They were studying urban inequalities when a pandemic that worsens disparities hit


When colleges and universities moved to online classes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, student fellows in the Kinder Institute’s Community Bridges program pivoted as well, turning their focus to the relationship between COVID-19 and inequality.

watercolor coronavirus


When colleges and universities moved to online classes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, student fellows in the Kinder Institute’s Community Bridges program pivoted as well, turning their focus to the relationship between COVID-19 and inequality.

No one can say this spring has gone according to plan.

COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of people’s lives around the world. Medical institutions are overburdened and workers face a high risk of infection, unemployment in the United States has skyrocketed, education has shifted online and into people’s homes and forms of social interaction have been fundamentally altered.

Learn more about the Commmunity Bridges program.

Higher education has not been exempt from this sea change. In early March, universities and colleges faced cases of COVID-19 on their campuses, and just a few weeks later, most moved courses online. In early March, Rice University closed its doors for the remainder of the semester, joining others in switching entirely to remote instruction.

As the instructor of record for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Community Bridges program this academic year, I have been consistently impressed with the grace, flexibility and persistent zeal for learning that our student fellows have displayed amid this turbulence.

Partnering with nonprofits to tackle challenges

The 2019-2020 academic year — Community Bridges’ ninth — included a group of 22 undergraduate students. Each year, the fellows undertake a year-long experiential learning program that aims to alleviate inequality and poverty in Houston, exploring the underlying causes and potential solutions for some of our region’s most pressing urban and social issues. To this end, students who are accepted into the program are paired with one of more than a dozen local nonprofit organizations that are selected as Community Bridges partners.

This post is part of our “COVID-19 and Cities” series, which features experts’ views on the global pandemic and its impact on our lives.

These nonprofits are located in high-poverty areas of Houston and provide an array of important services to Houstonians facing myriad challenges that stem from poverty and inequality. Community Bridges partners address issues spanning education, health, environmental justice, community development, transportation, housing and more.

Students are matched with a partner organization in the fall, and in the spring, they take on a research-based internship in collaboration with that organization. During their internships, students develop a project that’s driven by the needs of their community partner and aims to alleviate some aspect of urban inequality. In parallel to conducting their research, fellows take a course in urban sociology that builds foundational knowledge about the theories, frameworks and literature that explain the dynamics of urban inequality.

Pandemic forced students to adapt

The Community Bridges experience for this year’s cohort of student fellows diverged tremendously from that of years past. In mid-March, they were just diving into the thick of their work with partner organizations when classes were moved online and their internships were cut short because of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. With the shift to remote instruction and most students returning home meant fellows could not complete their on-the-ground internships. We, like the rest of the nation, adapted to virtual instruction to facilitate the students’ continued progress and learning to the maximum degree possible in our unprecedented situation.

In response to the global pandemic, Community Bridges fellows turned their attention toward analyzing the relationship between COVID-19 and inequality. In real-time, they examined how urban inequality operates in times of upheaval.

For example, Community Bridges fellow Rebecca Shepherdson wrote an insightful piece about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the labor force, particularly the “precariat” (the growing class of workers in flexible, temporary and part-time positions). She argued that the pandemic has revealed and worsened the tenuousness of these workers’ employment:

In this time of Coronavirus, the plight of the precariat has been starkly revealed. We are witnessing how those in the gig economy are those who continue to move health workers around the city, deliver us food and keep cities running, whilst being denied the basic non-wage benefits afforded to salaried workers. This paper will look at how COVID has revealed and worsened pre-existing economic and health inequality in our society, through the experience of the precarious workers in the gig economy. The US federal response in the form of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act represents a recognition that the neoliberal economic system that has thrived on the “flexibility” of its workforce, has systematically failed to protect its most precarious low-income workers. This system is having to come to terms with the fact that basic employment protection (such as unemployment benefit) is absolutely necessary for all workers. Going forward, it remains to be seen if the US will learn from this lesson and protect its most vulnerable workers in the future.”

Other students, like Selase Buatsi, turned their attention to the disparate effects of the pandemic along racial lines. She examined the inequalities that make African Americans more vulnerable to a global pandemic and leave them with limited access to resources and aid.

Others explored how education has been affected by COVID-19. For example, Elizabeth Gamez reflected on the ramifications of school closings for low-income families who often do not have the luxury of staying home from work or lack access to the resources they need to effectively homeschool their children:

“Instead of a few students within schools struggling, whole schools are struggling to provide online education to their students. At its core, the coronavirus has created pockets of students who will be left behind because they lack the technology or internet access due to their low-income status.

Even within the low-income community, there are students who are experiencing a higher vulnerability rate due to the online shift. These students include homeless students, students with learning disabilities and immigrant students.”

Fellows also harnessed the opportunity to reflect on their own pandemic experiences and those of their peers in a critical way. To this end, Emily Plotkin wrote about mental health during the pandemic. Specifically, she highlighted the plight of many students who, have not been able to access the vital mental health care that their educational institutions ordinarily provide. Plotkin described the intense experience of one of her peers who currently is unable to access important social safety nets and mental health resources.

Crisis underscores the benefits of the program

Although COVID-19 drastically re-shaped this year’s Community Bridges program, the 2019-2020 fellows continued to pursue Community Bridges’ mission as they wrestled with the systems that create urban inequality and reflected on methods for alleviating it. The students demonstrated an impressive adaptability and a resilience in this crisis, of which I am very proud. Their thoughtful work in this unique situation only further demonstrates that this kind of programming will be of the utmost importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the whole world grapples with even greater and more deeply entrenched inequality in the aftermath, the mission of Community Bridges is more vital than ever. We look forward to collaborating with more bright young people to tackle some of Houston’s most complex and pressing urban issues in the coming year.

Simranjit Khalsa


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