Fix Houston

8 Experts Weigh in on How to Fix Houston

From crime reduction to preserving Houston's past, these locals have the answers.

January 30, 2020 Published in the February 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The experts. 

Image: Amy Kinkead

It's a new decade, and it's time to make Houston better than ever. While daunting, these eight experts weighed in with their advice on how to fix the Bayou City.

How to reduce crime 

"Through literacy. Research shows that third grade is the magic level, if you will, that if a child is not brought up in a supportive home or by parents with good literacy-based skills, that child will struggle and could have increased risk of contact with the court system and incarceration. A vast majority of the prison population has a third-grade reading level or below. It is a crisis. One in every four Houstonians are challenged with illiteracy, and that rate also has a correlation with poverty—74 percent of children in greater Houston are considered economically disadvantaged because of their living situation. We’ve been throwing the word around as a literacy crisis, but it’s a health crisis. We’re talking about the well-being of our city. One of the ways to help is by volunteering. Become a reader at schools. Support adult education. When you can help the reading levels of adults, it directly relates to how they can improve reading rates for their child.”

—Jackie Aguilera, CEO of Eastside University Adult Education and Development 

How to feed the littlest Houstonians 

"One in four kids in our city are living in food-insecure homes, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and over 24,000 preschoolers in Harris County are living in impoverished areas. We’re dealing with the working poor—most of our families, at least one person has a job. We see people not having enough to make ends meet and having to choose: do I pay my electric bill, or do I feed my child? We don’t want families to ever be in that situation. We bring meals directly to the doorstep of these children; we’re saving our families an average of $4 per day per child, and that’s enough to help prevent homelessness and focus on other challenges presented by poverty. There’s so much wealth here, so a lot of times we don’t see it if we’re not looking for it, but it’s actually all around us. We’ve developed a model that we know works; we just need support. We’re also connecting our families with resources to help them pull themselves up out of their current situation. We’re committed to being so much more than a meal.”

—Beth Harp, executive director, Kids Meals, Inc. 

How to improve the air we breathe 

"It’s fundamental for our survival. Houston has a long history of poor air quality, and while we have seen some improvements in recent years, we now have the perfect storm of factors for it to get worse, with everything—the population increase, more cars on the road, an expanding industrial complex, the lack of government oversight or regulations—pushing us in a direction that simply does not lead to creating better air quality. Certainly, there are things individual people can do to help, like not relying on cars to get around, but policy is the primary mechanism through which we can achieve large-scale change. Getting engaged in elections, meeting with your elected officials, letting them know this issue is important to you, making them aware that cutting the budget to the state agency that already does a poor job of protecting us is not a good idea. It’s all about putting the right pressure on elected officials, making them understand that air quality is something their constituents care about.”

—Bakeyah Nelson, executive director, Air Alliance Houston

How to continue being a welcoming city 

"Houston’s diversity has now become one of its economic powerhouse strengths. In the global marketplace it puts us in a position to be a better player, and it creates better opportunities for our businesses here. People want to come to a place where they feel like they belong, and they’re included. The average person can look at this as an opportunity, as something exciting instead of challenging. Ask questions, meet your neighbors—find out where people came from, hear their stories, and then share your stories, too. New people coming here want the same things: safe and clean neighborhoods, good schools. Understanding that, and then engaging in a dialogue, you’ll find out that you have so much in common with your neighbor.”

—Daniel Stoecker, president and CEO, The Alliance

How to attract more tourists 

"We see tourism numbers continue to rise year over year. Houston’s strong reputation as a culinary hot spot—mixed with the city’s focus on attractive green space, walkable and connected neighborhoods, and public art—has made our job of marketing the city easier. What’s next? A continued effort to spread the word about these efforts on a broader national scale, with more targeted marketing toward the millennial demographic. We know our greatest opportunity for growth is in out-of-state visitation, specifically among younger and more diverse travelers, which according to national research is a demographic on the rise for Houston. If being named on 12 national publications’ best-of-2019 must-visit lists—not to mention being crowned ‘The New Capital of Southern Cool’ by GQ—is any indication, we’re certainly headed in the right direction.”

—Brenda Bazan, president and CEO, Houston First

How to address past wrongs 

“It’s crucial to acknowledge our past, all of it. A lot of what goes wrong is because we don’t know what the past is really about, that this neighborhood is named after a plantation, that the people being celebrated on Christmas ornaments were the same men who ran the convict-leasing programs in Sugar Land, where so many people suffered and died. When we forget the past, we risk re-creating those sins in the future, and if we allow that to happen, the cycle will never end. We all have something we may not be proud of, but to repent means to repair and to go back and fix it as much as you can. When these wrongs of the past get brought up and put out, and people have to look at it and admit it, then we can grow and heal from this. We’ll stop naming our subdivisions after plantations, and celebrating these bad people who did wrong, and then we can heal and move forward. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

—Reginald Moore, founder, Convict Leasing and Labor Project, which is pushing the city of Sugar Land to recognize past abuses perpetrated by its convict-leasing program

How to preserve Houston's past 

"It means asking people what they think is important in their neighborhoods and really listening. People all over the city care about their neighborhoods, their history, and their heritage. We’ve helped property owners landmark historic buildings that at first glance might not look very significant. But if you listen to the stories and learn what happened in the neighborhood and why these buildings are important to the people who live in them and around them, it gives you a new understanding and appreciation. We’re working to help people understand that historic preservation isn’t this hoity-toity thing that’s imposed from the top. It’s a tool almost anyone can use to make their neighborhoods better, and that will make Houston better. And it’s not just about preserving old buildings—it’s about repurposing them to make the city a better, more interesting place to live. There can be new uses, and it can take vision and imagination. Sometimes you have to prod people a little bit to get them to see things differently.”

—David Bush, executive director, Preservation Houston 

How to fix our stray animal problem 

“These animals are ours: They are the product of our failed attention, our lack of education, and a splintered community. At Friends for Life we thought about whether we could do this differently. We went into the ZIP code with the highest cat intake and complaint numbers in the city [77009] and went door to door, employed full-time outreach managers, and offered free services. We broke down a lot of barriers and preconceived notions about animal shelters as judgmental or punitive. The result: the ZIP code changed and stayed changed. I would start here. If we stabilize the cat population, it frees up space for dogs, who take more time and resources. The next step is a behavior department. It makes all the difference in being able to deal with the trauma these animals have undergone, and it makes adoptions stick.”

—Salise Shuttlesworth, executive director and founder, Friends for Life


Show Comments