Helping Neighborhoods Organize Themselves

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photo courtesy Charhonda Cox

A community garden. A voter-education campaign. A community center in a low-income apartment complex. These are some of the programs Charhonda Cox supports as the staff and project director for the Texans Together Education Fund. The Houston-based nonprofit helps communities organize to address a range of needs and promotes civic engagement.

“We work with residents in different communities on projects they want to work on to better their communities,” says Cox, who’s worked at Texans Together for a year.

Her first organizing experience was with the Service Employees International Union. Cox, 36, grew up in a family of longshoremen and postal workers in New Orleans; many were union members. But she didn’t develop an interest in labor organizing until 12 years ago, after a stint as a census worker. She led a team that went into shelters, monasteries and other nontraditional residences to get an accurate count of New Orleans’ homeless population. She had just graduated from college with a degree in accounting information systems and was studying for the LSAT.

As a census taker, Cox was good at communicating with people—so good that her boss, a retired union organizer, encouraged her to consider a job in the labor movement. After attending a four-day union training camp, Cox was hooked, inspired by the committed people she met at the camp. “It just changed my life, and I couldn’t see doing anything else,” she says.

Labor organizing was a good experience, she recalls now. But after years of bouncing from state to state—she lived in cold weather for the first time while helping organize nurses in Connecticut—she wanted a job where she could use her skills in one place. She worked at the Houston Peace & Justice Center, a clearinghouse for people and organizations advancing social justice, before taking the job at Texans Together. Her new work is challenging in ways that union organizing wasn’t, Cox says, and suits her family life; she is a mother of four, and her husband, a union organizer, is often out of town.

Currently, Texans Together has four projects in different parts of the city: organizing apartment-dwellers in Alief, educating residents near the San Jacinto River about the dangers from a nearby Superfund site, educating voters in the historically black community of Third Ward, and supporting a community garden in predominantly Hispanic Magnolia Park. Texans Together chose the neighborhoods based on canvassing and surveys of residents’ concerns—and voter turnout. Communities with low voter turnout are usually the “most disengaged,” Cox says.

One of the group’s most high-profile projects, called Apartments as Communities, is in a low-income Alief apartment complex called The Mint. In 2009, the nonprofit helped residents open an onsite community center, where they could get job training, receive after-school tutoring, or simply take piano lessons, Cox says. Residents manage the center.

The project is informed by the idea that apartment complexes are communities, and should be organized, Cox says. She points to Frank Garcia, who coordinates Texans Together’s efforts at the complex. “He was part of generations of apartment dwellers. There’s a whole other conversation about why people are in apartments for generation after generation,” she says, adding that not everyone can buy or rent a house.

“How do we make this a better environment if there isn’t a choice?”

In addition, Cox helps run a seven-week course, called Empower Houston Leaders, on direct action organizing that’s open to community groups across the city. (There is a class in Alief.) An initiative started last year, Empower Houston Leaders helps grassroots organizers develop strategies for social change. Texans Together provides stipends to help leaders execute their community plans. There are typically 25 people enrolled in each course, Cox says. A new class began in April.

“I feel really, really good about Texans Together’s mission and the work I’m doing now. With the union it was 80 hours a week; you’re working to give people a good quality of life, but you burn out. … This [work] is here and now and what [communities] can do to change the quality of their life every day.”