By the mid-1960s, Houston’s big city affluence had created a city of remarkable growth and employment opportunities but degraded by poor air and water quality, troubled by recurrent flooding, and deficient in park and recreation space. As concerned citizens became aware of a need for activism, local government oversight, and community advocacy, individuals began to organize to improve Houston’s quality of life. Citizens Who Care (CWC) was a group of women (and initially one man) who decided in July 1968 that they could organize to solve some of Houston’s problems. In November 1968, CWC organized a luncheon for a group of Houston’s elite businessmen who in turn created the Houston Area Forum, raised an impressive sum of money, hired a director, and printed promotional brochures. In fewer than two years, Houston Area Forum folded into the Chamber of Commerce and later disbanded altogether. Disappointed with these results, the women of CWC redirected their energies. Having realized that there were a number of small groups dedicated to improving Houston’s quality of life, the women of CWC decided that Houston needed a centralized information clearing house to assist struggling environmental groups and coordinate community efforts.
Influenced and trained by initiatives in other cities such as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association (SPUR) and the Citizens Action Program (CAP) of Chicago, the founders of CWC formed the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition (CEC) formally in 1970, but their informal activities had begun as early as 1969. Throughout spring 1969, members of CWC collaborated with other groups to sponsor a community education program on air quality, in preparation for June 1970 hearings by the Texas Air Control Board. Their effort brought 1500 citizens to the air quality hearing, a success that encouraged the formal establishment of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition.
In June 1970, members of CEC met to formulate Articles of Incorporation, By-laws, and a second important project. Office space offered by the San Jacinto Lung Association and grants from Lois Maher and CWC allowed CEC to open for business with the help of paid secretary. CEC organized to provide participating groups and the Houston community with networking, resources, and information. Over time, it offered telephone answering services, an information hotline, and recommendations for expert speakers among other services.
Having succeeded with their Air Quality Information Campaign, CEC’s second major undertaking was formation of task forces on environmental issues, a project that would occupy CEC members over the second half of 1970. These task forces were an important step in Houston’s environmental activism because they involved coordination of environmental, political, and professional groups as well as government agencies. The task forces were set up to study broadly the problems of waste management, open space, urban aesthetics land use, population control, conservation, and transportation at local, state, and national levels to produce informed recommendations for legislative and community planning purposes.
CEC continued its community outreach efforts into the 1980s. For example, CEC hosted a series of meetings between the Houston City Council’s Committee on Flood Management with groups monitoring Houston’s Water Master Plan. CEC also established the Trails System Committee to develop an interconnected system of hike and bike trails in Harris County. During the late 1980s, CEC sponsored a radio program on KPFT, Radio Pacifica, entitled “Talk of the Earth.” At the beginning of the each program, CEC’s executive director read the environmental calendar of events to publicize meetings for the upcoming week. The program’s format provided a forum in which environmental experts could address the problems facing the Gulf Coast region and offer a spectrum of possible solutions. Tapes of that program are preserved in CEC’s archival records collection.
By the 1990s, CEC had established a website and began sending a weekly newsletter by email. Over the years, CEC had occupied space at San Jacinto Lung Association, University of Houston-Downtown, and at the “Firehouse” in the Montrose area. In 1998, CEC opened the Houston Environmental Conference Center that offers office space to member organizations plus meeting rooms and a conference space that can seat over 200 participants. Members of CWC and CEC organized Houston’s first Earth Day celebration in 1970, and CEC continues to sponsor annual celebrations of Earth Day, as well as an Annual Meeting, the Synergy Awards, and a variety of environmentally sensitive community initiatives.
Founders of the CEC were tenacious, energetic, and inspired by the urgency of their mission. They envisioned CEC as a vital organizational nexus that would link and reinforce local non-profit groups and function as a liaison between community, city, county, state, and national agencies and organizations. Following is an incomplete but representative list of women who founded CWC and CEC: