions.
For example, Mayo, then an adjunct professor, oversaw students in creating a Poisoned by ZIP Code report last spring, which analyzed publicly available information and interpreted it in a meaningful way for ordinary residents.
While Paul Quinn was only one of many to call out the dangerous realities of Shingle Mountain, Dowdy said the college’s zip code report helped put the environmental disaster into context.
In February, Mayo produced the Paul Quinn Annual Emissions Inventory Report, which also relied on Texas Commission of Environmental Quality data. “If someone takes the time and devotes the bandwidth to it, we can make the tools for better lives easily available,” Dowdy said.
Mayo said the voices of concerned residents like those in Floral Farms should be enough to ensure the right decisions are made, but because of ignorance or disinterest, too often they aren’t.
“We are there as the boxing gloves — in a fight that’s already been happening — just to swing a harder punch,” Mayo said.
The curriculum and programming that Mayo builds through her environmental-justice lens also will be adapted to community needs such as housing security and equitable development.
Like the landfill fight a decade ago and the school gardens that provide produce for the food desert that surrounds the college, Sorrell sees the role of his school’s Urban Research Initiative as working alongside neighbors to prove out that “we are your school.”
There are plenty of advantages to having a college in your community that have nothing to do with whether you were a student there.
“We now have a community that recognizes they matter and their voices matter,” Sorrell said. “If people don’t want to treat them with the respect they deserve, they’ve got friends at Paul Quinn College. Evelyn will show up. Chris will show up. The college will show up.”