COVID-19’s ongoing effect on students in Greater Houston

A data-driven look into how the pandemic has affected students in Greater Houston 

Since March 2020, the world has been coping with the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many students, the classroom suddenly became the kitchen table. Their teachers were now little squares on a screen. The learning experience that most students were accustomed to had been flipped upside down. 

As the 2021-22 school year approaches and students return to the classroom amidst the fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, the pandemic and its effects are still ongoing. We’re analyzing available data on how COVID-19 has affected Houston-area students to shine a light on the challenges students may continue to face in yet another pandemic-affected school year.

The struggle to adapt to online learning 

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way students experience their education. As Houston-area school districts and campuses transitioned to 100% online learning at the start of the pandemic, the need for stable internet and consistent access to technological devices like laptops and tablets became a necessity. 

However, according to research from the Houston Education Research Consortium and RICE University, 20% of families reported that their child(ren) did not have a personal device such as a computer, laptop or tablet to do their schoolwork. The research also suggests that income played a significant role in setting students up for success in the form of access to the required resources to make online learning possible.  

Almost half of the participating households earning less than $20,000 per year reported not having a device or internet for their child(ren) to complete schoolwork, compared to only 4% of families earning over $100,000 per year. 

1 in 5 families

in the Houston area lacked internet access or a digital device for their child(ren) to use to do their schoolwork during the early months of the pandemic.

Source: Gulf Coast Coronavirus (COVID-19) Community Impact Survey

Daniel Potter, Associate Director of the Houston Education Research Consortium, notes how research suggests that the pandemic has pushed a larger proportion of Black and Hispanic students online, which can negatively impact learning. According to his organization’s findings, 70% of Black students and 60% of Hispanic students in the Greater Houston area opted into virtual learning in the 2020-21 school year compared to white students (40%). These are the same students who are more likely to attend high-poverty schools that have fewer resources –– including necessary technology –– to engage all students successfully. 

Parents show anxiety regarding students’ readiness for school

In the Gulf Coast Coronavirus (COVID-19) Community Impact Survey, a majority of surveyed families reported feeling worried that students would not be ready for the 2020-21 school year. Those without access to WiFi worried more –– 67% of families without access to WiFi/Internet and a device for schoolwork expressed concern that their child would not be ready for the upcoming school year, compared to 49% of families with access to WiFi and devices for schoolwork. 

Families that reported having access to WiFi and devices for schoolwork were not as worried about their children being prepared for the school year because they had the necessary resources. In an attempt to close this digital divide, Houston school districts distributed print copies of educational materials to families with limited access to technology to prevent students from falling behind. Additionally, WiFi hotspots purchased by the districts made online learning more accessible to all.

The impacts on student performance

From the cancellation of state standardized testing to the mandatory shift to remote instruction in March 2020, COVID-19 had a huge disruption on students. As schools transitioned into a “hybrid” learning model of virtual and in-person instruction in 2020-21, most campuses and students adapted to the new normal. However, as we begin the second full academic year in the era of COVID-19, the impacts on student learning and performance are beginning to emerge, though there is still much we do not know. 

According to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, in the 2020-21 school year, several districts reported a significant increase in the percentage of students failing at least one course. Their findings also show that failure rates were typically highest for students attending school in the online/virtual setting.

One measurable assessment, the eighth-grade math proficiency exam, is important in assessing student readiness for high school. The results from the Algebra I End-of-Course (EOC) State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) given to students in Spring 2021 show a significant decline in performance compared to 2019. Performance was on an upward trend prior to this decline.

In Spring 2021, 41% of students who took the Algebra I EOC exam met the state standard, compared to 62% in 2019. The proportion of students who met the standard fell 33 percentage points for Hispanic students, 25 points for low-income students, and 21 points for all students combined.

The effects on higher education plans

While the total impact COVID-19 has had on student attrition and graduation rates in the Houston area is still unclear, preliminary research suggests that the pandemic has contributed to students changing their post-secondary education plans. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center supports this survey data. The number of students enrolling in undergraduate higher education in Spring 2021 fell by 727,000 students nationally, or 4.9%, from Spring 2020. For comparison, undergraduate enrollment fell 0.5% between Spring 2019 and Spring 2020. More than 65% of the total undergraduate enrollment decline occurred among community colleges, institutions that are more likely to serve low-income students and students of color. Texas is not immune either.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 43% of Houston adults have canceled their higher education plans with 33% of students reporting they will be taking fewer classes in the fall of 2021. 

Three out of four students who have decided to halt their post-secondary educational plans cite financial constraints as the main reason. Houston already has one of the lower rates of people with postsecondary degrees among peer metros; if this trend continues, it could have widespread implications on the quality of our workforce.

Student mental health affects academic success

It is impossible to discuss COVID-19 without acknowledging its effects on student mental health. From being cut off from one’s peer group and missing out on important milestones like prom, graduation, college visits, etc., to grieving the death of parents and other loved ones, including breadwinners, adolescents are struggling with much more than school. 

Hispanics have the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the region and the highest rates of employment and income loss. A survey conducted by Latinos for Education found that Latino parents are most concerned with the mental health of their children. Another recent study estimated that nine family members are affected by one person who dies of the coronavirus. Given that Hispanics also make up the majority of students in Houston-area schools, thousands of Hispanic students have experienced the worst impacts of the pandemic, all while still trying to learn.

Research indicates there is a direct link between mental health and academic achievement. It will be impossible to move on from the educational impacts of the pandemic without acknowledging and repairing student mental health, with an emphasis on supporting Hispanic students who have experienced the worst effects.

Looking ahead to 2021-22 with the lessons we’ve learned

COVID-19 has impacted everyone, but not everyone has been affected equally. Research suggests the pandemic has widened pre-existing disparities in academic performance and the pursuit of higher education. However, educators, school administrators and students have learned much since March 2020. We now know which tactics may work better than others, and we have a clearer picture of how students have been affected — and what they need moving forward.

Educating students while trying to keep their teachers, faculty and staff safe during the pandemic is a challenging task that comes with consequences. As we navigate through another COVID school year, we hope to see improvement in overall student performance alongside practices that prioritize the health and well-being of our children and their educators. 

Out and Proud for Science

The first PRIDE was a riot. No glitter, parades or corporations eager to release their brand-new shiny rainbow collections. The Stonewall uprising was ignited by constant police harassment and discrimination toward LGBTQ folx at the time. June 1969 was a turning point to state that we are here, we are queer, and we are not going to stop fighting for our rights. 

In the wise words of Marsha P. Johnson, “No pride for some of us, without liberation for all of us.” Ms. Johnson, a Black transgender woman, and Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans woman, were among the activists that paved the way back in the late ’70s. Far from seeking recognition from a community that still struggles to embrace and protect trans folx, they used their voice to fight for equity and opened the first shelter to host LGBT youth.

Trans icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, 1973.Photo by Leonard Fink, Courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

Sadly, protecting trans youth is still a pressing issue more than 50 years after Stonewall. Learning LGBTQ history not only helped me understand our current struggles, but also continues inspiring me on a daily basis. I’m proud to honor Marsha and Sylvia’s legacy with my work as an openly queer Brown immigrant scientist.

Fighting for equity and liberation has always been one of my passions. Pride and visibility is not something you are born with. For some people, like me, the path to self-love and acceptance can be filled with fear and shame. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina and attended medical school with a clear goal in mind – to make an impact on a community level by combining medicine and education, fostering love for science and public health and, hopefully, paving the way for other queer professionals to be themselves. 

After I finished medical school, I was offered the chance to move to Houston to work on HIV research at UTHealth. In the blink of an eye, I had packed my life into two bags and arrived in Texas. Before my trip, I didn’t know what to expect from Houston other than cowboy hats, cacti and NASA. I was pleasantly surprised to find a diverse city that feels like a small town and a queer community that has embraced me as chosen family. The more involved I got in HIV prevention and treatment, the more I understood there was a lot of work to be done in the South and particularly in my newly adopted city.

Understanding HIV prevalence in Houston

June 5, 2021 marks 40 years since the first five cases describing what later became known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and what is now THIV Stage III in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). As of June 2021, 32 million people have died from HIV worldwide – 700,000 in the United States – since the start of the global epidemic, and 38 million people are currently living with HIV. While we have come a long way and made amazing progress since those first diagnoses, challenges still remain in Greater Houston and beyond. 

According to the CDC, of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2018, half are in the South. Additionally, eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses are in the South as are nine of the 10 metropolitan areas with the highest rates. Poverty, unemployment and lack of access to medical care are factors that drive the epidemic. Nine out of the 16 states in the South have not expanded Medicaid. Stigma and cultural factors continue playing a key role when it comes to status disclosure, support and access to HIV services. Unfortunately, Houston is no exception to the burden southern urban cities carry. In 2018, there were 27,057 people living with HIV in Houston, and 1,243 Houstonians were newly diagnosed with HIV. Over the past decade, this number has remained steady.

Between 2010 and 2016, a steady increase in HIV prevalence was observed throughout Greater Houston’s three largest counties, with the three-county area registering HIV diagnoses at 1.5 times the national rate. HIV prevalence is highest in Harris County, with rates 2-3 times higher than those in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. 

It is important to point out the disproportionate HIV incidence rate among Black and Latinx populations. More recent 2018 data show that the rate of Black males in Houston living with an HIV diagnosis is 4.6 times that of white males. The rate of Black females living with an HIV diagnosis is 18.4 times that of white females. 

We need to do far better to bring awareness, education and empowerment to our most affected communities. Bringing community voices to the table is crucial to work together towards the end of the epidemic.

Hope in the form of a daily pill

Though HIV remains prevalent, new effective safe treatments have reduced pill burden to just one small pill a day, and an injectable antiretroviral combination was approved last year. HIV is not a death sentence. 

Moreover, when it comes to HIV prevention, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) was a game changer to stop HIV transmission. Studies have shown that when taken once daily as directed, PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV transmission from sex by 99%. PrEP is readily available at no cost for people with and without insurance. Raising awareness and uptake among Houston’s at-risk populations is pivotal to end the HIV epidemic.

As PrEP efficacy decreases if not taken daily, novel interventions are on the pipeline to tackle the issue of medication adherence. I had the honor to implement a groundbreaking study in Houston which compared the efficacy of a long-acting injectable agent given every other month to the current daily oral medication for PrEP. The study enrolled 4,570 cisgender men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women (TGW) who have sex with men at 43 sites in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, United States, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam. 

The results of the trial were very promising — the regimen containing long-acting cabotegravir was found to be statistically superior to daily oral medication for PrEP. This medication will hopefully be approved soon and will help those people who find it challenging to take a pill every day. New medications in the works also include subcutaneous injections given every six months, a monthly pill, a transdermal implant and vaginal rings.

Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

It is also important to mention Treatment as Prevention (TasP). One of the most important breakthroughs in the HIV field were the results of various studies that determined that someone who is living with HIV while on medication for more than six months and virally suppressed cannot pass on the virus to others through sex. This concept is known as U=U (Undetectable=Untransmittable). Not only is this a huge step towards establishing a link between HIV treatment and HIV prevention, but also a strong public health message that aims to fight the stigma surrounding HIV.

Proud to work toward a better future

Today, HIV is a manageable chronic disease. People living with HIV can live long, healthy lives thanks to improved antiretroviral treatment. Our HIV prevention toolkit is constantly expanding, fueled by research and community working together. Effective tools like PrEP can prevent HIV transmission when taken as directed. HIV treatment is prevention because U=U (Undetectable=Untransmittable). New, exciting breakthrough prevention and treatment medicines and strategies are in the pipeline. An HIV vaccine no longer sounds fictitious. We are living in an exciting time as we can be the generation that will end the HIV epidemic.

Although much has been accomplished since the first brick flew at Stonewall, we will not be truly victorious until we properly address the underlying systemic health disparities that leave some people behind. We need to do our work to tackle the roots of racism, poverty, stigma, homophobia, transphobia, homelessness and health inequity. We need to continue involving our communities as there is nothing for them without them. We need to do better, be better. At the end of day, repeat Marsha’s words as a mantra, “No pride for some of us, without liberation for all of us.”

Caring for Teachers is Caring for Students

After a year of teaching and living through a pandemic, educator mental health is at risk and yet, at the same time, we desperately need to avoid further school disruptions. Teacher burnout and turnover — already cause for concern long before pandemic life — have increased. An additional 11 percent of teachers say they may leave the classroom even though they weren’t planning to do so before. As it is, 40-50% of teachers leave the classroom within their first five years, and 40% of teachers in Houston’s three-county region have fewer than five years of experience, which affects student achievement.

Teachers are often told to put their own oxygen masks on first. They’re encouraged to “take care of themselves,” get more sleep, take deep breaths. Mindfulness training and toolkits have recently gained attention as promising school-based interventions to address the burnout cascade, but most mindfulness approaches reflect a primarily solitary practice aimed at individual growth. These strategies, while well-intended, can feel dismissive to teachers. It’s as if we are telling a sick person to just “get better.” Educators’ burnout symptoms are due to much larger, systemic and cultural problems. 

Many teachers talk to us about the relational gaps they experience in schools: the stress of loneliness, isolation, and toxic adult cultures. Relationship problems cannot be solved by any individual’s actions alone. It requires comprehensive approaches that involve every adult.

FuelEd is a non-profit organization deeply devoted to educator social-emotional skills and wellbeing. But we rarely use the term “educator self-care” — because it’s kind of a misnomer. On a neurobiological level, what society traditionally thinks of as self-care simply isn’t possible without first receiving care in relationships. Over the course of our development as social creatures, humans go on a journey from being almost completely regulated by others, as is the case with a hungry, crying infant who needs the constant care of an adult; to being co-regulated, where we get help from another person as we attempt to regulate ourselves. Over time, through repeated experiences of being calmed and cared for through relationships, we humans develop the brain structures and skills for self-regulation, self-care, and resilience in the face of stress. 

Care from others precedes self-care. So, solving the teacher stress crisis is less a matter of asking teachers to put on their own oxygen masks, but rather ensuring every teacher has someone who can help put an oxygen mask on with them. 

Our vision? The whole educator

FuelEd is a professional learning organization that provides teachers, principals and district leaders with training in the science of relationships as well as support to grow their own social and emotional competencies. We assist educators in doing the “inner work” of exploring their triggers, attachment styles and early childhood experiences, while also learning the science of attachment and trauma, and key skills to build secure relationships. 

This therapeutic deep dive into self-awareness is most poignantly represented by our “mindful storytelling” circle, where small groups of educators share their “attachment stories.” Educators take turns recounting memories from early childhood relationships, exploring the hurt caused by parents/caregivers who didn’t meet their needs, and unpacking how these formative experiences influence their relationships today, in school and out. You can hear a pin drop as educators take the risk to share, and listen, with sincere intent and deep respect for one anothers’ stories.  

At the conclusion of the training, educators learn to build a peer-support network: a protocol we call “stewardship” where educators are paired and instructed to meet weekly for an hour. Week after week, one educator shows up ready to listen deeply, and the other shows up ready to share real problems from their professional or personal lives, with honesty and vulnerability. The relationship skills from the training provides the foundational building blocks needed to support, and receive support, from fellow educators. Educators’ newfound self-awareness serves as a starting point to go deeper into themselves. What results is a mutually beneficial giving-and-receiving of care. It’s a repeated and reliable experience of co-regulation: helping educators move from stress to calm with the support of a caring relationship. 

One year later, our educators were asked, “Since engaging with FuelEd, have you experienced an increase in the following [self-care] behaviors?” Here is what we’ve found.

Educators’ self-care, self-regulation and resilience grew through relationships that took them deeper into self-awareness through being known, seen and loved. Reaching out helps us reach in. This is especially true in times of crisis and transition. Researcher Dr. Liesel Ebersohn believes “flocking”—huddling up and sticking together, like a flock of birds — might be a way of coping with stress that is more adaptive than the other more commonly known stress responses of flight, fight or freeze. This is exactly what educators in our studies have done: used relationships as self-care, as a way to regulate themselves.

“There’s no other time in my week where I have an hour to speak uninterrupted about something of emotional weight. It’s a pressure release valve. It’s good for my mental health and makes me more conscious in my relationships—particularly with my kids. This inspired me to go to therapy …. to move away from survival, to look at myself as a human being, not just a teacher. This helped me to take care of myself.” -Educator

Without an emphasis on restoring educator resilience through relationship, isolation and “flight” from the field may occur. 

Caring for teachers is caring for students

Being cared for by others helps educators care for themselves, but being seen by others also helps educators change how they see themselves and their students. Our intervention grows educators’ theory of mind, an important social-cognitive skill that involves the ability to think about thoughts, emotions and beliefs — both your own and others — and to plan social responses based on the internal worlds of others. Theory of mind involves thinking about thinking, but it also refers to the ability to understand that other people’s thoughts and beliefs may be different from your own and to consider the factors that led to those mental states. 

It appears that the experience of unpacking their own history and trauma may enable educators to develop compassion, sensitivity, and responsiveness to students and their trauma. When educators understand that their past shapes and influences who they are, they begin to understand that others’ pasts similarly shape who they are and how they show up. The research team at FuelEd developed the term “storysight” to describe this capacity to understand others through the lens of their own story. 

“Reflecting on my own background and life …has helped me understand myself and be more empathetic with others. I’ve been nice with myself and gentler with myself. I feel like I have more of a handle on that [so now] I’ve been doing that with my own students. Giving them a break. Letting them mess up. Now, I feel like I react to what the child needs, not what I need. I have a greater rapport with the kids this year. You’re seeing more to a child than what you normally would see.”

When asked what, if any, changes educators experienced in the following areas, one year after their training, here is what we found.

These changes to teachers’ relationship behaviors are significant, as multitudes of studies have shown the ways strong teacher-student relationships promote higher academic achievement, greater social competence, and fewer behavioral problems in students. Clearly, taking care of teachers is taking care of students. 

How to change a system?

Even more exciting is the way that investing in teachers’ wellbeing through collective care can create a ripple effect that shifts policies and practices within schools and district systems

In 2015, Principal Sarah Guererro was charged by the superintendent of Spring Branch Independent School District to turn her school around, academically. After she and her leadership team at Northbrook Middle School attended a FuelEd training, they committed to setting up an essential practice that would create more time and space for listening to staff. They already had weekly teacher meetings for discussing student progress, but additional check-ins were set in motion to help leadership gain awareness of teachers’ feelings, needs and perspectives. Educators were invited to share whatever they wished — be it an issue with classroom management or personal issues at home. According to Brian Jaffe, the school’s Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Support Specialist, “Because I had that safe space to feel valued by my principal, I was able to provide that for my teachers, and the teachers were then able to create the same safety for students. We saw this ripple out to create an entire ecosystem of support.”

As Northbrook Middle School became a community where adults felt safe and valued, educators began to connect more with students and as a result, learned a lot more about them. Suddenly, there was an overabundance of information and awareness about the high levels of trauma and social-emotional needs within the student body. To solve this, the team created a referral system whereby those closest to the ground—teachers and students—could quickly and easily submit a student’s name to the school support team who then provided a similar “check in” for the student.

By being responsive and timely, and addressing concerns big and small, trust was built in this systematic practice that helped all students and staff feel safe and seen. Over the course of five years, the school witnessed significant improvements: 67% reduction of out of school placement, in which a student is located to an alternative schooling environment in order to meet their unique needs; staff retention went from 57% to 80-90%; and a 21% increase in student achievement on STAAR.

The Anatomy of Change

As this story demonstrates, teaching, learning and leading in schools is an interpersonal endeavor and therefore, traditional school achievement outcomes such as teacher retention and student achievement are deeply intertwined with personal and interpersonal dynamics on a school campus. The table below illuminates what FuelEd is discovering to be the anatomy of this complex and dynamic change process:

What can we do, now?

The truth is, our educational system’s current issues related to educator stress are not new. Teaching is a highly stressful profession and it’s not just because of large class sizes or pressures of state testing. The emotional lives of educators and associated burnout-related fatigue are affected by their vicarious exposure to students’ trauma. Add to this: like students, teachers and principals also have their own experiences with trauma, which shape their thoughts, feelings and behavior in relationships. Our bodies keep a record of experiences in our lives where safety was lost, so any unprocessed trauma can be triggered in the classroom, regardless of whether it happened 20 years or 20 days ago. And though these reactions can be driven by protective instincts, they can also exhaust educators emotionally and damage relationships in equal measure. Call it a job hazard for teachers whose careers are built on emotional regulation, and whose effectiveness is grounded in their ability to build healthy relationships.

The need is real and recognized by educators who tell us how much they value trauma-informed adult SEL and wellness work—but educators also express strong tensions about not having time or space to engage regularly. Creating and incentivizing feasible systems where educators both give and receive care, as a routine part of the profession, would represent an innovative approach to the problem of teacher stress and burnout. 

Here are some ideas for how you can get started:

  • Build a stewardship system in schools. Consider building a low-stress, low-cost peer support system at your school or district. The ROI is huge in terms of self-regulation and stress release. Capacity and skill building for staff in empathic communication is a critical prerequisite to ensure safety and effectiveness of the system, so be sure to secure necessary professional development.
  • Provide counseling for educators. Counseling is an intensive relational experience of being safe, seen and soothed. FuelEd has provided over 12,000 counseling sessions to teachers since 2012. We have found that when school districts actively promote, normalize, and create pathways for attending therapy, many teachers engage, and experience powerful impacts on their well-being and careers. 
  • Expand the definition of trauma-informed to include educator trauma. Our childhoods shape who we are. Educators cannot address students’ social-emotional needs nor be “trauma-informed” if they have not processed their own trauma and social-emotional needs. Fortunately, secure relationships that help us reflect on our past heal trauma. If we can shift the definition of trauma-informed practice to include educator trauma, school climates can become places where students and adults alike can heal and thrive.

Educator care is not a flash in the pan. It’s not one-time professional development, it’s not a worksheet, it’s not a daily meditation nor a sudsy soak in the tub. Building individuals means building communities, and vice versa. And so, the very best thing we can do for our children, and the adults who serve them, is to make schools into places where secure relationships and adult development happen every day in the regular course of work. Places where educators are accepted for who they are and encouraged for who they can become. So they can do the very same thing for our children. 

About the Authors

Megan Marcus is the Founder of FuelEd. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Masters degree in Psychology from Pepperdine University, and a Masters in Education, Policy, and Management from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In 2017, Megan was named an Ashoka Fellow, “a leading social entrepreneur [recognized] to have  innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society.

Dr. Kelley Munger is the Director of Research & Development at FuelEd. She holds a BA in English from Auburn University, an MA in Teaching from Lee University, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Covenant Seminary. She completed her PhD in Early Intervention and Special Education at the University of Oregon in 2019. Kelley is a researcher and licensed therapist working in the areas of trauma, adult attachment, special education, and human development. 

How community gardens support the fight against food insecurity in Greater Houston

Houston ranks among the top 50 cities with the highest obesity rates in the U.S., with 34% of Houston children now struggling with obesity. At the same time, Feeding America reports that Harris County has the second-highest number of food insecure individuals across all US counties, with 869,000 individuals not knowing when or where their next meal is coming from.

The single largest predictor of an individual’s health is the community in which they live. People who live in low-income areas with low access to fresh food struggle to secure nutritious options and are more likely to suffer from disproportionately high rates of obesity and diet-related diseases. Today, children in low-income communities are more likely to confront an obesity epidemic — one that afflicts 13.9% of low-income children in the nation, and many lack access to safe, outdoor spaces to congregate and play

How COVID-19 exacerbates food insecurity in Houston

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing food insecurity, disproportionately affecting low- and moderate-income households, while also introducing food insecurity to individuals who had never before experienced barriers to food access.

Food insecurity in the region peaked in November 2020 with nearly 30% of Houston-area households with children reported experiencing food insecurity. Though that rate has fallen to 22% as of March 1, 2021, some communities still feel the burden at disproportionately high rates. One-third of Black households with children and 25% of Hispanic households with children report continued food insecurity, compared to 11% of white households with children. Changing health landscapes and heightened food insecurity have demonstrated a surging need for inclusive, community-driven food interventions.

Understanding the challenges facing community gardens in Houston

Urban Harvest leads holistic interventions that combine neighborhood revitalization, community development, healthy food production, preservation of greenspace, and ecological stewardship that contributes to biodiversity. Community gardens provide affordable and accessible healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods with limited access to fresh foods.

Since 2018, Urban Harvest has transitioned from building gardens to sustaining gardens in response to the needs of the gardens we serve. We set out to identify how we can better support community gardens to be more sustainable. Working with the 140 affiliate gardens in our network, we discovered five key elements that well-established, successful gardens share: they meet monthly as a group; they develop a clear leadership team that makes decisions for the garden; they inform gardeners of what goes on day to day; they build a large base of active gardens; and, they offer consistent events and programming.

However, our deep-dive also revealed disparities within our affiliate garden network. We learned that gardens in under-resourced (socially vulnerable and/or low-income, low-access) communities experience heightened challenges to becoming sustainable. Importantly, gardens in under-resourced communities make-up a significant part of the network: 54%, or 73 distinct sites.

These disparities have been heightened by COVID-19 and the recent winter storm. Key findings from our recent COVID-19 needs assessment revealed that due to the pandemic, under-resourced gardens have too few gardeners, and rate their volunteer needs a 5.8 on a scale of 1 (lowest need) to 6 (highest need). Even higher-resourced gardens rated their volunteer needs 4.5. Other top needs among under-resourced gardeners include compost, fertilizer and mulch. And, finally, almost 30% of surveyed gardens reported that their gardens have become less well-established.

Community gardens help under-resourced Houston-area neighborhoods

Community gardens are assets for any neighborhood, but represent unique opportunities in otherwise under-resourced communities in particular. Successful gardens can build community power through placemaking of safe, outdoor spaces; creating opportunities to connect with neighbors and community members from different backgrounds; preserving greenspace; and offering affordable, healthy food. In 2020 alone, our community gardens resulted in 225,000 pounds of produce (resulting in about 190,000 meals), of which 136,000 pounds were donated, and our gardens served more than 260 customers through Mobile Markets. But, as we have seen, community gardens depend on the community to survive and thrive, particularly in times of disaster. The results combat food insecurity, offer opportunities for physical activity, and promote resident health.

The Great She-cession: How COVID-19 is impacting women in the workforce

America is facing an unprecedented exodus of women from the workforce. The hard-fought gains women have made over the past 40 years are at risk of being wiped out by the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of March 2021, more than 1.8 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic started. While this number is an improvement over the initial 4.2 million women who dropped out of the job market last April, so many women have left the labor force that the current participation rate has fallen to 56.1%, a level not seen since the late 1980s. 

Compared to men, women initially left the workforce in disproportionately higher numbers and their return to the job market has been slower. The graph below shows that using February 2020 as a baseline for both sexes, women have lagged men in their ability to regain their pre-pandemic employment levels. This disproportionate collapse in women’s labor participation has led some to call this the first “she-session.”

Like everything related to COVID-19, the effects of the pandemic on working women varied among different groups. On average, women of color experienced greater hardships than all other workers, including white women. Comparing the experiences of Black, Hispanic and white women, Hispanic women had the highest unemployment rate — 20.1% — in April 2020, at the peak of the crisis. However, since then, Black women have found their recovery to be slower than the other groups.

20.1% unemployment
At the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, Hispanic women had the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

Working mothers of young children also have been hit especially hard. As daycares closed and school became virtual, mothers found themselves taking on an even greater share of domestic responsibilities. According to a McKinsey report, 23% of working women with kids under the age of 10 have considered leaving the workforce altogether.

While there is some evidence that women are beginning to find their way back into the labor force, it is important to realize that, like many other inequities the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted in our society, it didn’t create this problem. It simply magnified it. The truth is that growth in women’s labor force participation has stalled since the early 2000s. It began to decline after the Great Recession, mimicking trends in men’s participation rate. Interestingly, this phenomenon isn’t replicated in other advanced economies around the world. The proportion of women in the U.S. labor force has declined since 2000 — the only country among five major OECD countries with that trend.

“23% of working women with kids under the age of 10 have considered leaving the workforce altogether.”

Societal expectations

Even before COVID-19, women performed an unequal share of the domestic responsibilities in opposite-sex-headed households, even as the amount of time men spend on housework has increased over the last 50 years. In 2018, 9.6 million females gave family and home responsibilities as their reason for not participating in the labor force, compared to just 1 million men. This is hardly surprising. When families start looking at the high costs of child care and the lower wages of women, it seems to make the most economic sense. But these individual “forgone” conclusions are predicated on structural failures.

The gender pay gap

Equal Pay Day for 2021 was March 24. This date symbolizes how much longer a woman would need to work to earn the same amount the average man did in 2020 alone. Meaning, because women earn less, on average, than men, they must work an additional 82 days to earn as much as an average man did in one year. For Black women, that symbolic day would be in August, and not until October for Hispanic women. We see these inequities at both the national and local levels. In 2017, women in Montgomery County made $20,000 less than men and women in Fort Bend County made $15,000 less. Harris County had a smaller but still significant gender pay gap of $7,500.

According to a study by the National Women’s Law Center, a woman starting her career today stands to lose $406,280 over a 40-year period compared to her male counterpart. This earning gap spans all jobs, no matter what career a woman choses. The same study found the gender wage gap in 98% of occupations. As Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. Women’s Soccer star, said in her testimony on Capitol Hill: “One cannot simply outperform inequality.” It is a truly pervasive problem, but it is hardly a new one. In fact, in 25 years, the gender pay gap has only shrunk 8 cents. At this rate, we can hope to close the gap by 2059. While this isn’t a problem exclusive to the U.S., other countries have made much better progress toward ending it.

Besides being paid less for the same work, women are also overrepresented in jobs with lower wages. While there are many underlying causes for this, one of the largest contributors is discrimination. According to a report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, occupations with more men tend to pay better regardless of skill or education level. These trends are especially more pronounced for women of color. The implication for this being that even working full time, these women face higher rates of poverty. The negative effects extend beyond women and hurt the next generation. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, single mothers are almost twice as likely as single fathers to be living below the poverty line.

a woman starting her career today stands to lose $406,280 over a 40-year period compared to her male counterpart

Structural obstacles to increasing women’s workforce participation

COVID-19 has shown that, for all the advancements women have made in the workforce, the main impediment to gender equality is the structural barriers they face. COVID-19 further loosened the tenuous grip that kept many women in the workforce. 

We have seen minimal gains in pay equity in the past quarter-century. The pay gap is a fundamental problem women faced before the pandemic, one they’ll continue to face throughout its duration, and even when it’s over. Research suggests that one of the most effective ways to close the pay gap is to help women achieve entry into the higher-paying, male-dominated fields, as women have an outsized representation in lower-paying jobs.

Another roadblock for many women is lack of maternity leave. Research finds that mothers offered paid maternity leave were more likely to return to work after the birth of a child both in the short- and long-term. The study found a 20 percent reduction in the number of women who left their jobs in the first year after giving birth and up to a 50 percent reduction after five years. In addition to helping women stay in the workforce, evidence suggests that paid family leave provides myriad benefits to the child, which can have a positive influence on their future. 

Oftentimes for women, the problem of finding affordable child care becomes almost insurmountable. In Texas, child care often costs more than college tuition, and parents don’t have 18 years to save for it. Even before the pandemic, child care in Texas was facing a tipping point. It is estimated that U.S. businesses lose roughly $4.4 billion a year because of lost productivity due gaps in child care. 

Change, while not cheap, is necessary. Significant investments that support families will help all women, mothers, fathers, and children live up to their fullest potential and thrive by improving educational outcomes, time for family bonding, and allow both women and parents to “show up” fully in their professional lives.

“In Texas, child care costs more than college tuition, and parents don’t have 18 years to save for it.”

Women are integral to our collective prosperity

Our ability to recover from the current economic crisis depends on women re-entering the workforce. Our ability to find new levels of economic growth depends on women being able to find economic success equal to men. A study often cited by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen estimates that “increasing the female participation rate to that of men would raise our gross domestic product by five percent.” McKinsey estimates that gender parity would add 19% to GDP by 2025. If we don’t want the economic fallout of COVID-19 to become permanent, we must support women and encourage their return to the workforce. Our collective prosperity depends on it.

The Costliest Problem We Know How to Fix

In Houston, Black and Hispanic students on average lag between 3.0 and 3.6 years behind white students, as if they were absent for a quarter of their K-12 schooling.1 Pause here, re-read the previous sentence, and let that sink in for a moment.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the groups that lag behind make up a majority of our student population. In Texas, Blacks and Hispanics represent two-thirds of public-school students.2 In Houston Independent School District (HISD), Blacks and Hispanics are about 84% of the student population.3 Lagging groups are the largest and fastest-growing.

These academic achievement gaps are extremely costly to everyone. Nationally, the gaps, which average two to three years of schooling, greatly hinder economic growth and suppress earnings and tax revenue. A 2009 report by McKinsey & Company estimated that gaps in U.S. educational achievement had affected GDP more severely than all recessions from the 1970s up to that point.4 More recent estimates suggest that closing gaps would increase GDP by $551 billion and increase local, state and federal tax revenues by $198 billion annually.5 With these returns, we can justify investing significant resources in closing achievement gaps.

“Gaps in U.S. educational achievement affected GDP more severely than all recessions from the 1970s through 2009.”

How the education gap formed in Houston

Where do we begin? I say we start with the root cause. Ten years of data from over 4,000 school districts, and about 430 million test scores, reveal that the strongest predictor of academic achievement gaps is school segregation — specifically, the racial concentration of poverty in schools.6 

Among public school students nationwide, 45% of Black students and 45% of Hispanic students attend a high-poverty school (with 75% or more students in poverty), compared to only 8% of white students.7 In HISD, 76% of Black students and 80% of Hispanic students attend high-poverty schools, compared to 14% of white students.8 At both the national and local level (within HISD), Black and Hispanic students are more than five times more likely to attend a high-poverty school than white students, resulting in very different educational experiences.

Everything is harder in high-poverty schools, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. Despite the heroic efforts of many educators, community leaders, and philanthropists, most high-poverty schools struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers and administrators, tend to offer fewer advanced courses and fine arts, students have more disciplinary actions, and English learners take longer to become proficient — along with other examples. It even costs more per-pupil to educate a poor student in a high-poverty school than it does to educate a similar student in a low-poverty school.9

It’s time to dismantle the racial concentration of poverty in schools and close academic achievement gaps. It’s not enough to send more resources to Black and Brown high-poverty schools while continuing to maintain a system of segregation. Although additional resources can be helpful, this approach ultimately does not address the root cause and is not sustainable in the long run.The racial concentration of poverty in schools is the result of economic and racial segregation in neighborhoods that produce segregated, neighborhood schools. We maintain this system through personal and policy choice. 

How Houston can close performance gaps in education

Closing academic performance gaps requires a systemic approach — one that moves beyond individual actions, such as how hard students work, how well teachers teach, or how much parents care about their children’s education. These factors matter, of course, but they don’t explain academic performance gaps. A systemic approach addresses the underlying systems that determine the types of educational experiences students will have.

A systemic approach has two components. First, we must acknowledge — and learn from — our region’s history. The educational inequities described here did not develop by chance but rather by careful planning by our predecessors. Historian Karen Benjamin documented that, during a massive school expansion program in 1924, the newly created HISD school board worked closely with the city’s planning commission to develop a racialized zoning system in order to protect real estate interests.10 This powerful coalition determined where 50 new school buildings would be located. Although schools were already segregated by race, Black schools and white schools previously were located in the same neighborhoods, with one Black school in each of Houston’s six wards. However, during this expansion, new school sites were selected to create segregated neighborhoods, and schools that did not fit the master plan of racialized zoning were closed, neglected, or moved. In 1929, a Texas Appellate Court declared this unconstitutional and the City Council rejected the commission’s zoning plan, but school construction was almost complete and the damage was done, setting in motion a powerful system that persists almost 100 years later.

The second component of a systemic approach requires careful coordination across local, state, and federal levels. This is challenging but definitely feasible, especially now. At the federal level, efforts are already underway to promote school integration, including the Strength in Diversity Act, the Economic Fair Housing Act, and changes in Title I funding to encourage integration. At the state level, more can be done to increase funding for our most disadvantaged students (and improve the distribution of that funding), to improve accountability for closing gaps, and perhaps even to introduce accountability for integration. At the local level, district controlled-choice programs and inter-district agreements can be developed to promote integration and close gaps.

“The educational inequities described here did not develop by chance but rather by careful planning by our predecessors.”

If we want to undo the racialized system we inherited from our predecessors, we must implement the same methods they used to set it up. Rather than approaching housing and education as separate domains, we must recreate a coalition of education and housing leaders, including community stakeholders from all racial groups and neighborhoods, to dismantle the system of racialized zoning that continues to harm our students, our economy, and our democracy. The work of the coalition should be grounded in the needs and solutions of community members, activists, and practitioners, and incorporate the leadership and voices of individuals with lived experience.

The Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research (KIUR) at Rice University are poised to help convene and support such a coalition, with long-standing relationships with numerous city and county housing and transportation organizations and HERC’s 11 Houston-area school district partners. In addition, KIUR’s Urban Data Platform, a secure data repository of geocoded data for the Houston metropolitan area, can inform the coalition’s work by providing access to hundreds of datasets about Houston’s demographics, housing, education, health, transportation, etc.

We know this systemic approach is effective and powerful because it worked and lasted nearly 100 years. Houston is ready to dismantle concentrated poverty in our schools and close the academic performance gaps that have plagued us far too long.


1Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University. 2021. “Exploring Educational Opportunity in Houston ISD, TX.” Retrieved from https://edopportunity.org/ 

2 Texas Education Agency. 2020. Enrollment in Texas public schools, 2019-20. (Document No. GE20 601 12). Retrieved from https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/enroll_2019-20.pdf 

3Houston Independent School District. 2021. “2020-2021 Facts and Figures.” Retrieved from https://www.houstonisd.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=48525&dataid=317279&FileName=2020-2021_FactsFigures.pdf 

4Auguste, Byron G. et al. 2009. “The economic cost of the US education gap,” McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/the-economic-cost-of-the-us-education-gap 

5Lynch, Robert G. and Patrick Oakford. 2014. “The Economic Benefits of Closing Educational Achievement Gaps,” Center for American Progress. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2014/11/10/100577/the-economic-benefits-of-closing-educational-achievement-gaps/ 

6Matheny et al. 2021. “Uneven Progress: Recent Trends in Academic Performance Among U.S. School Districts,” Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford. Retrieved from https://edopportunity.org/papers/seda%20district%20trends%20paper.pdf 

7National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_clb.pdf 

8Houston Education Research Consortium analysis of HISD data.

9Taylor et al. 2021. “A Study on Geographic Education Cost Variations and School District Transportation Costs,” TEA Contract #4077. Retrieved from https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/hb3-transportation-report.pdf 

10Benjamin, Karen.  Segregation Built to Last: Schools and Housing in the New South. Forthcoming.

Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: 9 Leaders Making A Difference

From advocating for children and immigrants to creating businesses to expanding access to the arts and community services and beyond, these Houstonians are creating a better future for our region

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month was initially established as AAPI Heritage Week to last the first 10 days of May. This timeframe was chosen to coincide with the arrival in the United States of the first Japanese immigrants (May 7, 1843) and the completion of the transcontinental railroad (completed May 10, 1869) which relied heavily on Chinese labor. In 1992, Congress expanded this 10-day celebration to the whole month of May, which is now known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The many invaluable contributions of Houston’s AAPI communities are as nuanced and diverse as the lives and identities of those who make them. However, these communities are often lumped together into one overarching cultural identity suffused with untrue stereotypes. 

For AAPI Heritage Month, Understanding Houston is highlighting some of the incredible Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who work hard through many different avenues to create a more vibrant Houston area with opportunity for all.

We recognize that there are many Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders doing incredible work in the Houston area and that this list is far from exhaustive. If you know of a leader or organization that we should highlight, please let us know!

Donna Fujimoto Cole, Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer at Cole Chemical

Donna Fujimoto Cole, President and Chief Executive Officer at Cole Chemical

The Greater Houston area has a robust small business sector compared to the state and nation, with the majority of businesses in the three-county area considered small businesses. Despite barriers, such as lack of credit access, 19% of small businesses are Asian-owned compared to 12% and 10% across the state and nation, respectively. Furthermore, 22% of small businesses in the Houston Metropolitan Area are woman-owned, and one out of five of those woman-owned businesses are owned by Asian Americans. That figure for Texas and the U.S. overall is much lower, with Asian American women owning 14% of all woman-owned businesses in the state and country. 

Donna Fujimoto Cole is a Japanese-American trailblazer and an inspirational small business owner in the Houston area. Donna founded Cole Chemical in 1980 at the age of 27 as a single mother of a four-year old daughter with $5,000 in savings. As of 2015, her company was bringing in revenue in excess of $80 million and was ranked number three on Houston Business Journal’s (HBJ) Largest Houston-Area Minority-Owned Business List. That same year, Donna was also named one of HBJ’s 2015 Women In Energy Leadership. 

Donna also empowers and supports other women, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by serving on the boards of the Center for Asian Pacific American Women, Rice University’s Chao Center for Asian Studies, the Women’s Home and the capital campaign for Asian Health Coalition (Hope Clinic). She is also co-founder of the Pantheon of Women, a production company which uses storytelling through film, television, plays and musicals to change the way men treat and perceive women, as well as how women see themselves. Donna also serves as Trustee of the Rockwell Fund where she is “proud to serve the socially and economically challenged in the areas of education, healthcare, housing, and recidivism.”

Outside of her involvement on multiple boards, Donna also gives back to the community through Cole Chemical with financial and volunteer support to a multitude of nonprofits such as the All-Earth Ecobot Challenge and Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her company has also gone above and beyond to support the health and wellbeing of the Houston area by providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to companies as well as nonprofits at a discount. 

Despite facing much discrimination growing up during a time in America where there was animosity toward Japanese Americans, Donna did not let those negative experiences create resentment in her. Though her family and peers encouraged her to not embrace her Japanese heritage and culture in order to assimilate into American culture, she actively chose to do the opposite, by providing opportunities and mentorship for individuals in the Houston community. When asked what she finds most inspiring about Houstonians, Donna remarked that the Houston she experiences today is a big hometown where people are accepted no matter where they originally call home.

Rogene Gee Calvert, Philanthropic Consultant

Rogene Gee Calvert, Philanthropic Consultant

Rogene Gee Calvert has worked for years to improve the quality of life for all Houston residents. Her vision for a better Houston is “a city that plans for its future — to know where we want to be as a city and to chart a plan to get there, e.g., land use, mobility, housing, infrastructure and neighborhoods. Opportunities for Houstonians to get to know each other better and learn from each other.”

Rogene’s journey truly began after she graduated from the University of Texas and began working for a project housed under the Community Welfare Planning Association, where she helped evaluate the effectiveness of different methods to treat substance abuse. She then took those skills and functions with her to United Way of Greater Houston, where she worked for 11 years. Afterward, Rogene became the head of the Child Abuse Prevention Network, continuing her learning experience in the nonprofit space. Her continued involvement working at nonprofits broadened her vision of social work and its many different dimensions. While in college, she thought social work was only clinical but “I discovered that it included social advocacy, planning, research, and policy and program development.” Regarding the start of her career, Rogene reflects that “I was fortunate to accidentally venture into this area and have made it my life’s calling.”

The good that Rogene provides for the Houston community stretches far beyond her professional career. When she would travel in the early 1990s, Rogene noticed there were community and health centers for Asian Americans that didn’t exist in Houston, despite the region’s fast-growing Asian American population. This drove her to take action and collaborate with others to fill this gap by starting a number of programs, including Asian American Family Services, which provided mental health and social service needs through bilingual and bicultural counseling and supportive services, and the Asian American Health Coalition/HOPE Clinic, providing healthcare and initiatives to promote healthy living and increased access to a continuum of care for the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. 

Rogene loves the city she calls home and is often inspired by its residents. 

“I have often heard that Houstonians are friendly, kind-hearted, and selfless. Being a native Houstonian, of course, I am more self-critical, but the older I get and the more I get around, I totally agree. There is something about Houstonians that make them have a positive outlook.” 

As for what’s next, Rogene says that “although I am past ‘retirement age,’ I will probably never formally retire. I will continue to work in some capacity, advocating for the helpless and voiceless. My culture and heritage will always be important to me, and this current rash of anti-Asian hate and violence commits me to continue this fight.”

Shahid Iqbal, Founder and Board of Directors President at Indus Arts Council

Shahid Iqbal, Founder and Board of Directors President at Indus Arts Council

The Greater Houston area is one of the most diverse regions in the country. Almost half of all households in the three-county area speak a language other than English in their home.This level of diversity gives Houston-area residents an opportunity to experience a rich array of different cultures, and Indus Art Council Founder Shahid Iqbal hopes to make Pakistani culture a more visible piece of the larger tapestry.

Shahid has always had a passion for his Pakistani heritage and has had a growing desire to share that with others since immigrating to the United States from Pakistan when he was 16 years old. He remarks that Pakistan has been influenced by a vast number of different civilizations over the centuries, creating a rich, diverse and unique culture that has a lot to offer. Shahid sees the bridging of different cultures and experiences as a way to create a closer, more unified version of the already-diverse Houston area.

“I would like to see Houston’s diversity bring different people even closer to each other.”

Nearly 40,000 Pakistani Americans live in the Houston three-county area, the fifth largest Asian American subgroup in our region. The Indus Arts Council originally started as a way to maintain a bridge between first-generation South Asian parents and their American-born children by celebrating their rich Pakistani heritage. Since then, Shahid and others have intentionally broadened their reach to promote awareness of Pakistani arts and culture throughout our region to a number of individuals who do not have direct roots to Pakistan.

In fact, despite the many important benefits of the arts — including  the promotion of inclusion, community improvements, academic achievement and even improved mental health — there is a gap in access to the arts in the Houston area, particularly between different socioeconomic groups. In Harris County, roughly only a quarter of households making less than $40,000 annually report having attended an arts event compared to over half of households making more than $100,000 annually. However, Shahid is working hard to reach out to these communities and provide them with a robust arts experience through language classes, cultural events, films and theatre. Despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Indus Arts Council quickly adapted classes to an online platform by mid-May 2020 which has allowed easier access to these opportunities not just across our region, but across the globe.

Chi-mei Lin, Chief Executive Officer at Chinese Community Center

Chi-mei Lin, Chief Executive Officer at Chinese Community Center

Immigrants play a pivotal role in the Houston area’s population growth and diversity. In addition to the artistic and cultural contributions made by immigrants, immigrants add to our labor force and generate demand for goods and services within our local economy, helping our region remain a vibrant place to live. 

Chi-mei Lin envisions a Houston area that “will continue to build on its reputation as a welcoming, multicultural city that elevates inclusion, social equity, and diversity.”

Through her work at the Chinese Community Center, Chi-mei has helped thousands of immigrants settle and build a financial safety net in the Houston area by offering services for quality childcare, workforce development, financial education, healthcare services and more in multiple languages including English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Spanish. Chi-mei Lin and the Chinese Community Center work to bridge the cultures of the East and West by celebrating diversity and promoting cross-cultural understanding through a number of events, including an annual Lunar New Year Festival that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, attracted over 10,000 visitors each year from across the region. 

“Through cultural activities like this, as well as our Asian Heritage Tours, Chinese Community Center has added vibrancy to the diverse tapestry of Houston.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges, but Chi-mei Lin has been able to innovate and quickly adapt to meet clients’ needs by quickly transforming most in-person activities into virtual formats while also taking the necessary precautions to ensure essential services, such as childcare, could continue safely in person. During this trying time, Chinese Community Center also scaled up their IT capacity and lendable digital service inventory to mitigate learning loss and the digital divide among children and adult students. The Chinese Community Center has also pivoted to meet emerging needs due to COVID-19, by providing COVID-19 specific health education and encouraging vaccination among members of the underserved population who often encounter language and transportation barriers. 

Chi-mei is inspired by the giving nature of Houstonians, which she has witnessed first hand during the pandemic, seeing residents coming together to support one another through raising funds for PPE and volunteering to distribute food.

“When crisis hits, Houstonians unite rather than divide.”

Quynh-Anh McMahan, Senior Program Officer at The George Foundation

Quynh-Anh McMahan, Senior Program Officer at The George Foundation

Between March 7, 2020 and April 3, 2021 over 1 million residents in Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery counties have filed for unemployment insurance and two out of five have experienced either a “very” or “somewhat” difficult time paying for usual household expenses, as of late February 2021. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing economic difficulties, it has also worsened residents’ mental health, with public health strategies like social distancing limiting access to social networks and support systems. As a result, three out of 10 adults in the Houston Metropolitan Area have felt nervous, anxious or on edge for at least more than half the days of a week in late-February.

Through her work at The George Foundation, Quynh-Anh McMahan has helped to rapidly deploy resources to provide assistance to the most vulnerable in the Houston area, including low-income families, seniors, and women and children at risk of- or experiencing abuse. To date, The George Foundation has contributed over $4.3 million toward COVID relief. “In particular, we heard overwhelming evidence of the increase in mental health needs from school leaders and nonprofit providers. The pandemic has elevated existing stressors and created new ones for families to face. Our investments in school-based counseling, telehealth and peer support groups ensured mental health options were available across a broad geography, and available in different modalities. Even prior to the pandemic, our foundation prioritized investments in mental health; between 2018-2019, our mental health grant making nearly doubled over the prior two-year period.”

Throughout her work, Quynh-Anh is inspired by the innovation and hard work shown by Houstonians especially when leveraged with the strengths of a diverse and welcoming community. “My hope is that our community continues to challenge itself to grow in its role as a world leader, demonstrating that humanity and opportunity are not exclusive, and in fact can serve each other well.”

As an immigrant from Vietnam herself, Quynh-Anh and her family experienced trauma due to a lack of resources and connections, exclusion and the stresses of adapting to a new life. However, she also encountered critical opportunities throughout her life which drove her to her current career where she is now motivated to provide these types of opportunities for others from disadvantaged backgrounds. “In entering the field of philanthropy I still wear my social work hat in assessing community needs and allocating resources, with an eye toward building opportunity for all.”

Jida Nabulsi, CEO at Amaanah

Jida Nabulsi, CEO at Amaanah

Research has shown a strong relationship between frequent mental distress, 14 or more days of poor mental health in a month, and clinically diagnosed mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Across the three counties, 9%, 12%, and 10% of adults in Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery counties, respectively, reported experiencing frequent mental distress. Although white adults are more likely to have mental health issues than people of color, the consequences of mental illness in minority populations may be more persistent. Lack of cultural understanding by providers and social stigma may contribute to the underdiagnosis of mental illness among people of color and the immigrant population.

Through her work, Jida sees first hand how disparities in mental health manifest in Houston’s immigrant communities due to language and cultural barriers, trauma, social isolation and many other factors. These barriers to treatment have a number of impacts, including those on educational attainment, as foreign-born populations in the three-county area are more than three times as likely to not earn a high school degree or its equivalent compared to individuals born in the United States.

Jida works diligently to provide services to the immigrant and refugee population to help them thrive in their new environment and feel a sense of normalcy and social connectedness. 

“In the past, nonprofits have advocated for short-term solutions for new immigrants. However, recent studies have shown that these short-term programs do not work. Research indicates that newcomers need at least seven years to integrate properly. Unfortunately, after these short-term resettlement programs, we find women are still struggling to find child care so that they can work, and children are still struggling to learn without the educational support they need because of an overburdened and inadequate school system. Changes are happening faster than the system can adapt, which is why Amaanah is here — to bridge the gaps.”

Before beginning her career in the social services sector, Jida worked in oil and gas for ten years and faced several discriminatory experiences due to her gender, religion and ethnicity. After graduating from the University of St. Thomas, where in her senior year she made the decision to wear the Hijab, the first recruiter she interviewed with brought up her Hijab as something that would need to be discussed, going on to imply that employers would need to know when she wears it, when she doesn’t, or if she showered in it. That experience, along with a number of other discriminatory experiences, made Jida realize that she should not allow anyone to treat her without respect because of who she is. 

“My advice to anyone reading this is to be proud of who you are, know your worth, and do not let trolls bring you down. We all need to learn and grow but not at the cost of our morals and values.” 

Avani Narang, Director at Indus Cares

Avani Narang, Director at Indus Cares

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of households have been struggling with many things including food insecurity, access to digital learning, continuing post-secondary educational plans, and accessing resources for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. In the Houston Metropolitan Area at peak times, 21% of all households and 30% of households with children have reported that they have often or sometimes not had enough to eat. With many school curriculums switching to virtual learning, 40% of households in the Houston area have not had consistent access to computers and internet; and with the economic toll for many due to the pandemic, over 60% of adults who have cancelled post-secondary educational plans did so due to income changes from the pandemic.

Avani Narang became quickly aware and concerned of these issues faced by the community in which she grew up. Working now with Indus Management Group and finding ways to bring resources to their properties in Southwest Houston, she was fortunate her father felt the same way about giving back. Enlisting her father Ajay Gupta to supper her efforts, Avani began strategizing ways to provide resources to their residents who were impacted by both the pandemic and/or Winter Storm Uri. Currently, their team is focused on supporting their residents through distribution of supplies, facilitation of COVID-19 testing, administration of vaccinations, and arranging for guest speakers from the community to discuss continuing education opportunities with their residents.

During her successful tenure at a large consulting firm, Avani found herself yearning to find ways to give back to her community at any opportunity. Consequently, her current work in philanthropy marks a very intentional career shift made out of a desire to create social impact and help move the Houston community forward in any way she could. As soon as the opportunity arose for her to lead the family foundation and join Indus Management Group as Director of Indus Cares, she immediately and excitedly started making the transition. 

Although she encountered some push back from people in her life who thought, as a woman in her 30s, she should think of “settling down” and “staying put” instead of moving away from the stability of her current job, she realized she would not be happy unless she was doing the work she was meant to do. Since making this transition, she has never been happier and absolutely loves the work she does and the communities she works with; they inspire her by offering tips and best practices as Indus Cares shifts the services they provide to their residents to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Regardless of any type of competition in our industries, when it came to helping the greater Houston population, everyone opened their door to give some advice and pointers.”

Gordon Quan, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Quan Law Group

Gordon Quan, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Quan Law Group

Across the three-county region, more than 60% of residents think that increasing ethnic diversity due to immigration is a good thing. Additionally, 75% of residents in the three-county area also believe that immigrants who came to the U.S. without authorization should be given a path to citizenship if they speak English and do not have a criminal record. 

Through founding Quan Law Group, a firm specializing in U.S. immigration law, Gordon works tirelessly to help individuals who immigrate here and want to officially call Houston home. He helps them navigate the often complicated and intimidating government bureaucracy, which he was first exposed to as a law student marrying a woman from Hong Kong. 

“As a diverse city with a large immigrant population, I believe Houston can define what the modern American city can be when all are welcomed and respected despite their different cultural backgrounds and are invited to contribute to the common good even for those who do not look like themselves.”

Gordon’s vision for a better Houston led him to run for office, aiming to show how important immigrants’ contributions are to the growth and vitality of our region. He was the first Asian American to ever be elected to an at-large position in the Houston City Council and the second Asian American ever elected to the Houston City Council. During his time on city council, he sought to open doors for job opportunities, funding for clinics and housing, and encouraged individuals to participate in the political process. He vividly remembers a Ramadan dinner on the plaza at City Hall, during which one person told him they did not even know where City Hall was before he was elected but now believes that the people are the owners of City Hall.

Despite the successful outcome, Gordon faced significant obstacles when first running for Houston City Council in 1999 because of his race. 

“My campaign consultant said that the public would be leery of an Asian-American candidate. We had to run billboards without my photo to get the public accustomed to my name. When we ran ads, we used an announcer with a Texas accent to introduce me as a person who grew up in Houston and had me say a few sentences to prove that I could speak proper English without an Asian accent.”

Gordon may no longer hold a political office,, but he still works every day to make a difference in the community. Today, he works with the Asia Society Texas Center, developing an online curriculum for middle schoolers to educate them on Asian and Asian Americans to combat stereotypes. He hopes to take this work further and develop multi-ethnic experiences that help Houston celebrate its residents’ differences and to address bias that fosters discrimination.

Gordon has deep admiration for the City of Houston and notes that, “It has been said that we don’t have a great waterfront and mountains, but we have wonderful, caring people. As a growing entrepreneurial city, people willing to work hard have been given a chance to succeed.”

Charanya Ravikumar, Director of Development at Children at Risk

Charanya Ravikumar, Director of Development at Children at Risk

From 2000 to 2017, the population growth for children 17 years old and younger grew faster in Texas (26%) than in the nation overall (4%). In the three-county area, the number of children under the age of 17 grew more than 80%, 25%, and 70% in Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery counties, respectively. However, more than 20% of children in our region live below the federal poverty line, over 350,000 children are food insecure, and almost half of third-graders are not meeting grade-level standards for reading comprehension. Charanya Ravikumar works hard to advocate for these children, who often can’t advocate for themselves, to improve their quality of life by addressing the root cause of poor public policies. 

“My vision for a better Houston area is for every child who is born here or migrates here to be supported and provided with equitable access to resources to help them maximize their full potential.”

Charanya grew up in India and Singapore and was not exposed to the U.S. public school system until her first job after college. Through her previous work as an engineer, she participated in an after-school program serving Title 1 middle school students, which made her aware of the inequities many children face with access to quality education in our current system. This experience drove her to the career transition she made and ultimately her current job with Children At Risk.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting a growing number of children and families in Texas, Children At Risk quickly reacted to the needs of those they serve by launching a three-point strategy to inform parents, partners and policymakers of resources and best practices; collaborating with nonprofit and community leaders across sectors; and advocating for policies that protect the most vulnerable families. They were also able to build on their work during Hurricane Harvey to rapidly create the Coronavirus Children’s Resiliency Collaborative, facilitating cross-sector collaboration to coordinate efforts to support vulnerable kids and families to create the greatest impact.

Charanya is inspired by the generosity and community spirit of Houstonians through her work every single day. “The community comes together to help one another in full force not just in the wake of disasters, but also more quietly on a daily basis, which I find so inspiring!”

What we heard during our second Nonprofit Disaster Data Dive + Workshop

On May 4, 2021, Understanding Houston held its second Data Dive + Workshop (DDW) with United Way of Greater Houston on Vulnerabilities to and Impacts of Disasters. The second session in our three-part series brought together nonprofit organizations to examine the disaster data through interactive and engaging discussion.

We started off with a review of the 4 takeaways from our first Data Dive + Workshop. For those who missed it, the first session covered key findings from the new subtopic on the various disaster risks to the region and COVID-19 data. You can find a recording of the event here, a copy of the presentation here and the Jamboard here.

After that, we dove into the vulnerability to and impacts from disaster subtopic and reviewed data from 211 Texas/United Way Helpline two weeks and four weeks after four recent disasters.

  1. Houstonians across communities and neighborhoods are vulnerable to shocks caused by disasters:

The extent to which natural disasters affect households depends largely on their situation before disaster strikes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) is one of the most common ways to measure that level of vulnerability on a scale from 0 (lowest vulnerability) to 1 (highest vulnerability). 

The SVI comprises 15 demographic characteristics and social factors across four themes: socioeconomic status, household composition and disability, non-white status and language, and housing and transportation. Disaster Data Dive + Workshop participants identified the practical ways in which social vulnerability plays out in our community and neighborhoods by SVI theme. 

  • Socioeconomic status 
    • Community members are taking longer to recover from back-to-back disasters.
    • More issues are exacerbated and compounded, with many people still trying to regain their employment. 
  • Household composition and disability
    • Lack of resources for older adults and youth in some communities such as Settegast.
  • Minority Status & Language
    • Limited English proficiency can limit ability to complete applications for assistance. 
    • Dissemination of information is challenged when community members have language barriers. 
  • Housing and transportation 
    • In some neighborhoods, homes are still affected by both Harvey and the utility outage from the Winter Freeze which increases their vulnerability to following disasters. 
    • Transportation outside of typical work hours (M-F, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.) is limited, especially for outlying counties like Fort Bend and Montgomery.
  1. Financial impacts are the most pressing in our community and neighborhoods:

Through a dotmocracy voting exercise, participants identified financial impacts as the most pressing threat in their community and neighborhoods after a disaster. The DDW session highlighted how disaster assistance claims to FEMA vary across counties. The data show that the approval rate in the three-county area rarely rose above 50% for most disasters occurring since 2005. In seven of the last nine disasters, renters are less likely to be approved than homeowners. In Harris County, approval rates for both homeowners and renters are lower compared to Fort Bend or Montgomery counties. 

  1. Leverage data to prepare and plan for next disaster response:

The participants identified the need to invest in preparedness and planning efforts as well as prioritize disaster capacity building in non-crisis times. That was also a common theme from what we heard in the first DDW. 

  • Use data to assist with investing in infrastructure in areas where we know there is potential for greater impact.
  • Use data to determine if there are enough resources and service providers to respond to a disaster and meet needs when they arise.
    • Pre-identify relevant organizations, their target populations and their strengths.
  • Use data to learn from the past disasters.
    • Establish a process to capture lessons learned from previous disasters and outstanding issues to address (i.e., try to reduce future severity through personal and community resilience and public/private sector responsibility).

Next Steps

You can find a recording of the second session here, a copy of the presentation here, and the Google slides here.

We hope you will join us for our last session as we collectively work toward building a more resilient and equitable region!

Future Nonprofit Disaster Data Dive + Workshop:

  • Response to and Recovery from Disasters – June 8, 2021 from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Register here.

How have you used the data from Understanding Houston? Share your story with us!

Examining the effects of environmental inequity in Houston

Where we live profoundly affects nearly every aspect of our lives, including the quality of education we receive, the availability of good-paying jobs, access to high-quality healthcare and fresh food, and more. One year into the pandemic, it is also evident that the neighborhood we live in influences our chances of catching COVID-19 and getting vaccinated. But where we live also determines the quality of air we breathe, the water we drink, and ultimately, our health. This environmental inequity is the legacy of racial segregation without significant intervention.

Environmental racism refers to the fact that marginalized communities — communities of color, and low-income families — are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards. In practice, patterns of environmental racism can be observed in the deliberate placement of toxic waste dumps and industrial facilities in and near predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods, which has a disproportionate negative environmental and health impact on these communities.

Though far from the only major metro to feature environmental inequity, Greater Houston’s many industrial facilities make these issues particularly pronounced within our region. Battling environmental racism and its many impacts requires recognizing those impacts as they exist today and taking informed action. Though environmental racism in Houston is a multifaceted issue, these four trends are an effective starting point for anyone interested in working toward better outcomes for all Houston communities. 

Environmental racism disproportionately harms communities of color

One of the most prominent examples of environmental racism in Greater Houston is the deliberate placement of toxic waste dumps and industrial facilities that emit high levels of pollution in and near predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. The injustice of this is particularly salient since these communities are not themselves responsible for causing the majority of environmental hazards.

In the United States, Black people are exposed to 21% more pollution even though they produce 23% less pollution than the average.1

This inequity is especially true in Houston. As of 2019, 21 industrial and toxic waste facilities are located within three miles of the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood, including large-quantity generators of hazardous waste and waste treatment and disposal facilities.2 Hispanic residents comprise 90% of the population of Harrisburg/Manchester and Black residents make up 8%. 

But environmental racism isn’t restricted to the placement of toxic waste facilities — it is also true of the placement of chemical plants and oil refineries that emit airborne pollutants in and near communities of color. Houston’s reputation as the “energy capital of the world” makes the problem more potent, given the large number of oil and gas refineries and plants operational in the area. 

Chemical plants and oil refineries in the greater Houston area are also overwhelmingly located close to or within communities of color. A large number of plants and refineries are located along the Houston Ship Channel, which is bordered by neighborhoods such as Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park, which are 90% and 80% Hispanic, respectively. Almost 40% of Galena Park residents and 90% of Harrisburg/Manchester residents live within one mile of an industrial facility.3 These communities are disproportionately exposed to toxic substances and emissions compared to predominantly white communities. Industrial facilities in Houston emitted an additional 23 million pounds of pollutants over what they were allowed in 2019 alone.

In addition to elevated levels of air pollution and toxic emissions these plants create on a daily basis, chemical accidents are often a regular occurrence. In Houston, a chemical accident occurs about once every six weeks. And unfortunately, as shown in the map below, we have a considerable issue with facilities located in lower income communities of color that have several facility violations that indicate ongoing safety and compliance issues that endanger human health. 

Source: HCDC Dashboard, Kinder Institute

Proximity to industrial facilities harms resident health

Industrial facilities emit toxic pollutants in the air and nearby bodies of water, which can have detrimental impacts on the health of the residents. Greater exposure to toxic spills and elevated levels of air and water contamination have been associated with short and long-term health problems. 

Residents who live close to chemical plants and industries suffer from a “double jeopardy” — not only are they at a higher risk of health problems including cancer and asthma from the elevated levels of air pollution and toxic emissions these plants create on a daily basis, they are also at a higher risk of being exposed to chemical accidents, which can be potentially life-threatening for those who live in close proximity.4 

The communities in close proximity to industrial facilities are also at higher risk for respiratory problems, cancer and other chronic conditions than other Greater Houston residents.

In Houston, Black children are more than twice as likely to develop asthma than white children.

The presence of industrial facilities in Harrisburg/Manchester puts its residents at a higher risk for various diseases — the residents are at 22% higher risk of cancer than other residents in Houston. 

The presence of “cancer clusters” among communities of color in Houston is troubling. Cancer cluster is a term referring to areas plagued by a higher-than-expected number of cancer diagnoses, typically due to environmental factors. Cancer clusters have been identified in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens, both predominantly Black neighborhoods, according to the Texas Department of Health Services. The increased incidence of cancer has been linked to the emissions by the railroad industry that was located and operational in the area during the 1900s.

The placement of industries that emit substantial pollutants in communities of color isn’t accidental 

The deliberate placement of industrial and waste facilities within communities of color and away from historically white neighborhoods forces the question: who benefits, and at whose expense?

Decades of discriminatory policies and structural barriers have been instituted to maintain racial segregation. The government-sanctioned policy of redlining and racial zoning in particular helped cement environmental racism. As part of redlining policies, Black neighborhoods were designated as “risky investments” to prevent banks from making home loans and other investments in the area. This policy of designating these areas in red on maps successfully directed all investment and infrastructure away from it, leading to the degradation of historically Black and Brown neighborhoods. Public officials then offered up these redlined neighborhoods as locations for “undesirable” industries such as landfills and chemical plants.5

One of the first initiatives to tackle environmental injustice in civil court was Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation (1979), in which residents of a predominantly Black community in Northeast Houston challenged the company’s decision to build a waste disposal site in the neighborhood. One of the lead plaintiffs, Dr. Robert D. Bullard, who’s widely known as the father of environmental justice, set out to learn if that decision was “random or part of a pattern of discrimination.” He found there was a “clear racial pattern.” Between 1930 and 1978, Black residents made up only 25% of the city’s population, but 82% of the city’s waste was dumped in predominantly Black neighborhoods, even those with higher income. Despite resistance from the residents, race was still one of the most potent factors in predicting who was getting dumped on. 

Environmental racism is compounded by climate change and natural disasters

The problem of environmental racism becomes more pressing within the context of accelerating climate change. In an investigative report, the New York Times explored how redlining and racial zoning has resulted in Black neighborhoods experiencing temperatures that are “5 to 20 degrees higher” than white neighborhoods. These historically redlined neighborhoods lack trees, parks and shade, that help keep temperatures bearable on extremely hot days. 

Source: Houston Harris Heat Action Team

This is also true in Houston. An analysis of nighttime temperatures in Houston neighborhoods shows that the highest temperatures are concentrated in several low-income neighborhoods, many of them a product of redlining. This puts residents at a higher risk for heat-related health hazards.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted a temperature increase of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. The extent of climate change impacts on individual regions will vary, however, depending on the region’s ability to mitigate or adapt to changes. IPCC has also predicted an increase in heavy precipitation events, increasing sea levels, and more frequent and intense hurricanes. Rising sea levels along the Houston Ship Channel are likely to expose an additional 35,000 residents in the nearby communities to regular flooding by 2050.6 Given these forecasts, certain communities will bear the brunt of these disasters, further exacerbating the effects of environmental racism in Houston and across the country. 

The frequency and intensity of natural disasters have already increased in the country over the past decade. Greater Houston has experienced eight federally-declared disasters since 2015, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and Hurricane Harvey’s devastating flooding. Fenceline communities, those that live next to industrial facilities, face larger risks from natural disasters in more ways than one — not only are they at risk posed by the natural disaster itself, but also they are exposed to a significant increase in toxic emissions as a result of the disaster. When chemical plants and industries have to shut down operations in the case of a natural disaster or other emergency, toxic substances and pollutants that are still in the system must be burned off. Emergency shutdowns are associated with increased toxic emissions, as was the case with Hurricane Harvey when refineries emitted 4.6 million pounds of pollutants between August 23 and August 30, 2017, exceeding state limits.  

This was especially potent in the Harrisburg/Manchester community of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Comparisons of soil samples pre- and post-Harvey from households in the neighborhood found that residents were being exposed to a higher amount of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). PAHs are released when fossil fuels are burned, and are associated with long-term damage to skin, liver, kidneys and eyes.7 

Revision starts with recognition

The economic and environmental  factors that most contribute to environmental racism may seem built in to our region, but they don’t have to be. As our region continues to expand and evolve, opportunities to rethink where and how we plan our communities will continue to emerge. Recognizing the many manifestations of environmental racism in Greater Houston will help us to make the most of these opportunities and to ensure a healthier, more equitable future for all who call Houston home today and in the future. 

Environmental racism is just one part of a larger system of structural racism that undermines our region’s true potential, and knowing the facts is the first step toward taking action. Stay informed on the issues that matter to our region by joining the conversation on social media and getting involved with Understanding Houston.

For a deeper look at environmental racism in Houston, please watch the short video below by Dr. Robert D. Bullard.


1Tessum, C. W., Apte, J. S., Goodkind, A. L., Muller, N. Z., Mullins, K. A., Paolella, D. A., … & Hill, J. D. (2019). Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(13), 6001-6006.

2Tessum, C. W., Apte, J. S., Goodkind, A. L., Muller, N. Z., Mullins, K. A., Paolella, D. A., … & Hill, J. D. (2019). Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(13), 6001-6006.

3Union of Concerned Scientists. (2016). Double Jeopardy in Houston. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2016/10/ucs-double-jeopardy-in-houston-full-report-2016.pdf

4Union of Concerned Scientists. (2016). Double Jeopardy in Houston. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2016/10/ucs-double-jeopardy-in-houston-full-report-2016.pdf

5Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Reprint ed.). Liveright.

6Horney JA, Casillas GA, Baker E, Stone KW, Kirsch KR, Camargo K, et al. (2018) Comparing residential contamination in a Houston environmental justice neighborhood before and after Hurricane Harvey. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0192660. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192660.

7Abdel-Shafy, Hussein & Mansour, Mona. (2015). A review on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: source, environmental impact, effect on human health and remediation. Egypt J Petrol. 25. 107-123. Prince, Ukaogo. (2015). Environmental Effects of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Journal of Natural Sciences Research. 5.

4 facts every resident should know about Houston’s environment

Greater Houston has many reputations, many good, some more challenging. We’re the Space City, Clutch City and home to the medical capital of the world. We’re also known to be the Bayou City, the Energy Capital of the World and a car city, to name a few. On their own each reputation speaks to a different facet of our region. But when viewed collectively, they have broader, more troubling implications for our region’s health. 

Over the past several decades, population growth and urban development have contributed to historic economic expansion throughout Greater Houston’s three-county area. This expansion has led to new job opportunities, expanded access to vital resources and created new community spaces for recreation. It has also had considerable consequences for our natural environment, including impacts on our region’s natural resources as well as its air and water quality. And the fact that we are on the frontlines of the effects of climate change has additional implications for our region as we continue to face extreme weather in the future.

The preservation of Greater Houston’s natural environment is crucial to the ongoing health of our region and its residents. Though there are many factors influencing Houston’s environment, these broader trends are an important first step in understanding where our region stands and, ultimately, working to protect it moving forward. 

1) Greater Houston emits about 68 million metric tons of industrial greenhouse gas emissions

According to a 2019 report by the EPA, energy production and consumption account for 61.2% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and as the “energy capital of the world,” Houston plays a significant role in creating and managing harmful greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change both in our region and around the world. Houston-area greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, even with the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily reducing road traffic and energy use. 

Between 2011 and 2017, total greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrial facilities in the three-county region fell 3%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Non-biogenic carbon dioxide (C0) emissions (derived from fossil fuels) fell by 3% and biogenic C02 fell 40% while methane and nitrous oxide emissions increased by 6% and 2%, respectively. Since 2017, total greenhouse gas emissions have ticked back up 2%. While non-biogenic C02 has remained flat between 2017 and 2019, methane emissions have increased 22% in the last two years and biogenic C02 fell 44%, according to the EPA.   

2) Our region is increasingly reliant on cars

Greenhouse gas  emissions generated by industrial facilities are only part of the equation. Automobiles contribute to 28.9% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and Greater Houston is a very car-reliant region. Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of Houston-area households that own at least one car grew one percentage point to 94.7%. This is higher than the national rate of 91.4%, which grew by only 0.5 percentage points over the same time period. Further, Houston-area residents are purchasing more vehicles at a faster pace than the nation overall, and they’re spending more time in them.

Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of households with three or more vehicles in the three-county area grew by 38% — more than double the 15% national growth rate. All these cars on the road contribute to higher than average commute times, with 13.3% of three-county residents reporting 60-90+ minute daily commutes.. 

This disparity isn’t simply a matter of Houstonians preferring to drive or not caring about the environment — for most residents, public transit and/or walking simply aren’t practical options. 

In both Fort Bend County and Montgomery County — where residents face above average commute times —  fewer than 5% of households live within ¼ mile of a public transit stop. While Harris County fares better thanks in part to continued efforts by METRO, most households in the area are still out of walking distance from a public transit stop. As a result, only 2.3% of Houston-area workers commute on public transit — less than half the national rate.

As most residents know, in general, walkability is not one of the Houston area’s strong suits. 

On average, Montgomery County has fewer than 0.6 linear miles of connected sidewalk per square mile of land. While Fort Bend County and Harris County are more walkable with 4.4 miles and 7.6 miles of connected sidewalk per square mile of land, respectively, it’s clear that making Greater Houston more walkable needs to remain a priority of our region’s ongoing growth strategy. 

3) Wetlands and farmland shrink as developed land increases

It’s no secret that Greater Houston is growing, and with that growth comes a shift in how we use our region’s natural resources. In recent years, our region’s land cover has shifted heavily in favor of developed land, which makes up more than 1,800 square miles of our region. 

Between 2001 and 2018, the percentage of developed land grew by 18–19% in all three counties, accompanied by some other striking changes throughout the region. In Fort Bend County, farmland decreased from 59% of total land cover in 2001 to 15% by 2018. In Harris County, forest and wetland continued to lose already low shares of land cover — as they did throughout the region — dropping to 10% and and 4%, respectively.  Also noteworthy is the increase in pasture/grassland throughout the three-county region. Viewed alongside the region-wide decrease in farmland coverage, this transition may portend even more increases in developed land in the future, as new grassland often preempts additional development on a previously wooded area. 

Further Reading: Take a closer look at the state of our region’s water supply →

Of particular concern is the decline in wetland coverage seen throughout the region. The low-and-declining levels of wetland coverage throughout the three-county area in the absence of resilience measures to compensate come with increased risk of flooding from heavy rainfall in urban areas — a growing concern for our region today and in the future.

4) The effects of continued climate change pose distinct challenges for Greater Houston

Extreme precipitation is a problem with which many Houston residents are all too familiar. In the last five years, Houstonians endured four extreme precipitation events that were declared federal disasters, the most costly of which, Hurricane Harvey, dropped more than 60 inches of rain and caused more than $100 billion in damages. If climate change continues at its projected pace, Greater Houston will need to prepare for even more extreme precipitation events. 

Over the next 50-60 years, the number of extreme precipitation days is expected to increase from 11.3 in 2020 to 11.6 by 2080. While this increase may seem slight, it’s important to consider the damages our region sustains from these extreme precipitation events, especially when 58% of Houston-area residents currently live in a census tract with increased vulnerability to the effects of natural disasters — many of them low-income and/or Black or Hispanic.

As familiar as Houstonians are with extreme rain, we are even more familiar with intense heat. If climate change trends continue at their current pace, we may need to brace ourselves for even more higher temperatures than we already endure. 

Between 2020 and 2050, the number of extreme heat days with temperatures over 95 degrees in the three-county area is projected to grow by as much as 47% to 51% over the next 30 years, with Fort Bend County seeing the most frequent extreme heat days in the region, a deeply problematic projection that has worrisome implications for resident health and energy use throughout the region. 

Understanding Houston’s environment is the first step toward meaningful action

We may not be able to control the weather or the implications of population growth, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless in the fight against climate change or in making our region more sustainable and resilient for all who call it home. By taking the time to understand the data, we are one step closer to taking the targeted action that truly matters in our communities, which helps ensure a brighter future for all.

As a community-driven nonprofit, our mission to connect Houston leaders with the data they need to make informed decisions relies on the action and generosity of people like you. Consider exploring how you can get involved with Understanding Houston, and stay tuned to our social media for new data, insights and program updates.