July 20, 2021
(HOUSTON, TX) - With less predictable weather patterns, rising sea levels, and soaring temperatures due to climate change, Texans face increased threats from unfamiliar and dangerous natural disasters.
MSW Alum Thanairy Garcia (MSW'21), who has volunteered with Post-Harvey relief and other projects to address the needs of those impacted by natural disasters, knows the potential financial, physical, and mental harm that is possible with severe weather firsthand.
We spoke to Thainary about how firsthand experience is beneficial when serving those impacted by natural disasters and her views on how social workers must play a role in addressing climate change.
Name: Thanairy Garcia
Graduation from the GCSW: MSW '21
What initially drew you to continue your education in social work?
Truthfully, if it were not for my professors at the University of Houston-Downtown pushing and believing in me to get my master's degree, I would not be here today. As a role model for my younger siblings, my goal was to get my bachelor's degree and a stable job. After taking a statistics class my senior year, I fell in love with research and the tedious work that comes with it. From there, the idea of pursuing a higher education to do research grew. I thought to myself, "Apply for grad school. I'm pretty sure I'll get accepted."
What was your experience like assisting in the Post-Harvey Project? How did that experience inform you about social work and the possibility of serving communities impacted by extreme weather occurrences?
There were many moments where I doubted myself. I am a master's candidate student working with individuals that have a lot of experience and knowledge. I also realized I was coming into this project with limited information. Not only did I doubt myself, but I was reading real-life experiences and traumas individuals faced. I wanted to make sure I was grasping their entire story.
I resonated with many of the participants' experiences. I lost local stores and restaurants that held deep memories--like Spaghetti Warehouse in downtown Houston. I took numerous breaks because I was frustrated reading about how so many marginalized communities were forgotten or overlooked. Historically our government has abused and taken advantage of poor, marginalized communities, and this has caused a deep mistrust. However, when these same groups ask, "Where are the resources to help us rebuild our community?" they are faced with muted responses. Many people affected by Harvey put their life savings into their homes, so they do not have the privilege to get up and leave even if they wanted to. Thankfully there were moments where I found myself proud to be a Houstonian. Stories of citizens going out of their way to save others, whether rescuing, volunteering, or donating, lifted my spirits to continue.
We heard that you, like many in Texans, were impacted by the Winter Storm of 2021. Can you tell us about your experience?
The winter storm of 2021 was beautiful. I had never seen so much snow in Texas. My siblings and I walked to the park nearby and played in the snow. However, unlike Harvey, the winter storm severely damaged my house. Most of our pipes busted, and we did not have hot water for three months. My mother reached out to numerous plumbers, but they were either expensive or lied about fixing our pipes. I know many programs offered assistance but the application process and wait time is taxing. However, the most stressful incident we're currently fighting is our high electricity bill. Our company is now charging us five times our average amount since the storm. I know this issue is common for many Texans, but I cannot express how aggravating this problem is.
Do you believe any issues correlate between Hurricane Harvey and the Winter Storm, and how do you think we can better address these issues?
Besides global climate change, I've noticed a lack of responsibility in our local and state leaders. Our government does the minimum to ensure its citizens receive protection during natural disasters. The rare distribution of government grants and funding is rarely fair to communities of color and the poor. Marginalized communities are overlooked and forgotten, and leaders tackle "more important issues" (like prohibiting abortion) than establishing a reliable electric grid. A simple yet effective solution Houston leaders should implement is funding lower-income communities with proper trash bags. It may not seem like much, but something as straightforward as providing trash bags to people will relieve some financial burden, clean neighborhoods, and stop leaves from clogging drains during floods.
As for Houstonians, we must continuously apply pressure to our elected officials. Phone banking, writing letters, protesting, testifying, advocating, and education are a few ways people can get active. I know this all sounds intimidating if you've never written a letter to your representative, but trust me, I have been there! It wasn't until grad school that I started writing to my elected officials, but it became easier once I started. As for social workers, I genuinely believe we must lead and amplify the historically ignored voices. It is time.
How has the GCSW influenced your outlook on how you can make a positive impact through social work?
For years I internalized my oppression; I am a brown Latina woman who grew up poor. My mother has little education and speaks broken English. My father had a stroke while I was young that left him disabled. I did not believe I held any power to make a difference, but my time at the GCSW made me realize how privileged I truly am. Simply pursuing higher education is a privilege in itself. I have so many tools to advocate at the local or state level, lenses to look through, and most importantly, amazing peers to lean on and use in the future!
What are some personal goals you have for the future?
As of now, I don't know what my future holds. Like most people, I'm living life day by day--trying to work my way through a pandemic, graduate school, field placement, a winter storm, and a research project all on Zoom! These obstacles have tested my patience, time management skills, and adaptability. My future is uncertain, but I am not the least bit worried. All I know is that I plan on taking a long-overdue vacation!