>>>Conversation with Eric Pearson, CEO at El Paso Community Foundation
Q: Hello Eric, can you tell us about the work the foundation is doing in the region?
Well, so the foundation works across the spectrum. We are doing a lot of work in the environment. We are doing a lot of work in cross border issues. We do a lot of work in trying to overcome issues surrounding poverty. Especially in terms of education access. Anything you can think of the foundation has probably done in its 42-year history.
Right now in terms of border issues we have had to respond. It is an interesting time because we have had to respond to a lot of crises. You know, we had asylum seekers who were held in El Paso before they could go in. We have to respond to that. Then we have them held at the other side of the border - and so we are dealing with that and we are just trying to help pay for legal fees to have attorneys represent asylum seekers and we are also dealing with healthcare issues. And we are dealing - so just there... just that sort of native community response has been difficult.
On the environmental side there are a lot of impacts as well. The border, obviously we share the same area, we share the same water. One of our first big projects was on the Environmental Cooperation Commission which came around when NAFTA was passed. We helped develop the aguas negras which are the open pits that carry sewage through Juarez; and so we helped them get under and create a wastewater treatment plant working together with the North American Development Bank. We helped plan all that to help Juarez deal with basically open pits with raw sewage.
We’ve done everything from that to providing potable water to people in colonias, to projects that help us tell our story. One of the big things we have trouble with in El Paso - Juarez - Las Cruces is that we are isolated. We are an island in a sea of desert, and so, everything we do is kind of a closed system, and the policies that affect us come from Chihuahua, Austin TX, and Washington DC and they are ignorant of our issues. So, we have to tell our story and that’s a big part of what we do.
Q: Do you have initiatives or projects that work simultaneously on both sides of the border?
We run a 10K race. When everyone is looking at Mexico as a threat, we are trying to show that we are a big community of good people trying to make it. So we do a 10K race, it's 5K in El Paso, and 5K in Juarez and we end right on the border. The idea is to attract people from all over North America to come run in this race and say “Oh my gosh, there’s no border quite like ours” so that’s important.
We just did - working with the University and an artist named Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, he’s actually Canadian, strangely. Born in Mexico, jumped over the United States to Canada and then he ended up here. He is a world renowned artist and he created something called the Border Tuner where you have these spotlights.There are three spotlights on one side of the border, three spotlights on the other side, and when you cross the beams, it opens up a conversation between the two. So we funded that in partnership with a gallery at the University of Texas, El Paso.
We are building a children’s museum in partnership with La Rodadora which is a children’s museum in Juarez. It will have one of the very first permanent exhibitions that are totally interactive between two cities, two countries, two cultures. We spend a lot of time trying to emanate positivity out from here.
Everything we do is in partnership with other people but we are trying to maintain a lot of open space. We’ve actually helped secure helos south of the Big Bend area in West Texas and Northern Mexico to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of open space where the endangered black ferret, for example, lives - and that’s all threatened again, by Washington D.C. thinking we need a wall. And so, it’s hard sometimes - to think about all the good things that we have and do here, and to be looked at as a waste land and a security threat just onto ourselves. When the truth is - we are a rich area of culture and people with a strategic partner and a culture partner in the south.
The difference between me and those asylum seekers is - you know, my grandfather did what they did. My grandfather came across in 1916, and Woodrow Wilson was President, and now Donald Trump is President, and he would have been turned back for the same reasons - for seeking asylum - my grandfather from the Mexican Revolution. But those kinds of things - you know, we have to remember that, although we are sort of self-sufficient in this region, we have to emanate and we have to constantly educate people about who we are and I think borders are unique around the world - and our particular border is unique in all the world.
Q: You mentioned that the foundation has done environmental initiatives such as improvements on sewer systems in Juarez in the past. These past few days, we have observed that some streets in Juarez flood after a few hours of rain. From your perspective, what are the most pressing climate-change issues the region is experiencing today?
We are more of a funder in that regard - because we’re not experts on that, but I will tell you - when we had our second “100-year flood” in about five years and this was about ten years ago, and we actually had a video store float away! And you know - flash flooding is a big deal. So I looked at the trend of flooding in our region and the amount of rain - and the amount of rain in our region has not significantly increased over the last 50-years, but what we have seen is that we have gone from a predictable amount of rain in July, August, September and October to a saturation of rain in August and September. And so we are getting more big storms in a smaller period of time.
And El Paso’s temperature has grown, I just know the El Paso data, but I imagine it pertains to Juarez as well - our temperature has become four degrees hotter on average over the last decade. So we know that El Paso–Juarez is getting hotter, more humid - and access to fresh water is a big deal - so we work with the El Paso water utility on trying to tell people to conserve water.
There are colonias in the United States and there are colonias in Juarez. In the United States colonias are neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. Informal communities with no access to water and electricity and things like that. So we worked really hard to develop a Lower Valley Water Authority and get water lines to people and working with other foundations around the country to develop people. We ran water lines along the streets, and we would give loans to all of the people who had bought these houses without access to water and they would have to pay for the hook up to their water supply. So water is probably our biggest issue.
The other big issue is, if we are dealing with ecology: There are a lot of unregulated - I’m going to pick on one company. Fluor is a plant in Juarez and they are using a chemical that if they had a leak or an accident there, and it got out, it could kill a lot of people very quickly.
Just yesterday, I was talking with folks from the Mexican Army, and the US Consulate in Mexico City and they are asking - we are trying to figure out - if we have an environmental disaster - and that is probably what it’s going to be. You know, floods we could deal with over time because although we’re getting more flash floods, they’re short-term, short-lived and we can build up infrastructure during off-periods. But the biggest environmental threat to us are chemical issues.
And air quality problems. The bridges for example — we have five ports of entry in El Paso–Juarez; seven if you count Fabens and Sta. Teresa, San Jeronimo. So people are sitting on those bridges and cars that are polluting, and a car does most of its pollution when it's idle. And we have to convince — again, tell our story — convince the Federal Government that making people sit on those lines when you have twelve lanes that are for people to cross, and only five of them are open, and you’ve got cars backed up. You’ve seen the bridges?