Why Houston is taking steps to elevate children’s rights in City Hall


Youth playground

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After three years of researching, planning and implementing a commitment to its children, the city of Houston is the first in the U.S. to be recognized as a UNICEF Child Friendly City. With this milestone and the acknowledgement of children’s needs and voices, Houston is actively investing in its future — and it is an investment all cities should undertake.

The United States, despite being a wealthy, developed country that is progressive in its ideals of equality, freedom and opportunity, has lagged behind in the recognition of children’s rights. It is the only country in the United Nations that has yet to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Today, the ramifications of neglecting children’s rights are stark, as issues such as child marriage, which remains legal in over 40 U.S. states, are pervasive.

Charged with the desire to advance children’s rights and make his city a model for the nation, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner became a champion for the cause in 2019 by becoming the first mayor in the United States to sign UNICEF’s Global Child Friendly Cities Initiative Manifesto.

The importance of this focus cannot be overstated. A quarter of Houston’s population is under the age of 18, and they are overwhelmingly people of color — 80% were identified as a race other than White alone, according to American Community Survey 1-Year Data for 2022.

These children truly represent another wave of demographic transformation, the kind that Dr. Stephen Klineberg long studied in Houston. He would be quick to warn us: Ignoring their needs today will threaten our city’s future prosperity.

This population also contends with the long odds of intergenerational poverty: About 34% of Houston’s children live in households earning below the poverty line, and 40% live in households receiving some form of public assistance. In addition, the Kinder Institute’s own analysis has found that renter households with children are far more likely to be cost-burdened by rent, with 80% of two-parent households and 88% of single-parent households overextending their budgets on housing.

Issues as great as those affecting children today cannot adequately be addressed without collective effort and support from municipal governments. However, the brunt of responsibility to address issues affecting our children often falls on school districts, which are often limited in resources and bandwidth.

To carry out the goals of the manifesto set in 2019, the Mayor’s Office of Education and Youth Engagement, in collaboration with UNICEF USA and municipal leadership, developed and implemented the City of Houston Child Friendly Cities Initiative Action Plan. Carrying out this vision and earning the UNICEF designation, which is shared by 3,000 municipalities worldwide, marks a commitment to legitimize children’s rights and make Houston a safer and more equitable place for all children.

As part of becoming a Child Friendly City, a situational analysis identified three priority issue areas — emergency preparedness, mental health and youth participation. This analysis pulled in information from our own assessments and surveys as well as work by others, including the Kinder Institute. For example, a 2021 Houston Education Research Consortium survey for Houston ISD found that more than half of students in the district experienced a mental health challenge in the year leading up to the survey.

Fortunately, the municipal and youth leadership in Houston has been working diligently to help address these issues.

The city has developed a youth-friendly mental health guide, hosted mental health and youth advocacy trainings, and garnered signatures for a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights recognized by Turner. We have also launched an emergency preparedness social media campaign and created a podcast featuring important intergenerational conversations about children’s and youth issues.

The mayor’s office has also worked to develop equitable access to early childhood education, mental health support, career and professional development, financial literacy and civic engagement for young people. With the Mayor’s Youth Council and other programs, young people’s rights, voices, needs and priorities are being integrated into public policies, programs and decisions, both within city departments and community organizations.

The Child Friendly Cities Initiative and other initiatives like it are important because they engage a vast number of residents who are often marginalized because of their age. Houston youth leaders have been able to harness their lived experiences and provide insight and creative ideas for local solutions. Empowering youth to sit at the forefront of change in the community has enabled them to become the stakeholders of their own futures and has created an opportunity for collaboration among adults and youth to best address youth issues.

With a commitment from municipal leadership to be a champion of children’s rights, Houston is emerging as a leader and a model for the U.S. Now we need more city leaders to follow and recognize children as partners, collaborators and rights-bearers.

Olivera Jankovska is Director of Education and Youth Engagement for the Office of Mayor Sylvester Turner. Jennifer Hamad, who is an intern in the Mayor’s Office of Education and Youth Engagement, also contributed to this article.

The views, information or opinions expressed in Urban Edge posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Olivera Jankovska
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