‘Citizenship Changed My Life’

Program Officer Gislaine Williams Shares How Personal Experience Drives Her Work to Increase Naturalization Rates in Greater Houston

Program Officer Gislaine Williams oversees Houston Endowment’s strategies to increase immigrant civic integration in the Greater Houston area. Below, she shares insights about her work, what it means to Houston, and how it has impacted her personally.

Program Officer Gislaine Williams

Houston Endowment is focused on enhancing vibrancy and advancing equity of opportunity for all. How does the Foundation’s work in Civic Engagement, and more specifically naturalization, drive this mission?

There are 300,000 residents in the Greater Houston area who are already eligible to become citizens, but less than 10% are taking the step to apply for citizenship each year. It’s a huge loss for our community when we have so many people missing out on the full rights and benefits of citizenship.

We know that citizenship opens the door to significant benefits like economic stability, higher incomes, and home ownership. These are things that can change a person’s life in a big way.

Citizenship can impact our whole region by fostering both economic growth and a spirit of belonging. When we talk about those eligible to become citizens, we’re talking about people who have lived in Houston for 10, 15, or more years and have already contributed so much to our community. Citizenship recognizes those contributions and provides those who have called Houston home with even more opportunities to help make our city and country stronger. It’s a win for everyone.

What does Houston Endowment hope to achieve in the naturalization space? Why isn’t this currently happening?

Our goal is for Houston to naturalize more people than any other metro area in United States. Right now, we are lagging behind a few other metro areas including New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami

The big challenge is that individuals who are eligible to naturalize face a number of barriers: they may not be able to afford the application fee, they aren’t confident enough in their English skills, they don’t feel ready to pass the civics exam, or they don’t know how to access resources to help with the process.

Fortunately, there are amazing organizations that have helped thousands of residents in our city to navigate the path toward citizenship. For example, The New Americans Campaign – Houston site partners have helped pave the way for individuals to successfully complete the citizenship test. Our goal is to supercharge those efforts and expand the network of providers to meet the needs of our residents.

We also hope to have a stronger public-private partnership to promote citizenship. The city and county resources are vital to connect people to the right services. We look forward to working with them to boost naturalization services in our region.

You oversee strategies that increase immigrant civic integration in the Greater Houston area. Can you share an overview of what that role entails?

I’m very excited to be doing this work. Earlier in my career, I worked for a few nonprofit organizations that serve the refugee and immigrant community, and I’m grateful to build on the work here.

Prior to my joining Houston Endowment, the Foundation’s leadership and board made a strategic commitment toward areas where they felt were vital to a thriving community. Those commitments are preK-12 public education, civic engagement, arts, and parks.

Within the civic engagement space, we look for ways to ensure immigrants can move along the pathway to citizenship, and a large part of that has been our focus on naturalization. That translates into supporting organizations that offer critical legal and social services, as well as those that can address language access, and opportunities for immigrants to engage in civic life.

We place a high value on collaboration and ensuring that organizations with the same goals and values are working closely together. Sometimes, our work is about making connections to help organizations coordinate services and maximize their reach. We can serve as a convener to bring together stakeholders, community leaders, and nonprofit organizations with a goal to create a coordinated strategy for the whole region. We’ve seen this approach be successful for the New Americans Campaign and Houston Immigrant Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC).

You have a personal connection with the naturalization process. Can you tell us what your experience was like? How has that helped inform your work?

I am an immigrant; my parents and I came to the U.S. from Tegucigalpa, Honduras when I was 6 years old because they wanted me to have a better life. I became a citizen when I was 18 years old, and in doing so, I became eligible to apply for federal financial aid and scholarships to help me attend my dream school – Rice University.

The application process for citizenship was overwhelming, scary, and intimidating. I went to the interview by myself over an hour away from my house, and even though I went to school in the U.S. and knew English, I was still worried about failing the citizenship test. Becoming a citizen was a huge moment for my family and me. It helped me go to college and set me on a path to reach my dreams and attain that life my parents always wanted for me.

Citizenship changed my life, and I’m really honored to be part of this work to help more people in our community get that same opportunity.

What do you hope to learn as Houston Endowment continues toward its goal of Houston having the highest rate of naturalization for eligible citizens among any metro U.S. city?

The first thing we are hoping to learn is what unique barriers and challenges exist that prevent eligible individuals from applying for citizenship – are they what we think they are, or are there other issues we aren’t aware of? We want to know what the most effective strategies are to help people complete the entire naturalization process.

Our hope is that Houston can become a model for effective citizenship services. We’re a city of the future – our diverse population is what many other areas of the country will look like in the coming years. If we can have a successful model, we will be a shining example for those other cities.

If you had had to plan the perfect weekend in Houston, what would be on your itinerary?

That’s such a hard question! There are so many great things to do in Houston, and I think it always depends on the weather. In the summer, I like to explore new restaurants – I enjoy the various food halls that have a diverse array of restaurants and local artisans. When it’s cooler outside, I also love to visit Houston’s many greenspaces.

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