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CHAPTER 3 - Issues and Opportunities

Participants emphasized that recovery from the hurricane and its aftermath would be a long-term process, on the order of three to five years. They saw many opportunities to structure a recovery and rebuilding process that would address chronic challenges and previously identified goals for the city. In exploring the building blocks of a healthy recovery, participants focused on solutions for overcoming barriers that impede progress toward greater resiliency. They identified the roles that the Houston Public Library can play in fostering and ensuring access to these building blocks in three broad areas: youth and families, workforce development, and civic engagement and design. The following section highlights key issues and opportunities for increasing equity and beneficial outcomes in the rebuilding process and beyond.

Addressing Information and Communication Gaps

City and state leaders were already entrenched in leading recovery efforts to address immediate priorities for the recovery defined as the zero-to-six-month time frame. Chief among these priorities were information and data gathering, funding, and closing troublesome communication gaps.

The Kinder Institute at Rice University led a city-wide needs assessment and an assessment of philanthropic funds to identify needs for rebuilding and recovery as the Dialogue met. Participants noted opportunities to leverage this study for making strategic spending decisions going forward. Good data is imperative to success in raising revenue, securing recovery funds, and making wise spending decisions. Participants cited the example of understanding the housing stock and housing data for current populations, which would be integral to recovery as well as preparing for future populations in the city.

While significant funding would come from Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and other federal funding sought by city and state leaders, participants identified another set of funding needs. Individuals, small businesses, and community-based organizations needed access to capital and knowledge of how to pursue this funding. This funding also would rely on good data collection, good information, and good channels for communication.

The persistence of communication gaps well into the recovery period concerned participants. Many Houston residents were going without needed resources because they lacked access to information on how to obtain them. Communication, like funding, is closely connected to data and information gathering. Someone has to do the research on where the city’s allocations have gone, create banks of information, and provide referrals to the right agencies for assistance. Participants noted that the United Way and its 211 information service were among the most valuable of information resources addressing these needs. They also saw an important role for the public library as a highly trusted source with expertise in handling information and helping people find the right information to meet their needs.

Social media are helpful for information sharing, but they can also be a vector for sharing misinformation as happened too often in the aftermath of the storm. Technologies and the physical infrastructure that support social media can break down. Participants identified the need for stronger systems and structures in the digital media environment to withstand stresses and demands before, during and after a disaster. (Specific aspects of the communication gaps experienced with Hurricane Harvey are covered in the summary of the September 14 meeting in the Appendix.)

Prioritizing the Needs of Vulnerable Populations

Dialogue participants emphasized a set of priorities that included special attention to the needs of Houston’s vulnerable populations, including children and families living on the economic and social margins of society, people experiencing homelessness, adults with chronic health conditions, senior citizens, immigrant and non-English speaking populations, and people with low basic literacy. Highlighting that these needs are often quite complex, participants identified several essential elements for successfully moving forward:

  • the need for advanced planning,
  • greater flexibility and adaptability in working with these populations, and
  • the development of partnerships that leverage complementary strengths of each partner.

Insights from the experience of Hurricane Harvey included the challenge of connecting people with one another and with trusted, credible information when they needed it. Fortunately, connecting people to one another and to trusted information is one of the core strengths of public libraries.

Meeting the Needs of Latino and Immigrant Communities

Participants underscored the need to address barriers faced by Latino residents and immigrants who too often live and work at the economic, educational, political, and social margins of the city. One participant referenced this population as “The Other Houston,” describing a reality in which these communities are not integrated into the full life of the city. These communities were particularly vulnerable to the hurricane’s consequences, with many residents losing access to housing, jobs, childcare, food, and other critical resources. Navigating the recovery process has been particularly fraught for communities where low literacy levels, limited English language proficiency, cultural differences, and political and legal climates make many individuals hesitant to engage with institutional and government entities including public libraries in some instances. Participants offered four precepts as a guide to successfully engaging with Latino and immigrant communities and addressing the barriers that impede the creation of One Houston.

NUMBER 1: SEEK TRUSTED PARTNERS FOR ENGAGING IMMIGRANT AND ETHNIC COMMUNITIES, REMEMBERING THAT TRUSTED PARTNERS CAN INCLUDE FAITH COMMUNITIES. Individuals and their families often have multiple challenges that require collaborative efforts to solve. Trusted partners can help to represent an organization’s message and how the organization is there to help. Avenue CDC is one of these trusted community partners. Another example is the Complete Communities network that has grown out of the Mayor’s Complete Communities Initiative public meetings. The meeting held in the East End neighborhoods, for example, was noted for its significant mobilization of community partners and impact. The Houston Public Library refers to these trusted partners in the community as community gatekeepers and seeks to increase involvement with them.

NUMBER 2: OWN THE FACT THAT THERE ARE CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN THE COMMUNITY AND THAT STAKEHOLDERS HAVE TO BE CONFIDENT AND FLUENT IN THE WAYS THEY COMMUNICATE WITH DIVERSE POPULATIONS. Owning this set of facts means communicating in other languages and acknowledging the different literacy levels that exist in the community. It also means adapting resources, materials, communications, and service provision in ways that meet people where they are, given these differences. Translating information materials into Spanish often is not enough.

Participants cited the excellent work done by the Chinese Community Center and its network of volunteers who translate information into Chinese and provide additional services. The Vietnamese and Korean community centers provide the same service for their constituencies. These groups also do work to help people with low literacy levels. Ownership of cultural differences involves exploring alternative engagement and participatory methods that align better with cultural and literacy differences, perhaps by partnering with organizations that specialize in multiple methods of convening and facilitating engagement.

The City of Houston has demonstrated leadership in this area through the implementation of the iSpeak program designed to prepare employees to assist non-English speakers with accessing city services and resources through libraries and other public-facing departments in real time. In addition to English and Spanish, other in-demand languages identified include Arabic, Chinese, French, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

NUMBER 3: ENSURE DIGNITY. Service providers of all types need to make sure that ethnic and immigrant populations feel welcome and that residents understand that resources available are available for all regardless of where they come from. Furthermore, supporting diversity and inclusion has to be about more than general statements of support; stakeholders need to include intentional, explicit actions that communicate and create a welcoming and inclusive community.

NUMBER 4: DEVELOP NEW PATHWAYS AND PARTNERSHIPS TO EXPAND ACCESS. Laura Murillo, President of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and others emphasized the need to think about the different communication needs of immigrant communities and called for a deeper exploration of how to construct a better infrastructure for engaging immigrant and language communities. She suggested that the Hispanic Chamber can help other community-based organizations and the public library reach Latino and Spanish-speaking immigrant populations though the chamber’s platforms, including its media platform on CBS and Univision with a reach of over 3.3 million Spanish-speaking adults.

Addressing Barriers to Access and Engagement

Dialogue participants called for greater democratization of access to information and resources. Recognizing and removing barriers that prevent people from accessing information, resources, and opportunities has to become a priority. This includes access to information that would help people to prepare before a crisis strikes. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, many residents did not know they lived in a floodway or a flood plain. There were fragile people on oxygen or in wheelchairs who should have been evacuated from their homes prior to the storm. The state maintains a database of this information, but it does not appear that city stakeholders used it effectively to prepare people for the storm. Participants highlighted the need for stakeholders to do a better job of being transparent about the realities of situations that exist in the city and then doing a better job of coordinating that information for better planning. They also pointed out the importance of multiple kinds of service points to address complex community needs.

Crowdsourcing is one way to democratize information because this method allows more people to participate in the creation and sharing of information. In pursuing crowdsourced approaches, participants cautioned that crowdsourcing is sometimes done out of desperation for any information during a crisis and it does not always deliver accurate information. The library can be a critical resource and partner in the process of democratizing information access via effective crowdsourcing and information vetting. To do so, the library can develop greater proficiency with actively engaging in the social media platforms where such information access and exchange takes place. Participants recommended that the library experiment with joining more groups on these platforms where library staff can point to sources of objective information that residents might be seeking.

Access alone is insufficient without a simultaneous emphasis on engagement. Access too often means a “come to me” approach that presumes individuals understand their needs and have the capability to get to highly centralized public access points. The late Patrick Walsh, immediate past Director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, commented: “We’re finding that our neighborhoods don’t necessarily know how to leverage the resources that are out there and available either within the city or within a variety of other community organizations.” He noted that during the floods, libraries were an integral part of the lily pad structures for residents in need.

By viewing problem-solving activity through the lens of engagement, stakeholders can begin to build connections to the community and particular populations in ways that make barriers more visible and create opportunities for sustained problem solving when and where it is needed. As one example, participants noted that many senior residents of Houston will not reach out to agencies for assistance and may not even know that they need assistance with activities like mold abatement and home repairs following floods. These people need help with paperwork, bureaucratic red tape, physical labor, and the know-how to do the work. Without a strategy for engaging senior citizens out in the community where they live, these residents are less likely to get the help they need.

Amanda Timm, Executive Director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in Houston, summarized the connection between access, engagement, and the democratization of information, on the one hand, and greater equity and opportunity in the city, on the other. “I think libraries can play a significant role in providing the information for community awareness and should consider a role in the community engagement piece as well. Engagement is key to activating the information and increasing the community’s understanding of what is happening and participation in decisions. For instance, our region is about to invest billions of dollars of infrastructure improvements—flood mitigation, transportation, housing—that will affect growth and development for the next 20 years and beyond. The democratization of information about those resources and related engagement is critical so that all of our region’s stakeholders, especially residents, can participate in decisions. People are very comfortable in their neighborhood library. Using the library as a forum for information sharing and dialogue can help inform more people and increase involvement in the decision making process.”

Participants discussed innovative solutions for expanding engagement in ways that would leverage the resources and expertise of Houston’s strong stakeholder communities, including the Houston Public Library where access and connection are priority goals.

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