How can a metro embrace and build on the strengths of its immigrant communities?

The Metropolitan Revolution: Houston

This story is adapted from The Metropolitan Revolution book and iPad app by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. View other stories on Medium.

Demographic Fast-Forward

Houston is America on demographic fast-forward. Between 2000 and 2010, the metro area’s foreign-born population, already high relative to the rest of the nation, grew by 48 percent. More than 60 percent of its residents are people of color. In the suburbs, the foreign-born population grew by 90 percent, compared with 28 percent for the nation as a whole. More than 42 percent of Houston’s children have at least one foreign-born parent, compared with a national rate of 23 percent.

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Over the next forty years, immigrants and their descendants will be responsible for virtually all of the growth in the U.S. labor pool. They are the colleagues, bosses, and employees of the coming decades. This diversity can be a huge benefit for the United States. Immigrants are a key part of America’s innovation and entrepreneur economy: they are 30 percent more likely to start a new business, and among individuals with advanced degrees, immigrants are three times as likely as their U.S.-born counterparts to file patents. Studies show that the presence of immigrants can increase wages for U.S.-born workers, in part because immigrants complement, rather than substitute for, the skills of native-born workers.

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Sources: Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “Ten Economic Facts About Immigration” (The Hamilton Project, 2010); Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber, “Task Specialization, Immigration, and Wages” (University of California-Davis, 2009).

But immigrants are also much less likely to have completed high school, and they have a slightly higher poverty rate than people who were born in this country. The challenge of low educational attainment is not just a personal or family problem, nor is it an abstract national concern. It is a metropolitan challenge, because in metropolitan areas a better-educated workforce means more jobs.

Two different communities in Greater Houston, the dense city neighborhood of Gulfton and the older suburban town of Pasadena, illustrate what it means to embrace demographic change and build a new workforce—a new America—at the metropolitan scale.

Changing Gulfton & Pasadena

As recently as the 1940s, Gulfton, in the southwest corner of Houston, was mostly farmland, not really a neighborhood at all. Today, it is the most densely populated neighborhood in the city. Most of its current residents are foreign born, hailing from eighty different countries, most often Mexico and Central American nations, but also from Somalia, Bosnia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, to name a few. Forty percent of Gulfton children live in poverty, compared to 22 percent of children in the U.S. as a whole. Fewer than four out of ten of Gulfton’s high school graduates seek higher education. The neighborhood is beset by gang activity and a high crime rate.

Demographic changes in Gulfton have come quickly. The area’s population almost doubled from 1980 to 2000, while the number of children under eighteen jumped from 15 percent to 30 percent. This rapid demographic churning is not unique to Gulfton. The suburb of Pasadena, some 20 miles east of Gulfton, was once overwhelmingly white and middle-class, but it is now two-thirds Hispanic, with a poverty rate of more than 20 percent.

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The Changing Geography of Poverty: Poverty in Houston has spread over the past thirty years, with dense pockets of poor people now living throughout the metropolitan area. (Source: Brookings analysis of U.S. Census and American Community Survey data.)

To many people, these changing demographics are a troubling problem. But to the people at Neighborhood Centers Inc., one of Houston’s oldest nonprofit groups, Gulfton and Pasadena aren’t defined by their problems. The people there aren’t broken and don’t need to be “fixed.” Neighborhood Centers defines Houston’s immigrant population and its low-income population not as problems but as neighbors. They seek to build on the strengths that these communities have rather than focusing exclusively on their challenges.

Neighborhood Centers’ work in Gulfton and Pasadena offers lessons in how to help people realize their own assets and raise their education level, their income, and their sense of efficacy and connection to their community.

Building on Strengths

After working in Gulfton, Pasadena, and similar high-poverty, high-immigrant neighborhoods for years, Neighborhood Centers’ president and CEO, Angela Blanchard, and her colleagues had grown frustrated with the standard descriptions of these neighborhoods where they worked. “Before we undertook a campaign to invest in Gulfton, everybody told us what a terrible neighborhood it was,” she says. “None of it spoke to how to move forward.” One of her most oft-repeated statements is “You can’t build on broken.” In 2005, Blanchard was talking to a fellow Houstonian, expressing her dismay at the gap between Greater Houston’s reality and the standard approach to delivering social services, which focuses on a region’s problems.

Angela Blanchard: “Before we undertook a campaign to invest in Gulfton, everybody had told us what a terrible neighborhood it was. But none of it spoke to how to move forward.”

Her friend told her to look into a different approach to management and change, Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Rather than homing in on what is broken or deficient and trying to change it, Appreciative Inquiry starts with what an organization is good at or has done well in the past. “Appreciative Inquiry is the art of asking a question that elicits an unconditionally positive answer,” Blanchard says. “It was a complete shift in the way we asked questions about where we were working.”

As one study of AI puts it, “The tangible result of the inquiry process is a series of statements that describe where the organization wants to be, based on the high moments of where they have been. Because the statements are grounded in real experience and history, people know how to repeat their success.”

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Appreciative Inquiry: Neighborhood Centers Inc. attributes its success to the Appreciative Inquiry model, which builds on strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses. (Source: Neighborhood Centers Inc.)

The Appreciative Inquiry approach resonated with Neighborhood Centers’ staff—it gave them a method that matched their experience. “Marketing people always wanted us to tell a story about how bad these neighborhoods had been and how great we made them,” Blanchard recalled. “Appreciative Inquiry freed us not to tell that story.”

The AI approach that Neighborhood Centers uses is a form of crowdsourcing with a crowd that is all too often talked at rather than talked with. The process is designed not just to enable Neighborhood Centers’ staff to identify the strengths of people in the neighborhood, but also to encourage the people themselves to recognize and take pride in what they and their neighbors do well. “The only kind of attention [residents] ever get is people asking what’s the matter,” Blanchard explains. “So the first question is, ‘What makes this a good place to live?’”

Giving The People What They Want

Neighborhood Centers’ staff started to test Appreciative Inquiry in Gulfton. Rather than asking Gulfton residents what was wrong with their home, they asked questions like: What’s good about this neighborhood? How do you know you are home? What attracted you to the neighborhood, and what would make you want to work or live here even longer? What skills or abilities can you contribute to make your neighborhood better?

Angela Blanchard: “People began having those deep conversations with one another about what dreams and hopes they had.”

The questions were asked in many different languages, but the responses were broadly the same. People were proud of their neighborhood and its diversity, but they wanted a good school for their children, a safe place for their children to play, a convenient place to meet, adult education services, transportation, and a reliable financial institution.

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That wish list became the blueprint for the services of a new community center called Baker-Ripley. Five bright, colorful buildings on four acres house a K–5 charter school; a health clinic; a community development credit union and a free tax-preparation center; a citizenship and outreach center, where immigrants can start to navigate the naturalization process; rooms for adult classes in English, health, and wellness; an arts center; a business incubator; an outdoor stage; a splash park; a green space for community gatherings and arts and cultural festivals; and a jitney service called the “Magic Bus,” with stops at grocery stores, health clinics, and other service locations.

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The “Magic Bus”

Baker-Ripley assists with many community needs, including providing bus service to grocery stores, health care centers, and other service locations in the area.

Baker-Ripley opened in 2010, and in its first year and a half, 23,000 people came there to take a class, ask a question, play a game, or otherwise participate in the life of the community center. The third-graders at the charter school score better than other students in the Houston school district on tests of reading proficiency—94 percent are rated proficient by state test standards.

Adonias Arevalo: “They gave me such a big opportunity to be able to share my talents … teaching English, teaching computers…. I love being a teacher.”

The Appreciative Inquiry approach changed Neighborhood Centers’ behavior. From Gulfton, they went on to apply the technique in other communities, such as the suburb of Pasadena. “The wisdom of what we did here needs to be repeated,” Blanchard says. “It’s the wisdom of looking for strengths. It’s the wisdom of getting into deep conversation with the people we mean to help until we fully understand what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Working at the Metro Scale

Appreciative Inquiry is hyperlocal, but the systems that bring the dreams and aspirations that it uncovers work best when they are big in reach and resources. Neighborhood Centers’ success in Gulfton and Pasadena is inextricably linked to its presence in fifty-eight other places around the Houston region.

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Neighborhood Centers has that large scale because of its history of operating all over the Houston region, as well as because its leaders insist that it be a big, professionally run organization. Blanchard explains, “You need a regional footprint and context. You need muscle. This is not just the scale of dollars, it’s the ability, the muscle…. The purpose of a neighborhood is to connect the people in that neighborhood with that larger regional framework.”

The “muscle” that Blanchard speaks of is necessary to take rigid, compartmentalized, regulation-encrusted funding streams and braid them together to provide the services that new and low-income Houstonians need if they are to flourish. As of the summer of 2012, Neighborhood Centers had grants or contracts from seven federal departments and the Texas Education Agency and contracts with the City of Houston, Harris County, and other local government units. Those agencies amount to seventy separate funding sources with different reporting requirements and spending restrictions. Neighborhood Centers also uses funds from the United Way of Greater Houston and more than 500 private foundations, corporations, and individuals.

But for all the administrative complexity, Neighborhood Centers’ breadth of work actually enhances its financial stability, since it’s not overly dependent on a single agency or program.

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Strength Through Partnerships: Neighborhood Centers Inc. partners with organizations all over Houston. By banding together, service organizations are better able to meet community needs.

To support its close engagement in neighborhoods, Neighborhood Centers is part of—sometimes the center of—a vast network of organizations with similar goals but different specialties. In any given year, Neighborhood Centers will work with almost one hundred other groups on a range of special events, such as back-to-school days—where families can collect school uniforms, get haircuts and dental screenings, and pick up vouchers for school supplies—or a conference on strategies to prevent infant mortality. Neighborhood Centers also has thirty-three separate partnerships (relationships in which a contract or memorandum of understanding lays out different responsibilities) and nine strategic alliances (in which partners provide funding and often share service delivery). It works with the Houston Community College system to provide classes, training, and materials for students of English as a second language. It collaborates with the Houston Center for Literacy on adult education classes; with the Houston Independent School District and Teach for America on Head Start; with Texas Capital Bank on a credit union; with Univision and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials on immigration and civic engagement work; and with Legacy Healthcare and Texas Children’s Hospital on clinics at two community centers. Successfully supporting communities and individuals requires a microscope and a wide-angle lens, and Neighborhood Centers uses both.

Building a Ladder

Today, Neighborhood Centers is one of the largest nonprofit service providers in the United States, with a budget of $275 million a year and an enormous presence throughout Texas.

Angela Blanchard: “We are not going to buy or build our way into the next economy—we’re really going to educate and innovate our way there.”

Blanchard said, “If you’re poor, you want to be poor in Houston, because there’s a ladder here. Our purpose is not to eliminate poverty. People do that on their own. What we’re doing is to provide the rungs of the ladder.” One of those rungs is education. Children who move from Neighborhood Centers’ Head Start programs into Houston schools score higher than most of their classmates in reading and math. Neighborhood Centers’ Head Start and Early Head Start programs entice fathers to participate in Head Start–related activities at rates that are much higher than the national average (more than three times the national average in the case of Early Head Start). The third graders at Neighborhood Centers’ charter school in Gulfton score better than other students in the Houston school district on tests of reading proficiency, and early reading proficiency is linked to a higher likelihood of high school graduation. Overall, every grade in Neighborhood Centers’ charter schools scored at the average or above-average level on the national Stanford 10 test, and each grade’s performance was better than the next-lower grade’s (for example, fourth graders performed better than third graders, and fifth graders better than fourth graders), suggesting that children in these schools improve their comparative performance with each year they are in school.

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Neighborhood Centers’ Head Start and Early Head Start programs entice fathers to participate in Head Start-related activities at rates that are much highher than the national average.

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Third graders at Neighborhood Centers’ charter school in Gulfton score better than other students in the Houston school district on tests of reading proficiency, and early reading proficiency is linked to a higher liklihood of high school graduation.

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Overall, every grade in Neighborhood Centers’ charter schools scored at the average or above-average level on the national Stanford 10 test, and each grade’s performance was better than the next lower grade’s.

Neighborhood Centers offers rungs of the ladder to adults as well. It is a major provider of English language instruction, and nonnative speakers who become proficient in English experience a huge increase in earnings. Neighborhood Centers assists people with the complicated process of gaining citizenship, which also is correlated with an increase in earnings (among the foreign born, citizens earn, on average, $14,000 more a year than noncitizens).

And that is just a portion of what happens at Baker-Ripley, Cleveland-Ripley, and the other sites in Houston where Neighborhood Centers works. Like the assets of neighborhoods with a bad statistical profile, some of that work is hard to quantify.

Every metro can learn from how Neighborhood Centers is embracing Houston’s future and weaving it into Houston’s history. Neighborhood Centers shows just what it means to embrace demographic changes and build a new workforce—a new America—at the metropolitan scale.

The Takeaway

  1. The immigrant population in the United States is critical to our country’s innovation and entrepreneur economy. By embracing and bolstering immigrant communities the way that Houston has, metros are able to secure their economies of tomorrow.
  2. Don’t focus on “fixing” problems in struggling communities. Instead, find seeds of strength, and build upon those. Engage community members and work together toward establishing common goals. In the case of NCI, this strengths-based model has led to thriving neighborhood centers that have benefited thousands of Houston residents, setting them up for more promising futures that will bolster the metro economy.

This story is adapted from The Metropolitan Revolution book and iPad app by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. Story presented by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. iPad app, including the graphics and videos in this story, produced by Melcher Media and designed and developed by Crush+Lovely.

Learn more about The Metropolitan Revolution at

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