Special thanks to the “Bridging Health and Safety: an Advocacy and Leadership Campaign in Near Northside” team for sharing their reflections and learnings on their BUILD Opportunity Fund Award in this blog. BUILD awardees were eligible for ad hoc funding awards to catalyze efforts in policy, data, system change, and/or health equity that complemented their ongoing efforts to support community health.
When we began this journey eight months ago, we were filled with excitement to do something we had not yet done before. We had an idea of what our efforts could look like, and kept our minds open to the possibilities that were in front of us. Our team had a vision to implement a bold, resident led advocacy effort to target city, county and state level policies around health equity, by providing residents with the tools and resources to participate in ways they hadn’t been able to before.
But where to start?! With the input of community leaders and partners, we launched the Northside Advocacy Fellowship in January of 2019, and set out to lay a foundation that would allow folks of all backgrounds to participate. We wanted to meet people where they were at, regardless of age, education level or income.
Over the last six months, we have organized nine public workshops for residents to learn about advocacy, policy, environmental health, and to teach folks how to speak at various levels of local government, including our MPO, the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
In March, we took a bus of 30 community members to Austin during the 86th Legislative Session, and provided a training on how to conduct legislative visits. Residents were prepared to speak on topics that were important to them, including: Supporting Working Families, Investing in Education, Increasing Access to Health Care, and Improving Environmental Health. These four issue areas comprised the Healthy Northside Agenda that residents wanted to advocate for.
As a result of the Opportunity Fund, we were able to prioritize advocacy in the community in a more intentional way, and in just a few short months we began to see momentum around these efforts. It has been particularly noticeable in residents who have been involved in the community for many years, but who had not quite taken the step towards advocacy.
To effectively explain what we saw, I’d like to introduce you to Ms. Blackwell. Ms. Blackwell grew up and went to school in the Near Northside, and she got involved as a volunteer many years ago because she wanted to support her sister and be involved in her nephew’s education. She currently serves as President of the Resident Council in the government housing facility where she resides, and is involved in multiple community groups.
As one of our advocacy fellows, Ms. Blackwell wanted to learn more about how to be a more effective leader and to advocate for what she cares about. “I want everyone who lives here to know that in order to improve our quality of life, we need to stand up and fight for the change we want to see in our community.”
Ms. Blackwell is walking the walk. She has participated in every single workshop and advocacy opportunity this year through our Northside Advocacy Fellowship; she has spoken at Houston City Hall, at Harris County Commissioners Court, at the H-GAC, and at the statehouse. Her confidence and ability to speak in public improves with each activity, and she inspires other people to get involved, too.
In addition to resident growth, we have also seen a surge in community organizing efforts. Three of our workshops, done in collaboration with LINK Houston, Air Alliance Houston, and Bike Houston, focused on informing residents about the environmental health impacts of two major infrastructure projects: The Hardy Toll Road Connector project, and the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, both of which would have a significant impact on the Near Northside community. The workshops resulted in advocacy strategies that were identified based on community feedback, and to provide advocacy support to anyone who wanted to address concerns.
Through these efforts, a new grassroots movement from the community took shape—a group that named itself Stop TxDOT I-45—to reflect what a growing number of residents wanted but was not being provided by existing coalitions and leadership. Several of our fellows and resident leaders helped to develop this group and are participating in organizing efforts to push back on a major freeway expansion project that, in its current form, would displace up to 5,000 families and 25,000 jobs. Seeing this kind of organizing and power growing from within the neighborhood has been awe-inspiring, in no small part due to the fact that just a year ago, residents were saying there was no hope and that no one could dream of stopping a freeway in Texas.
In summary, there are 3 main takeaways from this program that will help us be successful as we continue our advocacy efforts into the future:
- We knew we needed to be responsive to community interests and current events, but that we couldn’t be prescriptive in this work. Our advocacy agenda needed to come from the participants and we needed to be receptive to their interests, priorities, and ideas. This required us to be flexible and to co-create the workshops with the community. Rather than setting up a pre-planned schedule of topics and activities, the work developed organically as we responded to what folks wanted to learn. This was challenging at times, because we didn’t always know what was coming next, and we had to prepare swiftly to what was urgent in the moment.
- Just because a group of people aren’t participating in advocacy, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to. It is also a myth that if we simply make a bilingual flier and hire interpreters, then we will see the participation of non-English speakers. If we truly want to have a diverse group of participants and create inclusive spaces, we have to be intentional in our marketing and outreach efforts, and we must be consistent. We didn’t reach as many non-English speakers from the community as we would have liked, but we will continue to prioritize creating multilingual spaces so that all community members know they are welcome be fully present as themselves.
- Never tell people something can’t be done. This one seems fairly straightforward, but we heard it repeatedly in various forms. Residents have been told time and again that they should expect constraints, limitations, and barriers. They have felt it and seen it in practice. But when someone tells folks, “if that’s your demand, and if that is what you want to see, you have a right to speak that truth,” it changes everything. Just a little bit of validation and support goes such a long way, and can transform someone’s attitude from, “why even try,” to, “I’ll try it and see what happens.” When it comes to making transformative change, we have to have the courage to try.
About BUILD’s Opportunity Fund:
In 2018, BUILD’s funder collaborative allocated $250,000 (total) to be made available for past BUILD awardees in an effort to support BUILD projects and improve community health. The goal of this fund is to provide monetary support to awardees when a unique opportunity to catalyze efforts in a targeted manner presented itself. From these projects, BUILD sought to gain insights into the BUILD model, systems change, and better understand the role of targeted interventions that have the potential to be replicated or scaled.