The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is celebrating its 30th anniversary of the Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program this year.
The paid summer internship places undergraduate and graduate college students pursuing environmental, science, engineering, public administration, public health, computer technology, accounting, business, law, and communications degrees at TCEQ or other participating state agencies, county and city governments, and participating private sector companies from across the state.
John Hall, the founding chairman of TCEQ’s predecessor agency, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, began the program in 1991 as a memorial for his friend and former U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland, who died in an airplane crash in 1989 en route to Ethiopia on a mission as Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Hunger.
We spoke with John to find out more about why he started the program and why he believes training interns for environmental careers is still relevant today.
Q. How did the Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program get started?
A. Mickey Leland was a friend of mine. I had met him several years before he was killed on the way back from a hunger mission in Africa. I had always been encouraged by his commitment to environmental issues and so it was a memorial to him. I had always been encouraged by his commitment to improving the quality of life for people of color as well as low-income persons, while at the same time being very committed to addressing environmental issues during his tenure at the United States Congress. And so, I did it as a memorial to the influence he had in the minority community in Texas and beyond and the fact that at the time he was one of the few minority leaders in the state and the country who was highlighting the importance of effectively addressing environmental issues.
Historically, diversity—defined in terms of persons of color and, at that time, women—working in the environmental sector had been very limited, and my hope was that we could start an internship program as a way to introduce persons of color and women to the environmental profession, and thereby, encourage them to pursue careers in these areas. So, when we began the program, we were especially focused on public agencies as well as different types of businesses, particularly the petrochemical, refinery, waste management, and water sectors. The hope was that by recruiting young people focused on getting their bachelor’s degrees and potentially their master’s degrees and introducing them to the interesting and pointed issues that were important to TCEQ, that would cause some of them to pursue careers in the environmental sector. I think what’s been remarkable to see is how women, in particular, have had a very strong presence in the environmental sector and what progress has been made with regards to persons of color who are engaged in these types of careers. We have had increases, but we still have a way to go. I’m grateful and thankful that my predecessors, starting with Bob Houston, when I first left the agency, through Chairman (Jon) Niermann have seen fit to keep the program and have actually increased the number of participants. The fact that there have been 2,500 interns in the program over the past 30 years is amazing.
I encountered Mrs. (Allison) Leland (an advisory board member for the MLEIP and widow of Mickey Leland) at a funeral of an individual who we both knew in Houston about nine months ago. I heard someone calling me as I left the memorial and she embraced me and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for starting this program; and by the way did you know that it was still alive?” I told her that I was aware and then she shared how she and her children were grateful that the program had been created and that it was probably one of the most successful tributes that had been given to her husband.
Q. How long were you involved with the program?
A. During my tenure at TCEQ, probably about two to three years, and since then, various managers of the program have been generous to invite me to return periodically during the annual celebration that takes place with the interns over the summer.
Q. How did you feel when you saw that the program had grown from about 35 interns in the first year to more than 100?
A. It’s remarkable. When I first realized it, I was shocked because I was so pleased and so grateful. All of us would like to see some of the things that we participate in, or even initiated, changed by our peers and colleagues. The fact that through the many years, the changes in politics, that this program has endured just speaks to the humanity and the goodwill that we all share.
Q. Why do you think this internship is so important?
A. On the one hand, we’ve made remarkable progress in this country on issues pertaining to justice and racial equality. On the other hand, we’ve got a long way to go and I think that the fact that the program continues to exist and continues to have support is an indication of the leadership of TCEQ, who runs one of the largest environmental agencies in the country, that there’s still more work to be done with regards to encouraging women and persons of color to enter different careers in the environmental sector. The issue of environmental justice will probably receive more attention over the next 40 years, which is testament to the fact that there’s still a need for policies and private actions to address environmental actions that exist in many communities, many of which are inhabited by low income and persons of color.
Q. Why would someone want to participate in the program today?
A. I think this is an exciting time to work in the environmental field, because over the next 20 years, we will have to address some of the most challenging environmental challenges we have seen including environmental justice and climate change. We will also witness the development and deployment of technologies that will be effective in addressing these issues. Because of technology and innovation, Texas and the whole country will have the opportunity to embrace these new technologies to reduce emissions in all sectors; those that cause climate change and those that pose various health risks. We’re going to need a new generation of young people to work on these issues. I anticipate they will probably have the most exciting time of anyone who’s had the chance to work in the environmental sector during the past 50 years. And by continuing to have the internship program, TCEQ can play a key role in training these young people to work on these issues and apply emerging technologies and help the state to solve some of its biggest environmental issues ever in a cost-effective manner.
Learn more about John Hall in the video below.