Dallas Activist Marsha Jackson Honored as Mountain Mover

The month of February is always special for Marsha Jackson. It’s Black History Month as well as the month of her birth.

And this February marks one year since a toxic, towering pile of shingles was removed from next to Jackson’s house after years of complaints from her and her neighbors.

Jackson and many of those same neighbors are now working with HKS to build a park where so-called Shingle Mountain once stood and redefine their neighborhood’s identity as a family-friendly rural area filled with flowers and free-range animals.

But before that happens, Dallas County has designated Feb. 22, 2022 — Jackson’s 64th birthday — as Marsha Jackson Day. The designation recognizes Jackson’s “fierce commitment” to removing the hideous Shingle Mountain and promoting environmental justice within her community.

The Dallas County resolution announcing Marsha Jackson Day proclaims that her efforts have made Jackson “a national hero of the environmental justice movement, admired by advocates locally and throughout the U.S.”

A Dallas Museum of Art exhibit also features her activism, and a BET Network documentary titled, “Disrupt and Dismantle,” is scheduled for release – on the eve of her birthday – to show how her activism in Dallas has reverberated throughout America.

A Dallas Museum of Art exhibit features a portrait of Marsha Jackson by Dallas artist Ari Brielle. Brielle placed a a mound of roofing shingles below the portrait for a larger piece titled “Poisoned by Zip Code.”

It’s all a big honor, Jackson says, and one that she never sought. The executive assistant for AT&T and Dallas Area Rapid Transit only turned to environmental justice activism as a last resort in 2018 to get Shingle Mountain removed from her Southern Dallas neighborhood.

“Our community has been hurting,” Jackson said. “People don’t understand what we’ve been through and what we’re still going through – the headaches, the breathing problems, inflammation of our vocal cords. What we’ve been through will always be a legacy of Black history in Dallas.”

Erin Peavey, an HKS Architect and Design Researcher who leads the firm’s Floral Farms park design team, praised Jackson.

“Marsha Jackson’s resolve is an example to us all of how to fight for what we believe in and do it with kindness and poise and determination,” Peavey said. “Marsha Jackson Day helps spread Marsha’s voice and her example to a larger audience, and it will hopefully help light more fires within each of us for service and justice wherever we may live and whatever community we find ourselves in.”

From Resident to Community Organizer

Jackson was 38 years old when her family moved to Floral Farms in 1995, drawn to the neighborhood’s rural and relaxed vibe just 9 miles south of bustling downtown Dallas.

At the time, the agricultural area was filled with flower nurseries and open pastures for animals to roam, and residents organized summer rodeo camps for their kids to learn roping techniques and other rodeo skills. Jackson raised two children, three horses, and three grandchildren in the neighborhood, where some families have known each other for generations.

Jackson’s commitment to the Dallas community dates back decades. She was a member of the African American Museum for nearly 10 years, volunteering her time in various roles such as the gift shop and guest lead. And she has been a disaster team member with the American Red Cross for almost six years.

She had just enrolled in an MBA program through Phoenix University in 2018 to advance her career when the Shingle Mountain fiasco began, with a nearby recycling company grinding and dumping roof shingles right next to Jackson’s bedroom. In a matter of months, the pile turned into a towering peak that soared above many of the homes in Jackson’s neighborhood.

Poor air quality – attributed to the shingle’s toxic dust – forced residents to stop letting their children play outside. Jackson quit inviting her grandchildren to her house out of concerns that their health would suffer. 

Marsha Jackson and her neighbors, many of whom have lived in the area for decades, gather at a community meeting to discuss the Floral Farms park plan. (Credit: Shirley Che)

The neighbors complained to the city numerous times, but to no avail. Jackson’s search for allies to help her neighborhood led her to Evelyn Mayo of Downwinders at Risk, a clean air advocacy organization in North Texas with a history of helping neighborhoods fight against unfair practices.

“It’s unreal when you see what people have to go through to have peace of mind. And by people, I mean low-income people, Black people, Brown people,” Mayo said. “It’s not right on so many levels, but Marsha has always been kind and open and relentless. What she was put through I don’t wish on anyone but at the same time it led to this incredible movement for environmental justice in the city of Dallas that did not exist before.”

Righting Other Wrongs

Shingle Mountain was finally cleared in February 2021 but a lot of work remains before Jackson and her neighbors can start living life normally again. The vacant land that housed the shingles will need to be remediated to get rid of the toxins that remain. And it will need to be rezoned to ensure that no other business can threaten the neighborhood’s health again.

“This neighborhood came out of nowhere in terms of political presence,” Mayo said. “They’re not some longstanding neighborhood association or HOA; this is a grassroots group that came together in a time of crisis and has done incredible work for their part of town.”

While waiting on the city to rezone the land, the Floral Farms residents are working with HKS and community grassroots organizers to design a park that they hope can one day be built on the land. HKS is overseeing the park’s design as a pro bono project through its public-interest design initiative, Citizen HKS.

Jackson and her neighbors gather in a neighbor’s barn in the fall of 2021 to unveil the final design concept for the Park for Floral Farms, which resulted from a close partnership between the community and Citizen HKS. (Credit: Shirley Che)

Shingle Mountain was a representation of environmental injustice; the Park for Floral Farms will be a testament to the power of coming together and speaking up to reverse injustice, Peavey said. Through it all, Jackson has been the force tying it all together. She often knocks on her neighbors’ doors to encourage them to attend planning meetings, taking detailed notes to share with those who can’t attend so they, too, can have a say in the process.

“Marsha is continually bringing people in and always expanding the circle,” Peavey said. “She always has a clear north arrow of how to bring a better life to her community, so everyone gets to participate and is brought into and up in this journey.”

Welcoming visitors with the line, “Together we can move mountains,” the park will help the neighborhood reclaim its identity as a welcoming, vibrant and safe community. And it will meet their needs with a community garden, soccer field, walking trail, and more.

“Our neighbors used to feel like a lost community; I have not seen the greenery we used to have in a while,” Jackson said. “This park will bring that back and brighten the community back up. HKS listened to our voice, and that’s the biggest thing.”

But Jackson’s work won’t end when the park for Floral Farms is complete.

Floral Farms residents accept a donation from Santander Bank to Southern Sector Rising, a nonprofit that was formed out of efforts to remove Shingle Mountain and address environmental inequity. (Credit: Shirley Che)

Her fight against Shingle Mountain has exposed her to other communities, both in Dallas and nationwide, that are experiencing environmental injustice. These neighborhoods are typically not in affluent areas, and they have mostly Black or Latino residents who often lack representation in city planning.

Jackson has taken up their cause, too. She is pursuing a doctorate degree in public administration through Walden University and intends to use her knowledge to help other communities seek justice for themselves.

“We finally got someone to listen to us; and I don’t want anyone to close the door on us because we’ve been waiting for change for a while,” Jackson said. “This has been an eye-opener for our communities, and for us. I don’t want anyone to go through what we did.”

The Floral Farms neighborhood is currently accepting donations to build the Park for Floral Farms. The “Rooted” exhibit is on display at the Dallas Museum of Art until April 2023. KERA will host a conversation on March 5 with Jackson, Peavey, and Dallas Artist Ari Brielle on how design and art can help communities heal from environmental injustice.