All in the Family

Bryan Parras recalls a time in elementary school when he accompanied his dad on a work trip to Nederland, in Texas’ Golden Triangle. The warehouse where his dad organized county workers was “just one open vacant room with a bunch of chairs like you would see in a movie.” Bryan, now 44, remembers running around outside, playing on a mound of sand, while his dad discussed strategy with Jefferson County employees. Meanwhile, Juan Parras, who was there to try to negotiate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday for union workers, recalls what was happening inside. In the East Texas region long home to the Ku Klux Klan, Juan says the mayor, whom he describes as looking like KFC’s Colonel Sanders, took him in a back room during city council proceedings to tell him that he thinks he’s “a smart Mexican” but he’s not going to give workers “a n***** holiday.” 

“I never understood the dangers of the work, but I know they were there,” Bryan says of Juan’s longtime activism across Texas. When he could tag along, he liked the chance to spend time with his dad, who was often gone for work, leaving Bryan and his brother home with their mom, Jesusa Moreno. Juan’s union travels took a toll on the marriage, and though organizing had brought the couple together during their youth in Big Spring, the two split up when Bryan was young. He describes his dad as coming from a generation where “they’re all in. The lines between family and community completely get blurred.” But as Bryan got older, his dad’s activism rubbed off on him and he found himself wanting to maintain the intergenerational organizing work, “to keep the good things going from previous generations.”  

Today, Bryan and Juan are organizers fighting for environmental justice and the co-founders, along with Juan’s now-wife, Ana Parras, of one of Texas’ leading grassroots environmental organizations, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). The nonprofit has gained national and international attention for its advocacy on behalf of Houston’s low-income communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by pollution from the city’s petrochemical refineries. Juan even garnered a nomination to President Joe Biden’s environmental justice advisory council last year. But for the Parras family, the work has always been personal. 

Growing up in Houston in an area tucked between a historically Latinx neighborhood and a historically Black one, Bryan felt the impacts of environmental racism firsthand. He remembers getting headaches and mysterious rashes on his arms, which he attributed to pollution from the chemical refineries that bordered his neighborhood. Years later, he’d be diagnosed with asthma. 

Bryan and his mother, Jesusa Moreno, who nurtured his interest
in photography
and video. Ivan Armando Flores/Texas Observer

Juan, now 72, fell into his union career after organizing workers to address backlogs at Harris County’s welfare office in the 1970s. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represented county employees like Juan, took note and offered him a job. At the time, he was the only Latinx union representative for AFSCME. “I was like a token,” Juan says. “Anywhere they were organizing where they needed a Latino they would send me, and I would tell them, ‘Look, hire some more Latinos. I’m not the only one in the damn nation.’”

Soon, Juan’s work took him down to Corpus Christi to organize Nueces County employees. It was there he met Ana, a young organizer who worked at the information desk. Every visit, he’d stop by for directions and the chance to chat her up. “Took seven years, though,” Ana says to Juan, laughing. “You didn’t organize me right away.” Ana rose to become the president of the local AFSCME chapter at just 24 years old. 

In 1993, Juan left the union. He and Ana got married shortly after and moved back to Houston. Juan worked odd jobs for a while but couldn’t find anything permanent—he says it’s because companies were fearful he’d unionize their workforce. Then one day he got a phone call from an organizer with the Louisiana Labor Neighbor Project in Baton Rouge offering him a job. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’” Juan says. He looked across the living room at Ana, who mouthed that she’d sent in his résumé and a cover letter. The two relocated to Louisiana, where Juan supported the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers’ Union in the midst of a five-and-a-half-year lockout and Ana worked for a domestic violence shelter and a union for injured workers while raising their younger kids.

In the late ’90s, Juan and Ana returned to Texas. Every day on his way to work at Texas Southern University in Houston, Juan passed a huge sign that read, “Future site of new high school.” He didn’t think much of it until Ana drove him to work one day and pointed out what was behind it. Juan had never noticed the smokestacks in the distance, spilling pollution into the surrounding neighborhoods, potentially exposing future students to the same health issues that Bryan faced as a child. Bryan had become interested in photography and video in college, an interest nurtured by Jesusa, who introduced him to Nuestra Palabra, a Latinx reading series and radio show on Houston’s Pacifica radio station. He documented Juan and Ana’s activism as they fought to keep the school from being built within a quarter-mile of three large petrochemical plants. Though the group lost the battle to stop the construction, Unidos Contra Environmental Racism, the organization that would become TEJAS, was born. 

In 2019, TEJAS joined forces with the Sierra Club to file a complaint alleging the Texas Center for Environmental Quality’s public permitting process was inaccessible to non-English speakers, in violation of the Civil Rights Act. They won, and the new proposed rule, awaiting final approval from the commissioners, requires translation of key documents and live interpretation at public

The intergenerational work that launched TEJAS remains at the forefront of its mission. “We’re like a training ground,” Ana says. “We’re hoping to teach the importance of caring about what’s around you, where you live, what you do, and what people are exposed to.” 

Today, while Juan and Ana remain with TEJAS, Bryan now works at the Sierra Club, where he aims to provide support to local grassroots groups like the one that shaped his life and pass on the lessons that his family taught him. 

“Organizing is not just a profession but an everyday practice,” Bryan says. “All the things that we’ve learned from the environmental justice movement and our elders and personal experiences of being shafted, unappreciated … I carry all of that still.” Younger organizers of color might not have that history, he says, so it’s important to make sure they also understand “the process and the struggle that got us here.”  

Top image: Bryan Parras says he felt the impact of environmental racism firsthand growing up in Houston.

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A Texas Professor’s Guide to Learning Black History

Leonard N. Moore thinks every white person in America should be required to take a Black history class. That’s how Moore, a professor of Black history at the University of Texas, opens his new book, Teaching Black History to White People. In this timely book from the University of Texas Press, Moore guides readers—many of whom Moore, who is Black, presumes will be white—through Black history and his own personal experience in academia. Moore is a popular professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches a course called “Race in the Age of Trump.” He has also addressed racial tensions campuswide in his role as the university’s Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement.  

Moore offers six specific steps that white Americans (and other non-Black people) can take to improve America’s racial climate. Excerpted below are steps 4-6.

Check the Microaggressions

Microaggressions are similar to stereotypes; they are more subtle but equally painful. Recently, a colleague and I were in a meeting and  the person we were waiting for walked in, looked at me, and said, “How you doing, Dr. Gordon?” I’ve been called Dr. Gordon, Dr. Harrison, and Dr. Smith. What do we all have in common? We are all Black men who are professors at the University of Texas at Austin. We look nothing alike. Do you know what it’s like to show up to an event and they give you the name badge of another Black person? Black people do not complain, because it doesn’t do any good, but we just need to share some of these stories. 

Dr. Leonard N. Moore at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2020. LBK Library/Jay Godwin

 A lot of people who claim to be liberal are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to microaggressions and micro-invalidations. Don’t assume that all the Black women on campus are there to run track or that the Black men are there to play football or basketball. I had a student who was five-foot-five and he was still stereotyped as a football player. Now, some of you may think, “Well, that’s not a bad stereotype,” but to the student it is. Because what is being suggested is that the only reason they are on campus is because of their athletic ability. 

When I tell white people that I work at the University of Texas at Austin, many of them instinctively think that I work in athletics. After flying in to San Francisco a couple of years ago, my son and I went to the rental car counter. The Avis guy pulled up my information, saw that I worked at the University of Texas at Austin, and said, “Oh, what are you doing out here? Recruiting athletes?” 

I said, “No.” 

“What do you do at UT?” 

I said, “Why don’t you guess?” 

“Well, I don’t know. I thought you were out here recruiting.” 

On several occasions I have arrived at events where I’m the keynote speaker,  and typically I’ll introduce myself to the organizer just to let them know that I’m there. I’ll typically say, “I’m Leonard Moore from the University of Texas.” They introduce themselves, and on more than one occasion they will say, “Good to meet you. What time is Dr. Moore coming?” I will say, “I don’t know. Hopefully he will be here soon.” These are real experiences. If I deal with these things as a Black man, what do my Black female counterparts often deal with? At times, microaggressions can become outright hostile for Black women. A Black female colleague was confronted by a white male colleague who stood in her office doorway shortly after she was hired and said, “I don’t understand why they’re paying you that much money!” 

The constant stereotyping and microaggressions confirm what many Black people were told by their parents and grandparents: “You gotta work twice as hard to go half as far.” To get ahead in the workplace, we embrace John Henry–ism. “I’m going to just work harder, and  harder, and harder, then I’ll get the promotion.” I was in full-blown John Henry–ism during my years at LSU. A lot of Black professionals take on extra assignments and duties without receiving adequate compensation. We do that because we feel that we have to prove ourselves. But in doing that we work ourselves to death, and we still don’t get promoted to the level of our abilities. 

Get Uncomfortable

I want to talk about the importance of getting uncomfortable. Your political affiliation doesn’t matter. (You may say you’re a liberal, but I know a lot of liberals who value trees and the environment more than people.) Some of us are narrowly trained in our area of expertise but we need specific training around racial injustice. We don’t like to go to training because it makes us feel uncomfortable. The first time I went to an anti-sexism training, I was uncomfortable because I didn’t realize how a lot of my unconscious actions contributed to sexism. Similarly, many white people don’t understand how some of their unconscious actions contribute to an unhealthy racial climate. Anybody can handle budgets or create a strategic plan, but can you navigate the tricky waters of race and racial justice? Discomfort is the fertilizer for growth. If the lived experiences of Black people make you upset, then you need to sit with the discomfort and ask yourself why. 

Whenever I teach my Black Power class I always have white alumni sit in on the class. One semester an older white gentleman in his early seventies came to every class. On the last day of class I had him stand up and the students gave him a standing ovation. He said, “Dr. Moore, this has been the greatest experience of my life.” In my Race in the Age of Trump class I often have many white students who enroll in the class, but their parents are reluctant to let them take it. One student told me that at the end of every class she would have to take a picture of her notes, email them to her mom, and at night they would discuss the notes as well as the class readings. Apparently, the mom did this because she didn’t want her daughter taking my class and “becoming a liberal.” By the end of the semester the mom had transformed from a helicopter parent to a convert. She sent me an email and thanked me for changing her perspective. 

A way to ease yourself into the discomfort and to learn more about American history, the civil rights movement, and race relations is to do a civil rights tour throughout the great state of Mississippi. You can start in Jackson, Mississippi, at the new civil rights museum, which I think is one of the best museums in the country, and then you can work your way up north through the Mississippi Delta, ending at Memphis, Tennessee. It will be worth your time and money. 

“What Can I Help You Fight For?”

Many well-meaning white people are often curious about what they can do to help calm racial tensions. Instead of asking, “What can I do?” I recommend you ask a more profound question, “What can I help you fight for?” 

About ten years ago, I took a group of students from my church to East Austin, which at the time was predominantly African American and low-income. Our intent was to canvas the neighborhood and ask residents what issues were important to them. Prior to the outing I asked the students what they thought the community needed. They talked about after-school programs, high-quality childcare, job training programs, a grocery store, more recreational opportunities, and a litany of social programs. They were wrong. The residents of the community wanted speed bumps. Yes, speed bumps. Why? Because a lot of kids in the neighborhood were getting hit by cars during rush hour as commuters used the side streets in East Austin to avoid traffic jams. This was a profound experience for my students, who learned that you must allow a community to tell you what their needs are instead of just assuming you know. 

Around the country right now there’s a lot of energy on college campuses directed toward taking down Confederate statues and changing building names. But some of that stuff is so woven into the bricks and mortar of an institution that you may never be able to get rid of it all. While I think the typical Black student would agree that these symbolic gestures are important, I believe that they would see other issues as more of a priority. Many of them would like to see an increase in Black enrollment, more Black faculty and staff, and a significant increase in scholarship money for African American students. But many white liberals have co-opted Black activism on America’s college campuses to such an extent that the actual demands of Black students aren’t even heard. So we have white liberals expressing what they think is best for Black students without even consulting them. 

A few years ago, I was asked to mediate a dispute between a Black law school professor and his disgruntled students, who were upset about a question on an exam. On the exam the professor asked the students to provide a legal defense of school segregation. I thought it was a brilliant question. Before I arrived at the meeting I predicted that the group of angry students were largely white liberals. I was correct. In the group of students I met with, only one was Black. The spokesperson for the group was a white male student who seemed rather happy that he was able to call out his Black professor. The students were up in arms. During our meeting they said the question was “traumatizing” and “triggering” and that they should not be forced to answer it. But it went further. They wanted the professor disciplined. They also demanded that the professor be banned from teaching first-year students and that a committee of faculty approve all of his exam questions moving forward. After listening to their complaints, I said, “This has y’all really upset, huh?” They said, “Yes.” Then I asked the following question that changed the entire trajectory of the conversation: “How come you all aren’t equally upset that this law school enrolled only ten Black students this year out of an entire class of three hundred?” The room fell silent. In defense of the law students, I believe they meant well. But they were misguided. They got caught up in symbolism and not substance. This is what happens when you assume you know what Black people really want. If you want to really be an ally, to do something radical, ask Black people a simple question: “What can I help you fight for?”

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Promoting Equity

San Antonio has a history of electing young, fresh faces to city council—think Henry Cisneros and Julián Castro. In June, voters picked a 26-year-old math teacher named Jalen McKee-Rodriguez to represent the city’s historically Black East Side, making him not only one of the youngest politicians ever elected in the city, but also San Antonio’s first openly gay city council member.

With backing from the Democratic Socialists of America and the Texas Organizing Project, he also represents what some see as an emerging progressive block in San Antonio politics. The Observer spoke with McKee-Rodriguez about his election, discrimination he faced as a former city staffer, gentrification in his district, and other issues facing the city’s East Side.

Texas Observer: You’ve called Barack Obama’s election and Trayvon Martin’s killing eye-opening and defining moments for you growing up. How did those events influence you? 

When I was young, it was uncommon to see anyone who looked like me on TV or in politics and in major positions of power, even educators. I never had a teacher who looked like me. I was in eighth grade when Obama was elected, and I remember my mom crying. She was so excited that someone who looked like me, half-Black and half-white, could be president. The election was an early symbol of progress and hope for me. 

Fast-forward a few years: When Trayvon Martin was killed, I saw how someone just like me—we were the same age could be villainized and made to look threatening even though he was just a young boy. It felt like a back-to-reality sort of moment, like society was saying, “Yes, we’ll elect a Black man to office, but if you’re a regular, everyday Black person, this is what we’ll do to you.” 

You’re San Antonio’s first gay city council member and the first out Black man ever elected to public office in Texas. You’ve also been vocal about discrimination you faced working at city hall. What can be done to strengthen protections for LGBTQ people at the local level?

The chief of staff in the office where I worked was older, religious, and I would describe him as homophobic. He wasn’t comfortable with my hair or my clothes. He would say that my outfit wasn’t manly or that I wasn’t masculine enough.

If something like the discrimination and harassment that I faced can happen at city hall, then really who is our nondiscrimination ordinance protecting? I’ve been asking for an office of civil rights, with a legal team and a civil rights coordinator to investigate claims of discrimination within the city. Right now, San Antonio’s ordinance only applies to city employees. I believe I have the support in the community to expand the discrimination ordinance, but I think that other city council members are hesitant. And that’s a sad reality. Workers in Texas can still be fired for being gay. Educators in Texas can still be fired for being gay. Opposite-sex couples don’t get in trouble when they talk about their partners at work, but that still happens to same-sex couples in this state.

What have crises like the pandemic and winter freeze revealed about the needs in your district? 

In the beginning of the pandemic, people thought there could be lockdowns and started stockpiling food and resources, but on the East Side, we already have a food desert. On the North Side, where it’s predominantly white and middle-class, they have abundant resources. Often we have to leave the district or leave our side of town to have access to things that other people have in their neighborhoods. 

During one of my first city council meetings, we talked about the pain felt during the freeze. The pain was real for
my colleagues and their constituents on the North Side, but when you have communities that are already marginalized, where houses aren’t winterized or don’t have insulation, the pain is real but the impact is definitely not the same. 

In San Antonio, we use a lens of equity when we allocate city resources, specifically funding for infrastructure. I think we need to commit to that further and look into all departments, all city resources, all development plans that we’re promoting and incentivizing as a city and seriously ask ourselves: Is this promoting equity? We need policies that allow the East, West, and South sides to catch up to where everyone else is. 

San Antonio has been a poster child for police union protections that shield rogue cops, yet a recent ballot measure to limit the union’s negotiating power failed. What can be done now to increase police accountability and oversight? 

When you look at which sides of town supported that measure, the May election showed that communities like mine—the sides of town that are the most heavily policed—are also areas of town where people most want police reform and accountability. It’s frustrating because the city and police union are often fighting for reforms and solutions that are just Band-Aids. As we saw during this election, people who oppose reform will demonize it as defunding or abolishing police. When we want to allocate more money to domestic violence prevention or substance abuse counseling in order to get at root causes of crime, it’s turned into, “Oh, they’re trying to get rid of the police.” Sadly, I think we’ll see a lot of meaningless debate on that front. 

San Antonio’s East Side has been a flashpoint for gentrification in recent years as the city tried to spur downtown development. How do you limit predatory development? 

For the past several decades, city council members from all across San Antonio have been hand-picked by developers. Developers are really the major funding sources for campaigns here. There are usually dozens of developers contributing the max dollar amount, which can get someone through an entire campaign. That has made campaigns very lazy. They don’t reach out to the community. They don’t really solicit funds from other sources. It’s very much a pay-to-play situation. That’s led to luxury apartments being built next door to a house that should really only cost $70,000 or $80,000. Then more investors come in and flip the house for $400,000, or they get council to rezone the area even when the community doesn’t want it. 

I’m committed to working with everyone—developers, community members, all stakeholders—but developers are never going to be the priority for me. A lot of development that I’m now being briefed on, projects that my predecessors approved or encouraged, it’s just dropping luxury apartments in the middle of a community with high poverty that desperately needs more affordable housing. It’s very clear that my community is not the population these projects seek to benefit. I want whatever development keeps the community intact and benefits the residents who are already there, not development designed to draw people in from out of town or out of state for the purposes of a wealthier tax base.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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‘Trigger Warning: Time’

Everything happens in time
but Time still sometimes
wants a body

a stalk like an asparagus
a golden eye
that opens slow and misty

maybe a scar or two
to prove its memories

the mirror of a quiet pool
or nakedness before another

Time dreams a trunk
and leaves and branches 

reaches down beneath the dark
for some kind of hold 

Before this world started
Time drank heavily
of empty and of dark

It gladdened Time’s heart
when first it came upon
starshine on the waters

and found things watchful 
to observe its changes
and keep it company
until they had to go

Its favorite travel spot so far
is right here in the Holocene

It likes the insects
and going to the movies 

The bad news is
even Time feels
it’s moving faster now

What can be next

when the whole show
becomes a window
closing too fast
for Time’s taste 

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How Public Corruption Investigations Can Fail

For our full collaborative investigation “Justice For Some” on the Texas Rangers with KXAN, KTEP, and the Fort Worth Report, go here.

Chris Callaway served as a Texas Ranger from 2012 to 2018 and worked on public integrity cases, including investigating both local officials and a legislator. Statewide, Rangers like him handled more than 560 cases involving corruption by local and state officials from 2015 to 2020. But few ended in prosecutions, a Texas Observer investigation found. Over the years, Callaway spotted problems in how some cases were handled. “I did the best I could, but a lot of obstacles were in the way,” he says. Callaway left DPS in 2020.

Texas Observer: In the last five years, more than 500 public corruption cases have been investigated by the Rangers all across Texas. How many Rangers and supervisors outside of the Rangers’ public integrity unit in Austin have expertise in these kinds of cases? 

Callaway: Most don’t. The Rangers are a small group and the public integrity working group was even smaller. There’s three or four in Austin who do it full-time. The rest do it on an as-needed basis.

Why is a Ranger supervisor and often a district attorney asked to approve a public integrity or public corruption investigation before a Ranger can open one?

That policy was put into place by the Rangers division so we don’t find ourselves involved in taking out political adversaries. We’re not going to investigate an allegation of voter fraud in the middle of an election. They try on the investigative side to be objective. They’re ultimately concerned with their image—above all else. That’s the reason the [supervisors] started to vet some of those complaints.

Did you think sometimes that vetting process went too far? Did the screening by Rangers or DAs get in the way of legitimate complaints?

 Yes. I remember one case involving an official in a little bitty podunk town. We knew a guy was stealing money and drugs. He was depositing stolen money in his personal bank account, but I couldn’t investigate that guy because he was an elected official. I had to go through a bureaucratic process. The answer I got was no. So the bureaucratic process sometimes prevented investigations in cases involving public officials. 

What’s the role of a DA in screening public integrity investigations? 

Once we got the blessing from the chain of command, then often we had to get a letter from a DA saying that if the investigation produced evidence of a prosecutable criminal act, he or she would proceed. The way the rangers look at it, if the DA doesn’t want to prosecute, we’re not going to waste our time investigating. 

Isn’t that process backward? How do you know you’ll find a prosecutable offense if you can’t investigate?

That’s the part of the thing I struggled with. Because when we start looking at [a complaint] we don’t know what else we’re going to find.  

In the last five years, public integrity complaints made against legislators and statewide office holders all seem to have died quietly—with the exception of the long-running prosecution of Attorney General Ken Paxton in Collin County. Did you think more public integrity reports should be released?

 Yes. In high-profile cases, I think that all cases that are closed—even if no prosecution was ever done—the reports should be made public. You should be able to look at them. One prosecution [against Paxton] is ongoing, so that report should be withheld. But there have been other complaints made against him that were investigated, and those reports should be released.

  I did an investigation into a legislator involving a business transaction that occurred between him and a family friend.It involved air conditioners and a hunting trip. I can tell you that what he did may have been unprofessional or even immoral. But it wasn’t illegal. I came to believe that the complaint against him had been motivated by political disagreements over border security initiatives. I think that report should be released.

In some public integrity cases, DAs have said Texas ethics laws are too weak. For example, a Kaufman County prosecutor declined to proceed on a Ranger’s investigation of how Paxton accepted $100,000 from a businessman whose company was simultaneously being investigated by the AG for Medicaid fraud. Texas law against giving an illegal gift to a public official is only a misdemeanor and she said that law has loopholes.

Look at the state statues—the statutes for the majority of those kinds of offenses are misdemeanors. So, you’ve got a bunch of attorneys writing laws in Austin and attaching punishments to them, so that in the event one of them violates the law, it’s a misdemeanor and it doesn’t keep him or her from practicing law… you just don’t get much results.  

For example, you can violate the civil rights of a person in custody; that’s a Class A misdemeanor, as are other official oppression crimes. But if you falsify your school attendance records, that’s a third degree felony. What’s wrong with that picture?

If nothing changes in Kaufman County, that gift case will never be prosecuted and you’ll never even get to see the Ranger’s report.

Rangers are supposed to be investigating public integrity, public corruption, in-custody deaths, serial killers, cold cases, and conducting border security. Is it possible for the Rangers to carry out all of their missions with the number of officers they have?

It is completely impossible to carry those duties out effectively. One of my biggest regrets of my Ranger career is that my frustration and aggravation led to an alcohol addiction problem. That’s what started my descent into unemployment. The expectations placed on those guys and gals is just outrageous. It’s completely unsustainable for an extended period of time. How can you be a top-notch public integrity investigator or a top-notch murder investigator if you’re not allowed sufficient time to develop those skills?

Can you talk more about why you left DPS in 2020?

In law enforcement, there’s rampant alcohol and drug abuse, PTSD. It’s more widespread than anybody talks about. They don’t want those kinds of stories to be told. I went three times asking for help. I finally ended up in a treatment program specifically for first responders and veterans. It’s called the Warrior’s Heart. I talked about that publicly. After that, I got fired. I have a lawsuit in Hidalgo County court—a 2019 civil rights case that alleges that DPS  discriminated against me because I admitted to a disability. 

Can you get a copy of the report on the public integrity/internal affairs complaint that you made about your supervisor?

No. It’s not public. I made a public information act request and I was told by the AG that it’s not public because no disciplinary action was taken by DPS. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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