Every Wednesday during my last semester at Rice University, after my 8 a.m. class, I took an Uber to the Fifth Ward, where I would stay for the rest of the workday. As an undergraduate fellow in the Community Bridges program, I partnered with Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation (Fifth Ward CRC) on a research project aimed at diminishing poverty and inequality. At the same time, I was enrolled in the Community Bridges’ urban sociology class to learn about the theories, frameworks and literature related to social and structural issues in cities.
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The Community Bridges program pairs academic study with active fieldwork to address urban inequality and poverty issues. The deadline to apply for the 2020-2021 Community Bridges program is Aug. 19. Find more information and apply for the program here.
Fifth Ward CRC works to revitalize Houston’s Fifth Ward, a once-bustling, historically Black neighborhood a couple of miles northeast of the city’s downtown. Commonly referred to as “Texas’ baddest ghetto” in the 1980s and, more recently, as “a bad place” by one of my morning Uber drivers, Fifth Ward flourished in the 1930s. “Back then,” food writer and former Houston Press restaurant critic Robb Walsh wrote in 2002, “Phillis Wheatley High School was one of the largest black high schools in the United States, and the Fifth Ward was one of the proudest black neighborhoods in the country. There were more than 40 black-owned businesses on Lyons Avenue, including photography studios, Peacock Records and Club Matinee, the Cotton Club of the South.” In the same article, Walsh mentioned the work of the Fifth Ward CRC: “The organization has helped low-income borrowers find loans, encouraged leading architects to provide innovative designs for affordable housing and brought new commercial building projects to the old neighborhood.”
Today, the organization, which was launched in 1989, continues to spearhead initiatives in housing and economic development, arts and culture, and disaster relief, among other projects. Having read articles in class about the years of prosperity in the Fifth Ward, it saddened me to hear that other Houstonians still held such negative perceptions of the historic neighborhood.
When the coronavirus pandemic brought an end to in-person classes at Rice in early March, my official internship with Fifth Ward CRC ended as well. But I knew I wanted to continue working with the organization, possibly in a long-term capacity, and I was able to work remotely while balancing my last semester of classes. I missed being able to go into the office and the in-person interaction with my Fifth Ward CRC co-workers. But my supervisors did a great job of giving me meaningful tasks, such as researching potential sites for the construction of affordable rental homes. Through the Community Bridges Summer Fellowship, I continued collaborating with the organization until the end of July.
As a summer fellow, I worked with Fifth Ward CRC 40 hours a week — a much larger time commitment than the seven hours I was doing while in school — which allowed me the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects. I was able to participate in real estate, community engagement, and arts and culture work — everything from drafting a white paper on the need for affordable housing, to meeting with local artists to discuss a potential development, to helping over 600 families get assistance through the Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund.
Listening to — and learning from — the stories of the Fifth Ward and its residents has been one of the highlights of my time with the Fifth Ward CRC. As an eligibility specialist for the county’s COVID-19 relief fund, I assisted clients as they gathered necessary documents and determined their eligibility for county-funded support. The job came with a number of obstacles, including the technological and logistical challenges faced by clients who did not know how to send emails on their phones and those who didn’t have any of the residency, income or COVID-19 impact documents needed to verify their eligibility for support. At times it could be frustrating, but talking to residents frequently reminded me of the extremely difficult circumstances they faced. Many talked about the threat of eviction, a quickly growing pile of bills, and the inability to afford child care or food for their families. Other undocumented individuals didn’t qualify for governmental aid and were often afraid to give me their full household sizes and other key information for fear of putting the lives they’ve built for themselves here in Houston at risk.
To be a more effective eligibility specialist, I taught myself a few lines of Spanish and composed emails with the help of Google Translate and my Spanish-speaking roommates. I learned how to ask certain questions that would help me understand clients’ situations and, in the process, learned more about the community I hoped to serve. These conversations painted a picture of the neighborhood that was very different from what is seen on the news. The story I heard is one full of life and vitality, centered on people who have been marginalized and exploited, yet continue to work hard and do all they can for their families and neighbors. I saw for myself what I believed to be true in the first days of my internship: despite others’ perceptions, the Fifth Ward has so much to offer.
Though my internship concluded at the end of July, I am very excited to be joining Fifth Ward CRC full-time for the next year as an AmeriCorps member. When I first applied to Community Bridges in May 2019, just hours before the application deadline, I never could have imagined that it would lead to post-graduation opportunities. I am so thankful to the Kinder Institute and the Community Bridges Summer Fellowship for giving me the intellectual and practical foundation to be an effective AmeriCorps member. The opportunity to stay in Houston and get to know a special community through this kind of experiential learning is one that I could not have found in other programs at Rice, and I look forward to contributing to the revitalization of the Fifth Ward and the fight against urban inequality.