A vibrant region that provides equity of opportunity depends on residents who are civically engaged. Civic health is “the way that communities are organized to define and address public problems,” and “communities with strong indicators of civic health have higher employment rates, stronger schools, better physical health, and more responsive governments” (source: The National Conference on Citizenship). In short, civic health leads to better collective problem solving and better outcomes for communities.
A few years ago, Houston Endowment began hearing from a number of different stakeholders about impediments to authentic civic engagement in Houston. This was troubling, as we believe it is important that all people are able to actively participate in shaping their communities and solving issues that impact their daily lives.
In spring 2017, we convened a non-partisan group of more than 40 nonprofits, academic institutions, and funders to discuss civic engagement in Harris County – including issues of engaging with government, voting, and volunteerism. A theme emerged: without a coordinated strategy, they felt their work was not as effective as it might have been.
Houston Endowment provided financial support for a facilitator to help the groups develop a common agenda. The collective-impact effort is now known as Houston in Action. We also commissioned a Civic Health Index to provide baseline data around greater Houston’s social connectedness, civic involvement, and political participation to inform Houston in Action’s work.
In a short time, Houston in Action has made remarkable progress toward empowering its members and the larger community to organize to define and address public problems:
Through GenHTX, Houston in Action members are working to increase the civic participation of Houston youth. Houston in Action members engaged with Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman to bring about county-wide polling centers. The group released a report – a joint research effort of University of Houston, Texas Southern University, and Rice University – about the policies and barriers that affect civic participation for Harris County and Texas residents. The report’s findings will inform HiA’s priorities going forward and frame discussions with community residents, leaders, and local policymakers. And, notably, Houston in Action has helped bring the City of Houston, Harris County, and the nonprofit community together to coordinate on achieving a complete count in the 2020 Census, with a focus on reaching undercounted communities, particularly those who have historically faced barriers to civic participation. For every person who is not counted in our region, it is estimated that Houston could lose $1,500 in government funding.
“The barriers that hold back marginalized communities are deeply embedded in systems and structures that date way back in our country’s history,” said Frances Valdez, executive director of Houston in Action. “The work to gain access for these communities has taken generations of sacrifice, victory and defeat, and true access and influence will take generations more. We will not get there without coordination and without working together. That is what the Houston in Action structure has provided for us: the collective strength to share a vision, build up our people, and move us all a little bit closer to equity and empowerment.”
Houston Endowment brought people together and initiated this work because we trust and respect communities to decide for themselves what issues they want to address and how they want to solve them. Now, Houston in Action members are coordinating to increase the region’s capacity to plan for future needs, self-organize, and empower residents to be effective advocates – regardless of their political affiliation or the issues they care about.
Key findings of the Civic Health Index: Despite the large shares of Hispanic residents throughout the region, people with Hispanic surnames are underrepresented in the Harris County electorate, candidate pool, and as a share of local elected officials. Women are underrepresented in the Harris County candidate pool, and as a share of local elected officials. Greater Houston residents are about 12 percentage points less likely to trust all or most of their neighbors than the average American trusts their neighbors. Residents of the region struggle to discuss politics with their families as well as communicate with elected officials.
“Thanks to Houston in Action, Texas Freedom Network – Texas Rising was able to lead a coalition of campus Greek organizations and influential leaders in increasing civic engagement at Texas Southern University. The students remained engaged through the 2019 Legislative Session by visiting the state Capitol and writing letters to their elected officials. The efforts of this dynamic group of advocates and organizations will reduce the historic, systemic barriers that have negatively affected communities like the Third Ward.” — Lucius Miles, regional field coordinator of Texas Freedom Network – Texas Rising