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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Opinion

Letter to the Editor: Houston – it’s where America’s future will be worked out


Our nation and its anchor institutions have been conflicted about their role in producing prosperity for all of its diverse citizens and communities. This moral and ethical lapse has promoted institutional policies that overdeveloped some communities and underdeveloped others.

Why do diversity and equity matter?

According to the Pew Research Center, Houston is the most income segregated of the ten largest metropolitan areas, with the third greatest percentage of the poor among the poor. Smithsonianmag.com reported that Stephen L. Klineberg, a sociologist and co-director of the Kinder Institute, said that we have the highest percentage of kids without health care.

“Houston is on the front line, where the gulf between rich and poor is widest … The inequality is so clear here,” Klineberg said. “This is where America’s future is going to be worked out.”

On Oct. 22, a UH student was robbed by three teens near the shiny new $120 million stadium that boasts of success and deep pockets. Across Scott Street is Jack Yates — a low-performing historic black school. Down the street is a neighborhood with a deteriorating infrastructure.

Never has income equality been displayed more vividly than the contrast between the UH Tier One jewel and the bottoms of Third Ward.

Ten months ago alumni met with UH System Board of Regents Chairman Jarvis V. Hollingsworth about problems of equity and incomplete democracy. Key deficiencies were noted — particularly insufficient black student recruitment, unacceptable graduation rates, inadequate black faculty and low participation of underutilized minority businesses. Alumni noted that despite gallant in-house remedies, low engagement with the surrounding neighborhood persisted.

Hollingsworth met President Renu Khator, and the wheels started turning at surprising speed to bring UH resources to problem solve the challenges affecting the quality of life in Houston.

Stakeholders from SHAPE Center, Project Row Houses and Artist Collective urged Khator to use the vast intellectual capital of UH to assist in transforming and unleashing the hidden potential of UH and this neglected and distressed neighborhood across Scott Street.

Since that meeting, Leonard M. Baynes was named the new dean of the UH Law School and minority recruitment accelerated, graduation and retention plans have been stepped up. Additionally, a strong effort was undertaken to engage black and minority vendors in contract opportunities with the University.

A few weeks ago, Khator co-convened a heavily attended community engagement meeting at the iconic Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Khator’s concluding remarks were, “Perhaps in Houston we can find the magic bullet.”

Exemplary models are plentiful, as UH is a member of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities. This August formation decided that “our cities can’t wait” and involves “engines” such as banks, insurance companies, hospitals and medical institutions and community focused foundations to step in and fill the community building gap.

The Urban Serving University partnership offers three major initiatives designed to improve weak schools and strengthen teachers, reduce health disparities and strengthen faltering communities. A jewel that is worthy of emulation and replication is the Strive partnership program that emanates from the University of Cincinnati that involves 300 partners and a $7 billion shared annual budget to close the achievement gap and prepare a 21st century workforce. A workforce that will earn a livable wage and not get crushed by the steamroller of automation and cybernation.

According to the Urban Serving Universities, this program is being expanded to UH.

UH will soon be home to a major research campus with a multi-million dollar budget. As the country moves toward energy independence in the energy capital of the world, Jack Yates and weak neighborhood schools can improve through a partnership with this research campus that improves STEM education; UH already conducts summer STEM camps that could be expanded to the failing schools within a one mile radius.

Perhaps this research campus will support a new Energy regime that supports green jobs and a green economy in the inner-city.

If the zeal and resources that are invested in recruiting fast black athletes can be equaled with an investment in under-challenged and under-prepared black minds, SAT scores will improve and meet the admissions standards of the Tier One UH campus. Mae Jemison, Kalpana Chawla and Ronald McNair — former NASA astronauts — are at Jack Yates High School.

Khator has thrown down the gauntlet to our other powerful engines and universities. I hope these universities and captains of industry are listening because UH is just a catalyst.

UH cannot be expected to shoulder the responsibility of being the lone leader in closing the equality and achievement gap. Other major players must catch the vision, come forth and bring their assets. Otherwise, we will not live up to the creed of an indivisible nation.

UH can continue to forge its future by becoming a great Tier 1 university and assist in eliminating the high misery index in the bottoms of Third Ward.

Klineberg is correct: this is where America’s future is going to be worked out.

Omowale Luthuli-Allen is a UH alumnus and may be reached at [email protected]

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