Stand Together: A Call to Action from Houston Coalition Against Hate

Mother nature has shaken us to the core. Everything we thought we believed and valued is being challenged and tested. She is calling our selves to ourselves. She is moving us toward introspection and self-reflection, to self-forgiveness, to self-love, to forgiveness for the greater good, to unconditional love through accountability via our individual character and nature.

Audre Lorde brilliantly said, “Your silence will not protect you.” Silence in the face of injustice will ruin you. It is time to heed the call to courage by tapping into our hearts. The time has come for courageous people to stand up for and with others. These times are no longer for complacency and complicities. We must embrace the shadows of what is implicit and firmly rooted in systemic and societal oppression and do something.

If there ever was doubt over our human connectedness, COVID taught us otherwise. It took a pandemic to demonstrate how the neglect of our most vulnerable and marginalized populations made the whole world vulnerable. For the first time ever, folks started to realize the importance of universal healthcare, the eradication of homelessness, and the impact of mental illness. How quickly these struggles could affect any one of us sunk in. Suddenly, it was significant that everyone have a place to rest with functioning utilities to maintain the necessary standards of cleanliness in order to combat this virus. Exactly who our essential workers are and the gargantuan sacrifice imposed upon them — understood.

Then, in the throes of a pandemic, with most of the nation locked down, social distancing, working from home, schooling from home, mourning and grieving the loss of so many, video footage of the cold-blooded murder of Ahmaud Arbery by vigilantes was thrust in our faces. Nineteen days later, Breonna Taylor was executed by police in her own home. Just when we thought we were catching our breath and mending our hearts, police murdered George Floyd. Plenty other Black, Brown and Trans lives have been taken in between and after, not so heavily publicized and scrutinized.

Our eyes have never deceived us, but this time our heads were unable to turn and escape the discomfort of knowing via sports, live entertainment and our personal and professional social lives. Grand juries of the broken hearted materialized everywhere catapulting us into the largest Civil Rights era ever in the history of this country with the manifestation of deep awakening and reckoning ever so present on the horizon. With much respect to the late, great Gil Scott Heron — this time, the revolution was televised. Finally the hashtags #blacklivesmatter #allblacklivesmatter have begun to be understood. Never have I been more stoked, inspired and hopeful for what’s to come.

Native American tradition asserts we are the answer to prayers prayed seven generations ago by those who walked this earth before us. Quite simply put — we are the answer. We must cease turning to others for solutions, looking for others to carry the burden, to do the work, to relieve us. Perhaps we do this as a last-ditch attempt for relief from our discomfort not realizing we are only postponing bringing forth the very purpose of our existence and the world we all desire to live in. Each and every one of us, after periods of introspection and grief, must not be still. I implore you to action in your individual lives pushing the needle ever so gracefully, personally and professionally supporting much needed shifts in our culture and systems.

African tradition orates one’s character is the true determining factor in the attainment of one’s destiny. My desire for each and every one of us is that our characters not ruin our destiny.

I invite you to consider this Hopi Elder’s prophecy written June 8, 2000:

You have been telling people that this is the Eleventh Hour, now you must go back

and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered…

Where are you living?

What are you doing?

What are your relationships?

Are you in right relation?

Where is your water?

Know your garden.

It is time to speak your truth.

Create your community.

Be good to each other.

And do not look outside yourself for your leader.

Then he clasped his hands together, smiled, and said, “This could be a good time!

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.

And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.

The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word ’struggle’ from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

In the spirit of that prophecy, we took action. In early 2017, concerned by reports of the steady rise in incidents of hate and bias in Houston, especially incidents against African-American, Jewish, Muslim and LGBTQ communities, a group of over 30 community stakeholders came together to develop a coordinated community-wide plan — to speak our truth, to create our community, and to be good to one another.

Over the next two years, the group organized itself as the Houston Coalition Against Hate (HCAH) and has worked toward strengthening connections among organizations working in this space, facilitating the exchange of information, skills and experience, and establishing partnerships with law enforcement agencies and other institutions, so that Houston can improve its systems to effectively prevent and reduce incidents of hate.

In the past two years the Coalition has steadily and consistently grown with membership at well over 65 members strong. If you have been a member of the Coalition joining us in the fight against hate, bias, violence, and discrimination in the City of Houston, we thank you. If you are an organization or institution, not yet a member, we invite you. Without you, there is no us.

Tasked and Onwards,

Marjorie Joseph, Executive Director

Houston Coalition Against Hate

About the author:
Marjorie Joseph is Executive Director of Houston Coalition Against Hate, a network of community-based organizations, institutions and leaders in Houston, TX that have come together to collectively address incidents of hate, bias, discrimination and violence against Houstonians. She is an artist, organizer, and uses the creative process as a force for individual and community transformation.

COVID-19 Recovery and the Ongoing Challenges Facing Houston Entrepreneurs

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Houston’s business community so drastically that no company is too big — or too small — to feel its effects. Even the healthiest businesses have found themselves in need of emergency assistance to stave off layoffs or permanent closure as a result of plummeting levels of consumer spending, stay-home orders, and fear of catching and spreading the virus to loved ones. And while programs like the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) have provided valuable assistance to a number of employers, many of Houston’s small business entrepreneurs who most need these funds to survive have been unable to access them — particularly female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color.

The state of minority and female-owned small businesses in Houston 

Houston is nationally recognized for its racial/ethnic diversity as people of color make up two-thirds of residents living in Houston’s three most populous counties. This reputation carries over to our small business community. According to a national analysis, Houston ranks first in the United States for minority entrepreneurs, based on criteria such as startup density, rate of new entrepreneurs, percentage of companies owned by minorities, and access to financial resources.

Despite Houston ranking first in the U.S. for minority entrepreneurs, business owners of color are still underrepresented in the Houston area and face unique challenges.

About 38% of Houston’s small businesses are minority-owned, higher than the rate for the state. In Fort Bend County, 53% of small businesses are minority-owned.  Woman-owned businesses are underrepresented in our regional economy —  just 29% of small businesses in Houston are women-owned.

These businesses reflect the entrepreneurial spirit of Houstonians — forging their own economic path with talent and persistence — sometimes as a necessity to overcome employment barriers, challenges in building personal wealth, and discrimination.

The importance of small businesses and Paycheck Protection Program loans 

Both in Houston and across the nation, small businesses are vital to the financial and economic health of our communities. About 63% (68,500) of firms in the Houston Metro area are small businesses with fewer than 10 employees, according to the 2018 Annual Business Survey from the Census Bureau. Across the three-county region, 559,000 establishments with no paid employees (representing self-employed entrepreneurs) — generated $28 billion in receipts in 2017, according to the Census Bureau’s Nonemployer Statistics. 

As a means of helping these businesses weather the economic storm accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan began to deploy $349 billion to provide “small businesses” with up to $10 million in forgivable loans as long as certain requirements are met. The program allowed all businesses — including nonprofits, veterans organizations, tribal businesses, sole proprietorships, self-employed individuals and independent contractors — with 500 or fewer employees to apply.1

Issues with the Paycheck Protection Program loans

While the broad eligibility criteria allowed many small businesses to apply for relief, the exceedingly fast process and unclear guidance for borrowers and lenders had a narrowing effect, as businesses with significant capacity and legal/financial expertise were best positioned to apply. Furthermore, the 7(a) loan was quickly administered by banks that were existing SBA-certified lenders, a pool of lenders that has been criticized as having an insufficient track record of providing access to capital to underserved businesses owned by women and people of color.

In less than 14 days, all PPP funds were exhausted due to high demand, with more than 1.6 million loans processed by about 5,000 lenders.2 It’s estimated that as of April 17, approximately 80% of small businesses that applied for a loan were still waiting for answers the day after the program ran out of funds.  

Why minority- and woman-owned businesses in Houston are struggling

Even before COVID-19, many Houston-area small businesses, microbusinesses, and sole proprietorships led by people of color and women faced financial challenges at disproportionate levels relative to White small business owners in our region. On average, minority-owned businesses in Houston are denied loans at three times the rate of non-minority-owned firms. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges in Houston. Many small businesses owned by minorities historically have lacked access to established accounting infrastructure and banking relationships that would allow them to access substantive capital such as the federal PPP loan. 

Some issues that prevent small businesses from accessing capital through PPP loans include: 

  • Low employee count: The financial incentives associated with PPP loans encouraged lenders to serve clients with larger loan sizes, meaning larger “small businesses” were more likely to have their requests approved than those with fewer employees. For context, 90% of businesses owned by a woman or minority in Metro Houston have fewer than 100 employees, according to the Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs. In response, some large banks have donated their fees totalling millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations. 
  • Smaller operations: Given that microbusinesses, sole proprietors, and contractors often have very low fixed costs (e.g., payroll, rent, utilities), the PPP loan rules and forgiveness conditions often do not truly apply to many small/micro minority- and/or woman-owned businesses as they are more likely than other groups to not have employees and significant overhead costs.

Major local efforts in Houston to support small businesses have faced challenges, despite good intentions. For example, a $10 million loan fund in Harris County was depleted in less than 48 hours, with broad eligibility criteria and credit requirements that made it difficult for small/microbusinesses led by people of color to access these funds.

Understanding Houston’s needs on the long road to recovery

Small businesses are critical to our region’s economic success. When small/micro-business owners and self-employed entrepreneurs are unable to provide for themselves, their employees and their families, entire communities suffer. And when the safety nets in place are unable to accommodate the needs of the most vulnerable small business owners, the economic inequalities affecting our region will only intensify.

As our region continues to work toward a long recovery process, thoughtful and direct action on behalf of minority- and woman-owned businesses will be needed to help these valuable institutions survive. Access to the right information is vital to making these important decisions. As we research and work toward a plan for our region, we invite you to explore the data, get involved and use Understanding Houston to learn more about what matters in our communities. 

End Notes:

1 Businesses in certain industries can have more than 500 employees if they meet applicable SBA employee-based size standards for those industries.
2 “The SBA has processed more than 14 years’ worth of loans in less than 14 days,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza in a joint statement.

Words of Unity: 14 Texas Voices Inspiring Hope in Our Region

The strength and substance of our communities at their best are defined by what we do during times of turmoil. Houston is a do community. In times of peace and crisis, we work together and strive to make Houston a more vibrant place.

Our strength is also defined by the words and perspectives we offer to help those around us find unity in the face of adversity. Challenges like Hurricane Harvey and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have showcased our region’s undeniable ability to help and inspire one another in crises. And now as we collectively mourn and reflect upon the death of Houstonian George Floyd while in police custody, and others who have died senselessly in recent months, we once again turn to the voices that aim to inspire and heal our communities in this time of meaningful action.

While no quote can repair the wounds left and exposed by George Floyd’s death, these words from community leaders across the private and public sectors have helped to drive the conversation and shape progress — in the Greater Houston region and beyond.

Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas

“Texas has a legacy of success, whether it be the Timothy Cole Act, the Sandra Bland Act, and now maybe the George Floyd Act to make sure that we prevent police brutality like this from happening in the future in Texas…George Floyd is going to change the arc of the future of the United States. George Floyd has not died in vain. His life will be a living legacy about the way that America and Texas responds to this tragedy.

George W. Bush, Former Governor of Texas and Former President of the United States

“It is time for America to examine our tragic failures — and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths … America’s greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity. The doctrine and habits of racial superiority, which once nearly split our country, still threaten our Union. The answers to American problems are found by living up to American ideals — to the fundamental truth that all human beings are created equal and endowed by God with certain rights.

Rev. Marcus D. Cosby, of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church

It is perfectly OK to be angry. As a matter of fact, if you’re not angry something is not right. You should be angry. You should be infuriated by what we have seen. Experience the anger. Process that anger so it can move to positive action so we can make sure that something changes. It’s how we channel our anger, so it does not become vengeful but at the same time it has to be an anger that leads to difference, leads to change. Until we change that notion and understand that we’re all God’s children, we’re one family, we’re one future.”

Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Harris County Precinct 1

“The solutions we need right now — both to protect our safety and to rescue our democracy — are ones that meet the scale of the problem. To respond to George Floyd’s killing, or Breonna Taylor’s killing, we must replace the questions about how to reform policing with questions about what role a discriminatory system of mass incarceration should play in a broader vision for safety and justice in America.

As elected leaders, we can do better — and our communities deserve better. As your Commissioner, I pledge to do my part. In doing so, we will all be safer and healthier. Change is long overdue, but transformation is possible.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia, Harris County Precinct 2

“As we mourn the loss of George Floyd, we must remember that the problems exhibited in that horrendous video are a reflection of the societal problems that still exist in our country today. George’s family needs to know that their loss will not be in vain. Loss of life by police action, no matter how it happened, is something that creates a tear in the fabric of our society. I believe we have the capacity to come together to address the prejudices, misunderstanding and lack of respect that may have led to George’s death… We can and must do better, because when tragedy has knocked on our doors, we have responded as a united community. We are known around the world for our capacity to unite under the most difficult times and the nation needs our example more than ever today. The Floyd family needs us to unite around them and lift them up in this darkest hour.”

Rep. Al Green, Texas 9th Congressional District

“I am not here today as a Democrat. We are not here as Republicans. We are not here today because we are rich or poor and we are not here because we are conservative or liberal. We are here because… we have no expendables in our community. George Floyd was not expendable… we are going to make sure that those who look through time, that they will know that he made a difference in his time because he changed not only this country, not only the United States — he changed the world. George Floyd changed the world.”

Bob Harvey, President and CEO of Greater Houston Partnership

“While the issues of racial inequity and systemic racism are not unique to Houston, we have an opportunity as Houstonians to lead the way in reforming broken systems, building up communities, offering support and removing barriers. We often speak with pride of Houston being ‘America’s most diverse city.’ This is our moment to make Houston ‘America’s most inclusive and open city’, one that does truly offer ‘opportunity for all.’”

Lina Hidalgo, Harris County Judge

“We must never forget the name George Floyd or the global movement he has inspired. George Floyd’s death, and the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others have sparked a national conversation about race and police brutality. It has taken far too long for us to get here, but we must lean forward and work to make meaningful change in our nation. No family should lose another loved one in such a senseless way. Systemic racism has no place in Harris County.

Beyoncé Knowles

“No more senseless killings of human beings. No more seeing people of color as less than human. We can no longer look away. George is all of our family and humanity. He is our family because he is a fellow American… justice is far from being achieved. Continue to pray for peace and compassion and healing for our country.”

Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, President, Prairie View A&M on the launch of the Center for Race and Justice

“Today’s events call upon us to take action. Not one-time action but action that can have an impact on our community over time. For too long, we have been content to have others dictate the limits of our ability to act: individuals who call for a different course of action, those who are concerned about controversy, those who advocate “staying in our lane.”… Fighting racism and discrimination and upholding justice must always be among our highest callings.”

Sylvester Turner, Mayor of the City of Houston

“We recognize in this city that there are many communities and neighborhoods that have been underserved and under-resourced for decades…. We see you and we choose not to ignore you and we want to do everything we can to treat you with the respect and the decency that you rightfully deserve…We are taking an internal look in our own city to improve those inequities to make things better. We recognize our diversity, and we recognize that we must constantly assess and evaluate the things that we are doing such that our city works for everyone at every level of operation.”

Frances Valdez, with Houston in Action partners

Avenue, BakerRipley, Children’s Defense Fund-Texas, Emgage, Empowering Communities Initiative, Grassroots Leadership, Houston Endowment, Houston Justice, Jolt, Korean American Voters League, League of Women Voters Houston, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, MOVE Texas Action Fund, Movement Voter Project, OCA-Greater Houston, Texans Against Gerrymandering, Texas Advocates for Justice, The Montrose Center, Workers Defense Project, Young Invincibles in an email to Houston in Action members and partners dated June 12, 2020.

“What recent protests have shown is that there is a role for each of us to play in ending violence against the Black community… it’s incumbent upon us to know this history, to do our part to reverse its effects on the people of our communities, and to break-down the barriers, especially those rooted in a history of oppression, that have been put in the path of marginalized communities…. Marching in the streets, protests at institutions of power, speaking out against racism, fighting for justice, organizing community members, giving of one’s time, contributing financially, educating others, volunteering, making art, caring for one’s self, caring for loved ones, caring for community, donating your expertise, getting everyone counted in the Census, voting, registering others to vote, living with dignity, and speaking truth to power are all ways in which Houston-area residents participate in shaping systems that govern and work for the change in their community—and [we] will never stop working for their ability to do so.”

JJ Watt, Community Activist, Houston Texans Defensive End

I have never had to feel that fear for my life. I have never had to experience a situation where I felt threatened because of the color of my skin. I can’t sit here and pretend to know what that feels like. But I can understand and acknowledge that it’s wrong and that nobody should ever feel discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Racism is a problem and silence won’t solve it. I certainly don’t have the answers, nor do I pretend to. But I do intend to listen, learn, understand and ask how I can help.”

100 Black Men Metropolitan Houston

“The Declaration of Independence proclaimed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ Unfortunately, none of those words applied to Black people when they were written. Though the journey was never easy, our communities have united throughout American history to effectuate change and give those words purpose, effect and meaning.

We are at another historical inflection point, our communities are uniting and we are again marching toward change. We are united by an undeniable fact that racism exists. Some people will never appreciate the effects of racism; the fear, the stigma, and the oppression that it creates… The 100 Black Men of Metropolitan Houston will always fight racism and racial inequality. We will always support peaceful protests. We will always seek to be the change our community seeks. We will never forget the sacrifices of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd or the countless other Black lives that have been wrongfully taken. And we celebrate the 60,000 Houstonians from all ethnicities and backgrounds who peacefully protested and paid homage to Mr. Floyd’s memory.”

Inspired by the cause, driven by the facts

As our region works to enact meaningful change in our communities, seeing the full picture and working with accurate and meaningful data will be critical in directing future philanthropy and activism. Understanding Houston is committed to making such vital data and information accessible to illuminate where our region’s challenges lie, so that our communities can take action to do the work that matters most, where it matters most.

Help us spread the knowledge by exploring the data, getting involved and using Understanding Houston to learn more about what matters in our communities.

Seven Neighborhood-Level Data Tools to Know and Use

Neighborhoods matter. Where we live has a profound impact on our lives in ways we don’t always understand.

Maps and dashboards that provide quality-of-life data at the neighborhood-level are a key piece to the puzzle of understanding communities. Understanding Houston focuses on county-level data to measure how the region performs overall and across time, but we know that place matters when it comes to moving the needle for the whole region. That’s why we have curated a list of special tools that help you understand Houston’s neighborhoods a little better.

Houston Community Data Connections (HCDC) from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research 

The tool

HCDC launched in 2017 to arm community leaders with data to inform planning and decision-making. The site contains a robust online dashboard that provides neighborhood-level indicators for Harris County and a research gallery of interactive data stories on a variety of topics related to demographics, housing, poverty/income and more. The dashboard allows users to overlay various indicators on a map, view detailed community profiles, and compare neighborhoods to one another and over time.

Why we love it

Create custom maps of Harris County based on six variables.

This tool is excellent if you want to create maps to include in your presentations and want a quick profile of a particular neighborhood. We also love how the interactive data stories present a variety of data in context with analysis on fascinating topics. Be sure to view the FAQs and training guide before beginning to get the most from this tool.

Opportunity 360 from Enterprise Community Partners

The tool

Opportunity360 Community Dashboard offers a comprehensive view of any neighborhood in the country by measuring five foundational criteria shown to have the greatest impact on how we live: housing stability, education, health and well-being, mobility, and economic security.

Why we love it

The Opportunity360 Community Dashboard offers more than 150 indicators from 27 sources and can compare up to three census tracts at one time. Users request dashboards by entering a location or address and then receive the dashboard via email. The interactive dashboard allows users to export data, filter visuals, print, and hyperlink to specific sections. Be sure to check out Opportunity360’s list of resources, FAQs, and methods. Opportunity360 also offers additional tools, resources, and reports on how other organizations used the data to inform their decision-making and planning, so be sure to explore the website.

Opportunity Atlas, a collaboration among researchers at the Census Bureau, Harvard University, and Brown University

The tool

Opportunity Atlas is an interactive tool that measures the extent to which groups move up (or down) the economic ladder by looking at various outcomes of adults and back-mapping where they grew up. Users can select which adult outcomes they want to explore (e.g., household income) for a demographic group (e.g., low-income Asian women) by various neighborhood characteristics (e.g., poverty rate).

Why we love it

The census tract-level data reveal insights about communities most likely to produce adults with promising or poor outcomes. The mapping feature allows you to see how neighborhoods in close proximity can produce adults with vastly dissimilar outcomes, or how different groups in the same neighborhood have contrasting outcomes.

Use interactive maps to explore outcomes in health, education, income and more by census tract.

You can download maps as images to include in presentations, download the data itself, and overlay your own data onto the map. Don’t forget to explore interactive stories on the site that are not only insightful, but also give you ideas on how to begin. And, as always, familiarize yourself with the user guide, methods, and FAQs before you begin.

Child Opportunity Index from Diversity Data Kids

The tool

The Child Opportunity Index (COI) measures and maps the quality of resources and conditions that matter for children to develop in a healthy way. It combines data from 29 neighborhood-level indicators into a single composite measure. 

Why we love it

Users select a metropolitan area to view census tracts. You can also see where children of different racial/ethnic groups live, compare metro areas, download datasets, and view data stories for greater insights. If you have questions after reading the report, reviewing the technical document, and looking over the FAQs, be sure to contact them.

Houston-Galveston Area Council

The tool

Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) is a regional organization through which local governments consider issues and collaborate to solve region-wide problems. H-GAC provides extensive research and data to the public through online visual and mapping tools to inform local and regional planning, programming, policy-making, and decision-making. 

Why we love it

Access a variety of planning and policy research and reports for the Houston region.

There is a ton of information here. Depending on availability, data are provided at various geographic levels, including census tracts. Find data and analysis on several topics ranging from employment, environment, land use/planning, transportation including commuting flows and mobility, and population. from the Census Bureau

The tool

The Census Bureau is the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy. The best way to access data collected and prepared by the Census Bureau is through, the Bureau’s new data platform designed for all users – not just researchers. The Census Bureau conducts the decennial census, economic census, demographic surveys, economic surveys, housing surveys, provides population estimates and counts, and produces original research.

Simply search for a topic of interest in your community to find the latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Why we love it

You can access demographic data at the zip code, census block, block group, and tract level. Users are able to create maps and manipulate data tables for efficiency. The Census Bureau has provided several resources to help users learn this new platform and hone data skills with their Census Academy. Learning tools include data gem videos, online courses, previously-recorded webinars and upcoming webinars.

Location Efficiency Tools from the Center for Neighborhood Technology

The tool

Location Efficiency Tools are a suite of web-based tools, comparison maps, downloadable data, research reports, and more that can help communities become more convenient and livable. The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) works to improve cities’ economic and environmental sustainability, resilience, and quality of life.

Why we love it

The Housing and Transportation (H+T) Affordability Index, one of the tools, provides a comprehensive view of affordability that includes both the cost of housing and the cost of transportation at the neighborhood level. The website contains four tools (H+T Index map, H+T Fact Sheets, Total Driving Costs tool, and Comparison Maps). There’s a lot of info here too, so be sure to check out the about section to learn more about the data available, read the user guide, and find FAQs.

Making a difference starts with the right information

Whether you’re conducting research for a new proposal or looking for data that can help you better direct your own community efforts, using the right tools to find the best information is always a good first step. And, Understanding Houston is a great place to start. Featuring over 200 indicators on key quality of life issues, Understanding Houston aggregates and analyzes county-level data over time with state and national comparisons. 

We also share new research and analysis that is important to Greater Houston now. From the ongoing effects of COVID-19 to disparities in life expectancies throughout Greater Houston, we’re measuring the things that matter to help Houstonians do what matters. Join us and stay in the conversation by getting involved, following us on social media or signing up for our newsletter. 

COVID-19’s potential impact in Greater Houston, by the numbers

COVID-19 has upended lives around the globe, and Houston is no exception. We continue to hear the worst is yet to come, but it’s difficult to fully comprehend what that means or take proper action without context. To mitigate the effects of this global public health crisis in our region, we must understand the scope of vulnerability in the Greater Houston area.

While we can’t predict the future of COVID-19, we can use local data to better understand what may be in store for our region so we can take collective action to reduce the risk to the most vulnerable communities.

Want to give back and get involved? Visit to learn more about the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund, and how your support can help our neighbors who need it the most. 

The “current” state of affairs

It’s challenging to stay fully informed of the crisis as the number of cases, deaths and recoveries varies depending on when and where you look. Officially, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports more than 304,800 cases in the nation, while the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports 339,000. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services is tracking more than 7,200 cases in the state as does the Houston Chronicle. What we do know is that the virus has been quietly spreading across the country for several weeks, and these figures are just the beginning.

Following the number of cases and fatalities is a good place to start in understanding the magnitude of the crisis, but it fails to account for the deeper ramifications COVID-19 may have for different people in our region. As with other disasters, the most vulnerable populations will be disproportionately affected. In this brief, we aim to identify and quantify vulnerable groups in our region that COVID-19 will impact in a variety of ways. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, we hope it informs our collective response in assisting those who need it most.

COVID-19 and health risks in the Houston area

At publication time, more than 72,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19 — nearly 15% of whom were Americans. While hospitalization figures are inconsistent among states, the COVID Tracking Project reports more than 41,500 cumulative hospitalizations across the nation. Of course, the novel coronavirus poses significant public health risks, but for some, the risks are much higher.

Older adults

CDC researchers found that COVID-19 fatality rates increase with age, particularly for those over the age of 65. Death rates for Americans 85 years and older range from 10% to 27%, followed by 3% to 11% among persons aged 65–84 years, 1% to 3% among persons aged 55–64 years, and less than 1% among persons younger than 20. These findings are consistent with data from the first two months of 2020 in China.1

More than 660,000 adults over the age of 65 live in Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery counties. Worse, more than 134,000 (about one in five) live alone, with particularly high concentrations in Fort Bend County. Given their heightened vulnerability to the effects of COVID-19, older residents who live alone may face additional challenges safely obtaining the supplies and resources they need in order to practice social distancing. We also know that 134,000 seniors live below 150% of the poverty level, further hindering their ability to weather this crisis.

People with chronic health conditions

People with chronic health conditions like diabetes, compromised immune systems, heart disease, and asthma are also at higher risk of contracting and succumbing to COVID-19. The Institute for Health Policy at UT Health Science Center of Houston conducted an analysis of Census data in Harris County to map individuals with the highest risk for hospitalization and critical care needs. UTHealth researchers found that areas with the largest proportions of residents at high risk of critical illness from COVID-19 include Deer Park-Channel View, East Little York-Settegast, and Humble-Atascocita. 

The areas of Harris County where residents are mostly likely to need critical care for COVID-19 are shown in orange. (Photo by Heath of Houston/UTHealth)

Take a deeper look: Explore this interactive map to see how these and other risk factors correspond to confirmed COVID-19 cases in Harris County.


No one wants to get sick, but for those without health insurance, the stakes are even higher. The Houston Metropolitan Area is home to the largest number of uninsured in Texas, which has the largest number and rate of uninsured in the country. Workers without health insurance are most likely to be part-time, gig economy, or low-wage employees, which means they likely do not have paid sick leave, compounding risks.2

President Trump signed the “Phase 2 Stimulus Package” (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act) on March 18 which provides free testing, but individuals will still be responsible for paying their treatment costs. This could affect some of the more than 1.1 million people, including 184,300 children, in the three-county region who are uninsured. 

Mental Health

Harris County issued the first stay-home order effective March 17, but many of us are into our third or fourth week of staying home. The mental and emotional toll of COVID-19, for even the least vulnerable among us, will only continue as the pandemic wears on. Anxiety about the health of loved ones and ourselves, isolation, loneliness, and joblessness can all wear down our sense of well-being as the outbreak’s severity increases.

Coronavirus-related stress likely exacerbates pre-existing mental health conditions and mental health care access challenges in our region. As of 2018, the percentage of adults experiencing frequent mental distress (14 or more days of poor mental health within a month) in Houston’s three largest counties ranged from 9% in Fort Bend County to 12% in Harris County, where more than half of confirmed Houston-area cases of COVID-19 have been reported. 

While those who have access to mental health care may be able to continue treatment through remote appointments, many in the Greater Houston region lack access to care altogether. As of 2018, Houston’s three largest counties average one mental health care provider for every 988 residents, lower than the state average and less than half the national average. 

Economic risks of COVID-19 in the Houston area

Layoffs due to COVID-19 have begun throughout the Houston area, adding to challenges in healthcare access, mental health and more. Nearly 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment for the first time in the past two weeks, more than 431,000 of whom are from Texas. For the first time, the CARES Act expanded unemployment benefits and loans to these workers, but the process to connect people to these resources in a timely manner will be challenging.

As the graph below shows, these figures are unprecedented. Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership estimates mid-March job losses are nearly 38,000 in Metro Houston, though those figures can’t be confirmed until jobs data come out in early May. 

High-risk industries

The majority of unemployment claims are from workers in the service industry — hotels, bars, restaurants, entertainment, leisure — as well as retail and travel. One out of every five workers in the three-county region is employed in a sector at high-risk for job loss, totaling about half a million people. Houstonians in these high-risk industries earned nearly $4 billion in wages in the second quarter of 2019. 

While these industries are at immediate risk from the economic effects of COVID-19, the steep decline in oil prices will have longer-lasting and wide-ranging implications for businesses and workers in the oil and gas industry. Houston, as the energy capital of the world, will certainly be disproportionately affected.

Low-wage workers

Not all occupations in the aforementioned industries are at risk for layoffs. National data show that low-wage, part-time, and hourly workers in specific sectors have been hit the hardest with job and wage losses. The graph below shows the number of jobs and median annual salaries for workers grouped by job function. Occupations that are most at risk (in red) have the lowest salaries. Traditionally, that also suggests workers are paid hourly, don’t have health insurance, and don’t receive paid sick leave. Many groups will be eligible for paid sick leave and unemployment benefits offered by the federal government’s response to COVID-19, but not all, and workers will still have to make the difficult choice between protecting their health or earning an income. The stakes are high as 40% of Houstonians don’t have $400 in savings to deal with an unexpected emergency.

To view an interactive version of this graph, click here.

Small businesses

Small businesses in particular are struggling as everyone is told to stay home, and revenue has plummeted as a result. Nearly 127,000 small businesses employ fewer than 500 people in our region and comprise half of Houston-area businesses—most of these (89,500) employ fewer than 10, according to U.S. Census Bureau County Business Patterns. About 38 percent of small businesses in our region are minority-owned, putting livelihoods at risk and compounding challenges minorities have historically faced. 

A survey by the Greater Houston Partnership shows that 91% of its small business members (defined as 500 or fewer employees) have lost revenue, about half are not able to pay staff during the shut-down, and more than one-third have laid off workers. There is hope that recent federal legislation will slow some of the job losses as small businesses take advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which requires companies to use the majority of funds to continue to pay staff.

Vulnerable populations in the Houston area

In addition to the groups identified above, immigrants, those who experience homelessness, and school-aged children are especially vulnerable to the hardships caused by COVID-19. In general, residents who were struggling prior to the pandemic will face compounded economic hardship during the crisis. This includes individuals and families living in poverty and low-income working households, also called Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, and Employed (ALICE). Again, what follows is not a complete list, but we hope to call out examples of people in our community who will need the most help.


Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are particularly vulnerable to crises like disasters and pandemics. Immigrants tend to have less access to information and services since they may not be as familiar with credible sources, or with knowing how to navigate the system, and are more likely to encounter language barriers.

More than 1.5 million Houstonians were born outside the U.S. but call the three-county region home—that’s one out of every four people. The Migration Population Institute estimates 473,000 undocumented immigrants live in Greater Houston. According to the Census Bureau, more than half of immigrants in the region speak English less than “very well.” A recent report from ProPublica highlights the obstacles limited English proficient speakers encounter trying to advocate for their medical care. Given there are more than 145 languages spoken in the region, the need for interpreters and translators right now is critical. To view a map of where immigrants live in Houston, click here.

Immigrants also tend to have less access to forms of federal and state assistance (even though most pay taxes) because they are typically excluded from government programs and they are less likely to take advantage of aid for which they are eligible. Compounding their vulnerability, immigrants are more likely to be uninsured and work low-paying jobs. They are also over-represented in sectors immediately affected by layoffs. Ironically, an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found that six million immigrant workers are at the front lines of keeping Americans healthy and fed during the pandemic by working in hospitals, as care-givers, or on farms. 

Immigrants without legal status will have an even harder time weathering this pandemic as they are not eligible to benefit from the trillions of dollars in aid the federal government is releasing. In fact, the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package signed by President Trump on March 27, explicitly excludes them. Even mixed-status tax-paying households where American-born children have at least one parent without legal status will be ineligible for benefits.

Those who are homeless

People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable during this pandemic. Homeless individuals tend to be older, and are more likely to suffer from mental illness and chronic conditions, making them more susceptible to the virus. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to follow CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, staying home, and regular hand hygiene without a permanent residence. 

A marginalized population in the best of times, the unique needs of these individuals are often deprioritized in times of crisis. According to 2019 data from the Coalition for the Homeless, nearly 4,000 sheltered and unsheltered people live in Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery counties. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on April 1 that the city will rent hotel rooms to shelter Houston’s homeless individuals, but this population will require much more support as this crisis continues.

School-aged children

While school districts in Texas are officially closed through May 4, many parents are preparing for schools to remain shuttered for the remainder of the academic year. Several organizations, districts, teachers, and parents have stepped up to ensure that children continue to learn, but with parents working from home and the general chaos COVID-19 has created, maintaining a high-quality education at home is challenging, particularly for low-income working parents and those without internet access or computers. For example, recent data from Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD), the second-largest school district in the country, show that about 15,000 high school students are absent online and have failed to do any schoolwork, and more than 40,000 (about one-third of all high schoolers) have not been in daily contact with their teachers since mid-March, suggesting that distance-learning is not reaching everyone.

Moreover, when students spend time away from school during the summer, they sometimes lose what they learned over the academic year, a concept known as “summer slide.” One study found that students lost between 25% and 30% of what they learned during the school year, with lower income students at a greater disadvantage than their wealthier peers. About 691,500 public school students (62% of students enrolled) in the three-county region are identified as economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For many children, these free or reduced-price school meals are their primary source of daily nutrition. And, for the 98,000 students with disabilities and special needs in our region, the consequences of being out of school for a prolonged amount of time could be even more serious.

Understanding challenges to help Houston move forward

COVID-19 may be the first pandemic any of us have lived through, but this is far from the first time Houstonians have dealt with adversity. We’ve seen how this community comes together — neighbor helping neighbor, stranger helping stranger. For the good of this region that we all call home, please stay home if you are able. The more we reduce our physical contact with each other, the more neighbors we can save. That, if anything, is clear. 

There are still plenty of ways to help from home. The United Way of Greater Houston and the Greater Houston Community Foundation have established the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund, endorsed by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, to support local nonprofits that help those we identified here and more. Visit today to see how you can get involved.

Additional Resources:

End Notes:

1 The same CDC study found that while fatality rates might be very low for young people, they are not entirely immune to the effects of COVID-19 — nearly 40% of those hospitalized for coronavirus from mid-February to mid-March were between the age of 20 and 54.
2 Recent federal legislation allows for paid sick leave.

Making Houston History Today: 6 Black Changemakers you Should Know

From political leaders and activists to landscape-shifting scientists, musicians and astronauts, the contributions of Black changemakers are embedded in Houston’s identity. And looking forward, there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. 

More Houstonians have access to health care, more is being done to protect our air quality, and more of our most vulnerable children are being reached thanks to the remarkable efforts of Black-led organizations in the Houston area. 

We’re proud to spotlight just some of the many exceptional Black leaders who help make Houston a better place to live, work and play — both now and in the future.

An important note: We recognize that this list is far from exhaustive. We have plans to cover many more community leaders in the coming months. If you know of a leader or organization that we should cover, please let us know

Kathy Flanagan Payton

Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation

Kathy Flanagan Payton, President and CEO of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation

A stronger Houston region is one where all communities can provide their residents with safe, opportunity-rich places to live. That includes neighborhoods like Houston’s Fifth Ward. And as President and CEO of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation (Fifth Ward CRC), Kathy Flanagan Payton is dedicated to making the Fifth Ward a community of choice for those who call it home. 

“We catalyze resources to build and preserve an inclusive Fifth Ward by developing places and creating opportunities for people to live, work and play,” Flanagan Payton says of her work with Fifth Ward CRC. “My vision for a better Houston includes opportunities for all people to excel and neighborhoods to present themselves as a community of choice — a place where people want to be and not a place where they’ve been left behind.”

Kathy and her team at the Fifth Ward CRC recognize the importance of resident pride and visual appeal when it comes to building a more opportunity-rich community. That’s why they’re spearheading The Lyons Avenue Renaissance, a multi-million dollar revitalization initiative designed to refresh and redesign the Lyons Avenue corridor in a way that honors the community’s history and positions it for a brighter future. 

Kathy’s work is inspired not only by the future of the Fifth Ward, but also by the remarkable people who’ve called it home both now and in the past. “As a native of Fifth Ward, the native sons and daughters of this community like the late Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland have both been great inspirations. And while not famous, my grandmother instilled in me a desire to help people. Her motto was, ‘If I can help somebody, as I pass this way, then my living shall not be in vain.’ From each of them, my desire to make a difference has been further encouraged.”

Looking forward, Kathy and the Fifth Ward CRC hope to build on the momentum of The Lyons Avenue Renaissance, extending their work into a new paradigm that focuses “less on poverty and more on opportunity” in this ever-changing environment.

Dr. Charlene Flash

Avenue 360 Health and Wellness

Dr. Charlene Flash, M.D., M.P.H., President and CEO of Avenue 360 Health and Wellness

Despite our reputation as a global leader in health care, Houston-area residents lack health insurance at significantly higher rates than the national average. In fact, the uninsured rate among non-elderly residents grew by 1.3 percentage points from 2016 to 2017 — the first uptick since the Affordable Care Act went into effect. This lack of coverage contributes to an increasing burden from several chronic health conditions, including HIV/AIDS.

“At a time when our HIV testing platforms can provide test results in minutes, we still have nearly 1 in 4 people not being diagnosed until they have progressed to an AIDS diagnosis,” says Dr. Charlene Flash, President and CEO of Avenue 360 Health and Wellness

Fortunately, Dr. Flash and the team at Avenue 360 are continuing their 30-year legacy of providing quality mental, physical and oral health care services to many different communities in the Houston-area including those living with HIV/AIDS, equipping them with the knowledge and resources they need to lead full, healthy lives.

The name Avenue 360 refers both to the unique paths individuals take through life and the whole care options they can receive at the clinic. “We strive to meet patients at their time and location of greatest need… helping them access housing, mental health services and physical health care,” says Flash.

Looking forward, Dr. Flash hopes to strengthen Avenue 360’s holistic approach to community health and extend equitable health care into spaces that promote physical, social and mental well-being beyond pure treatment.

Terence Narcisse

East Harris County Empowerment Council

Terence Narcisse, Executive Director of the East Harris County Empowerment Council

While the Houston region’s massive size creates a variety of opportunities for residents, it can also make some communities — like the unincorporated communities of East Harris County — feel forgotten. But together with his team at the East Harris County Empowerment Council (EHCEC), Terence Narcisse is working to fix that.

Through a variety of community partnerships, education programs and outreach initiatives, Terence and EHCEC work collaboratively to improve quality of life, create new opportunities and form new connections for residents in low-opportunity communities like Channelview, Crosby, Galena Park, North Shore and Sheldon. 

“My vision is that opportunity reaches every zip code in the Greater Houston/Harris County area, and that every person has access to opportunity in their community and zip codes where they live, work and play,” says Terence of his vision for East Harris County. And with the help of his fellow Houstonians, Terence has faith that he can see that vision through.

Dr. Bakeyah Nelson

Air Alliance Houston

Dr. Bakeyah Nelson, Ph.D., Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston

Declining air quality is one of the most pressing threats facing the Greater Houston region today. Issues affecting air quality undermine public health, especially in urban areas.   

And while Dr. Bakeyah Nelson sees Houston taking steps toward improvement, to her and Air Alliance Houston, they aren’t nearly enough.

“It is not enough to parade Houston’s diversity without taking direct steps to address inequities,” says Dr. Nelson. “My vision for Houston is one that holds on to the pieces of our past that make this city great, such as our willingness to do things differently. However, we also need to work collectively to let go of the decision-making that has destroyed the health and well-being of so many communities, particularly communities of color”. 

As Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston, Dr. Nelson directs equity-centered community-based research projects, educates the public about environmental inequities, and engages in collaborative advocacy with multiple organizations toward improving air quality and advancing environmental justice in Houston-area communities. Recently, she and her organization helped win two hard-fought battles against planned concrete batch plants in two predominately lower-income neighborhoods. “That was very exciting for us and a relief for the residents whose health and safety were being threatened by facilities potentially being imposed on them.” Dr. Nelson said of the grassroots efforts, adding that “sometimes we win and sometimes we lose but we keep a laser-focus on our mission and we keep on going.”

But no matter how hard the battles may get, Dr. Nelson and Air Alliance Houston remain inspired by the determined community leaders who help them keep their mission alive. “While I find it shameful that we have to fight so hard for basic human rights, I find it inspiring to work with many great local leaders who have a similar vision for Houston, one that is more equitable and just.”

Marvin Pierre

8 Million Stories

Marvin Pierre, Co-founder and Executive Director of 8 Million Stories

It’s estimated that  65% of all American jobs require education past high school. But for the 110,000 disengaged youth throughout the Houston area who are not enrolled in school and are not participating in the labor force, the barriers created by poverty can potentially put these and other employment opportunities out of reach. Marvin Pierre wants to change that. 

With his organization 8 Million Stories, Marvin Pierre is working to redirect Houston’s disengaged and at-risk youth through education, skills training and authentic relationships with their communities. 

“My vision is to really work to create more equitable opportunities for our youth, to break cycles of poverty,” says Pierre of his work with 8 Million Stories. 

Across all three counties, Black youth are referred to the juvenile justice system at more than two-to-three times the rate of White youth. Working directly with youth who have found themselves involved in the criminal justice system, removed from school or otherwise disadvantaged, Marvin and his team provide a variety of programs designed to help these young people reach self-sufficiency including career training, education credits and mental health support. 

“I’m inspired by the level of resilience that Houstonians have. In my experience with young people and working with Houstonians and learning about their stories and what made them successful, I’m inspired by how they’ve overcome challenges,” says Pierre. “Houston is a great city to do this work. We welcome organizations that seek to learn more and how they can be engaged.”

Judson Robinson

Houston Area Urban League 

Judson Robinson III, President and CEO of the Houston Area Urban League

Despite Houston’s reputation as a highly diverse, economically empowered region, striking disparities in income, education, housing and health still disproportionately affect Black residents. Judson Robinson III and his team at the Houston Area Urban League are working to reverse these trends and empower disadvantaged Houston-area residents and their communities.

Affiliated with the United Way and National Urban League, the Houston Area Urban League (HAUL) provides social services and programs to more than 10,000 economically disadvantaged residents including housing, workforce training, youth development, health and wellness initiatives and their entrepreneurship center.  

In providing these services to those who need them most, Robinson hopes to inspire more inclusion and greater unity in the Houston area. “One of the things we’ve worked on is closing the equality gap… Certain communities, certain individuals and organizations, need more support than others to be on par,” says Robinson of his work with HAUL. “If we can start to look at the greater good and being more inclusive and helpful to others, it would be good for all of us in the long run.”

Moving forward, Robinson hopes to spread awareness and connect more residents with vital services and programs including housing assistance, job placement, foreclosure avoidance, tax filing and even civic engagement. “We hope to serve 12,000 clients, because it’s important to the people, it gives them a chance to get back on track or to keep from heading down the wrong path.” 

Underscoring HAUL’s work is the incredible inspiration provided by Houston-area residents. “They will help,” says Robinson of his fellow Houstonians. “We’ve seen that when we’ve faced emergencies in the city, and we take a lot of pride in being Houstonians. There’s something about that.  In closing, we hope to meet those interested in our work at the upcoming National Urban League Conference this coming August in Houston.”

Understanding Houston’s launch event a success

Together, we’re measuring what matters to do what matters.

The Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF) launched Understanding Houston on November 21, 2019 with a luncheon at the Briar Club.

The Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF) launched Understanding Houston on November 21, 2019 with a luncheon at the Briar Club.

Understanding Houston, GHCF’s new regional community indicators initiative, is designed to promote informed, collaborative action for our community.

Understanding Houston provides an open, easily-accessible website that aggregates independent data from 70 data sources on quality-of-life issues across the Houston region’s three most populous counties—Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery. It aims to equip community members with the knowledge they need to make informed giving decisions to help create a more vibrant Houston with opportunity for all.

This ongoing initiative, with Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research (Kinder Institute) as a strategic research partner, will evolve to match the needs of the community and respond to feedback.

Understanding Houston covers eight main topics: arts & culture, civic engagement, community context, education, economic opportunity, environment, health, and housing. The topics encompass more than 200 community indicators that provide factual insight into our community’s strengths and challenges across the three counties.

“At the end of the day, this initiative is about connecting people and inspiring them to take action. As the Foundation continues to grow with and for our community, Understanding Houston will be a vital resource for our donors, allowing them to work even closer together and with others to create  positive change.”

– Stephen Maislin, President & CEO of the Greater Houston Community Foundation

On November 21, more than 370 leaders from the philanthropic, business, and nonprofit sectors gathered at the Briar Club for the sold out launch event. Click here to view event photos.

Committee Chairs Sheila and Ron Hulme, Laura Jaramillo, and Randa and K. C. Weiner

The Greater Houston Community Foundation is grateful to Host Committee Chairs Sheila and Ron Hulme, Laura Jaramillo, and Randa and K. C. Weiner, as well as the entire Host Committee, Indicator Advisory Committee, and the GHCF Governing Board for their support in planning a successful launch.

Before the event, guests were asked to participate by voting on “What Matters to You.” Everyone had an opportunity to cast their vote and become a part of this revolving installation. The commonalities in passions sparked lively conversations about quality of life in Houston.

During the luncheon, emceed by Domnique Sachse, KPRC Channel 2 News Anchor, guests heard from passionate leaders about the topics that mattered most to them. Winell Herron, Group Vice President of Public Affairs, Diversity and Environmental Affairs for H-E-B,  shared H-E-B’s focused efforts in improving access to quality education, particularly supporting successful teachers who make a difference in the classroom. Julie Martineau, Executive Director for the Montgomery County Community Foundation, spoke about housing affordability in Montgomery County and the importance of living where you work, play, and pray. Quynh-Anh McMahan, Senior Program Officer for The George Foundation, spoke about her deep personal connection to Fort Bend County, mental health, and previewed The George Foundation’s exciting new plans. Finally, Frost Murphy, GHCF Governing Board Member and entrepreneur, shared his journey spearheading new efforts at HeartGift to help more children across the world, his new work with others to address child poverty, and the support Community Foundation provided him on his philanthropic journey. Together, speakers informed how impactful data can be in making significant change, how these specific topics genuinely affect them on a personal level, and about the commitment to be a part of that change. 

“So…whether your passion is reducing childhood poverty,
training heart surgeons around the world,
or whatever is important to you –
Greater Houston Community Foundation can help get you
the data you need to make a bigger difference.”

– Frost Murphy

Thank you to the many individuals, community-based organizations, philanthropic funders, data partners, and civic and corporate leaders who have supported this effort.


Using science and evidence to drive investments in early childhood

How research reinforces the importance of high-quality early childhood education.

The vitality of Houston depends, in part, on the aptitude of the next generation to achieve success.  Houston needs a capable workforce that can handle the challenges of an ever-changing global economy, and the factors that shape the capacity of our future workforce depend on the decisions we make now as a region.

Decades of science demonstrate that the ability of an individual to achieve success is strongly influenced by how the brain develops during the first few years of life. From birth to age three, the brain makes over one million neuronal connections per second. These neuronal connections are vital to building a strong, healthy brain structure. The brain is responsible for every human function, from breathing to executive function, and how the brain develops during the first few years of life influences a person’s potential for learning, problem-solving, motor skills, emotional and behavioral function, and essentially every other aspect of human life. Yet, not all children have the same opportunities for the experiences and interactions necessary for healthy brain development.

An inequitable start for too many children

While the biological process of one neuron connecting to another is driven partly by genetics, environmental factors play a significant role in the quantity and quality of those connections. Whether connections are maintained, wither, or die depends on the input a child’s brain receives from his or her environment and relationships with caregivers. “Serve and return” is a phrase coined by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University that describes the types of interactions necessary for optimal brain development. 

Serve and return interactions are those that occur between caretaker and child and involve responding to a child’s non-verbal and verbal cues with kindness, affection, physical touch, language and other forms of communication.  While this seems fairly simple, the brain requires consistent, frequent serve and return interactions, which can be difficult for many working families, especially the working poor who often have multiple jobs. Moreover, many children spend the majority of their time in childcare centers where engagement with young children is limited to diaper changes and feeding. 

Most caregivers want to give their children as many opportunities as possible, yet there are many social, economic, political and environmental factors that create barriers to caregivers’ ability to optimize brain development. For example, poverty, food insecurity, and neighborhood violence significantly increases the risk of parental stress and depression, which impedes caregiver-child interactions. Poor housing conditions, such as the presence of lead paint, can directly impact the brain development of a child, as lead deposits can cause neuronal cell death in the brain. Lastly, adverse childhood experiences and unrelenting, sustained stress have substantial and lasting impacts on both caregiver and child.

Click here to explore funding recommendations that maximize impact.

An investment gap that must be filled

The complex and large-scale nature of all the factors that can influence brain development during childhood has led to a gap in investment from birth to age three because the task can seem insurmountable. Also, access to families with children age three and younger can be difficult if they are not in a childcare system. Thus, philanthropy and advocacy organizations often steer their efforts to a more manageable goal of increasing access to pre-kindergarten.  Increasing opportunities for early learning is very important and research has shown improved academic and economic gains from pre-K, especially for children from low-income families. However, these outcomes depend on how aligned the pre-K program is with developmental science. 

The part of the brain primarily responsible for learning and memory is called the hippocampus, which unlike most of the other parts of the brain, continuously forms new neuronal connections throughout a lifetime. That is why adults can be life-long learners. However, the critical window of brain development during the first three years of life occurs in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for intelligence, personality, “soft skills,” and many other vital human functions. Optimal cerebral function is required for individuals to be successful in the workplace and have healthy relationships. Yet, the cerebral cortex is not adequately stimulated by all pre-K programs. Moreover, most pre-K programs begin at age four, which is after the majority of brain architecture has already been developed.

Two-generational, whole family approaches hold tremendous promise 

Early Head Start (EHS) is an excellent example of how policymakers developed a two-generation intervention based on science. EHS provides parental support to improve caregiver brain-building skills, and services start during pregnancy and continue through age three. EHS intentionally goes beyond a traditional “educational” framework to include components that stimulate the intellectual, social, and emotional aspects of a child’s development. This creates neuronal connections in other parts of a child’s brain, not just the hippocampus. EHS also addresses the social and economic needs of the parents, which, as described above, can be barriers to optimal caregiver-child interactions. This “two-generation” approach is an important aspect of the EHS program and is worthy of emulation.

National efforts are well underway to catalyze a resurgence of this approach. Simply put, two-generational approaches acknowledge an obvious truth: different children’s outcomes are largely dependent on the vitality of the families and neighborhoods in which they live. Hence, two-generation approaches intentionally focus on addressing the needs of the whole family and the factors that keep them from prospering, with the goal of optimizing conditions for both parents and their children.  

In Houston, we have several opportunities to support or create holistic, two-generation interventions that facilitate early childhood development. The Mayor’s Complete Communities initiative provides an opportunity to leverage current neighborhood investments to reduce many adverse factors that affect families and create a caregiver educational program that increases caregiver brain-building skills. In partnership with the Children’s Museum of Houston, the City of Houston Health Department has launched Houston Basics, which is a public health campaign designed to increase caregiver serve and return with young children. Houston Basics can be leveraged to launch more intensive brain-building training for caregivers, as well as connect families to social support resources. Other cities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, have increased the brain-building skills of childcare workers, and have standardized and improved childcare centers while also providing education and job training to help parents move out of poverty.

The opportunity for a focused, data-driven investment strategy

If we want improved outcomes for Houston’s children, we have to align our priorities, policies, and investments with science. Rather than divide our funding priorities and advocacy efforts in early childhood into education, childcare, and parenting program silos, we need to have a comprehensive and integrated approach that provides support for children and their families from pregnancy through Kindergarten. We should follow the child, rather than the sector. We also need to develop multi-sector interventions that can address some of the economic and social challenges many families experience, while also building their capacity to be brain builders despite these challenges.  Lastly, we need to understand there are significant opportunity costs when we do not prioritize solutions that focus on the first few years of life. As we wait longer to intervene, the cost of intervention increases and the return on investment decreases. 

Understanding Houston is a great step towards using data and science to inform decision-making. It also provides a platform for a variety of stakeholders to receive information, which hopefully will spur dialogue and challenge beliefs amongst a variety of interested parties. Houston is a strong, resilient region. The task of ensuring every child has the same opportunity for optimal brain development is large, but if we allow developmental science to shape our policies, practices and investments, we can ensure a bright, prosperous future for Houston’s children and prospective workforce.

Quianta Moore, M.D., J.D., is the Fellow in Child Health Policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Her research focuses on developing empirically informed policies to advance the health and equitable future of children and their communities. Read more.