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Students go beyond the hedges and into Houston with Community Bridges

Nehemiah Ankoor (Hanszen ’18) working at his internship with the Urban Enrichment Institute on a project called “Reducing Stereotype Threat among Black and Latino Boys at a Non-Profit Organization.” Ankoor completed the internship through Community Bridges. Photo courtesy Katie Floyd Wang

By Shreya Jindal     3/23/21 9:44pm

How many Rice students can say they have experienced Houston? To say they have truly stepped beyond the tree-lined dome that encapsulates Rice’s campus, and ventured beyond the bubble that keeps students shut in and the realities of Houston out? (Rice Village doesn’t count.) Rice’s Community Bridges fellows are among the students who can answer that question with a resounding yes.

Community Bridges is a yearly undergraduate program at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research that targets both poverty and inequality in the Greater Houston area. During the fall semester, students undergo a preliminary training process in urban sociology through a one credit hour course, and are matched with a community partner — a nonprofit organization located within under-resourced areas of Houston. In the spring, while simultaneously enrolled in a three credit hour urban sociology course called Inequality and Life, these fellows do data-driven research through an internship with their community partner.

Community Bridges is highly selective of the nonprofit organizations it is affiliated with, according to Katie Floyd Wang, program manager. 

“The disparities [in Houston] are spatially organized … You can look at our interactive indicator map and see where poverty and various types of disparities are concentrated in the city,” Wang said. “[Community Bridges] has a set of criteria for selecting partners that are specifically working in those high need areas. And so that's something that's unique about Community Bridges, is that we are very selective about who we work with in order to step into those places where there's the most opportunity.” 

By finding partners in areas that are empirically proven to be underserved, Community Bridges positions itself to make a deeper, more resounding impact, Wang said — something the current fellows agree is needed for long-lasting change.

Christina Lee, a Lovett College senior and current fellow, chose to partner with Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation located in Fifth Ward, a historically Black neighborhood. Although she initially intended to work on a project related to housing and community investment, Lee switched tracks upon hearing about a juvenile diversion initiative between the FWCRC, Center for Urban Transformation and the District Attorney’s Office. This program is centered around ending the school-to-prison pipeline by allowing accused minors access to increased social services, mentors, volunteering and community service opportunities in return for getting their records sealed. 

“The really amazing thing about this project is there aren't specific requirements per se the student has to hit,” Lee said. “The goal is obviously to keep the students from entering the justice pipeline. But, so much of this program is just assessing what does a student need? And in extension that turns [into] what does a family need?”

Lee’s project specifically revolves around the effectiveness of nonviolent communication workshops which are offered to minors in the program. She is analyzing this by compiling data on similar workshops used across the country within other juvenile justice or law enforcement personnel training programs. 

“If you have students who have very pressing needs, like rental assistance, you don't really have time to go peruse other programs and see what's been done already,” Lee said. “The nature of this kind of work is usually that there's not enough attention, not enough resources, not enough time … I like to think I'm helping them out by doing something that is a little time-intensive.”

Martel College senior Flora Park is working with Legacy Community Health, a nonprofit organization that targets uninsured and underinsured patients. Legacy Community Health interns first screen patients for various social determinants such as food, housing and transportation and attempt to correlate them with their health. Afterward, they try to provide resources that are able to actively combat and address these identified gaps. Park is specifically investigating the correlation between pregnant women’s ability to make their prenatal appointments and their access to transportation.

“For pregnant women, prenatal appointments are really important for the health of the mother and the baby. And so to address maternal mortality, in a bigger sense, I think that's kind of where my project’s going,” Park said.

Park said she was highly motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement this past March, when various statistics regarding Black women’s mortality rate during childbirth were amplified. 

“Over the summer … a lot of issues of inequities and medicine came to light, including those that addressed how Black women are four times more likely than white women to have a pregnancy go wrong or to die during labor,” Park said. “I thought that data point was really shocking.”

The Black Lives Matter movement was not the only occurrence this past year that highlighted the inequalities embedded in society. COVID-19 has exacerbated poverty and wealth disparities worldwide. In fact, many of the students who applied for the 2020-21 Community Bridges program were motivated by seeing the heightened consequences of the pandemic on susceptible populations, Wang said. Many of the nonprofit partners veered to meet the new challenges generated head on, and subsequently some research projects this year are tackling COVID-19 related circumstances, like the effects of virtual education on young students. 

While many students are attending their internships virtually, Park says her internship is not that different from if it was in person, as she has still been able to go to the clinic and meet with patients directly. Lee said that she had noticed an unexpected positive as a result of the pandemic: resultant from the fact that meetings were in a virtual remote environment, caseworkers were able to interact more with parents, and learn more about the student’s home environment. This might enable them to better help the student.

“The things that might be invisible when a student goes to [a meeting at] school are a lot more apparent because they're at home,” Lee said.

Nehemiah Ankoor (Hanszen ’18) worked with Community Bridges when he was a student at Rice, before the pandemic. His project was with the Urban Enrichment Institute and he worked at their afterschool program with high school boys from Fifth Ward and Denver Harbor, primarily Black and Latino boys. The research was primarily related to analyzing survey data to match each boy with jobs that they might have talent in.

“These young men, they're not seeing Black CEOs, Black doctors [or] Black pharmacists at the same level that they see maybe a white doctor,” Ankoor said. “And so there's this representation problem, where they're attracted to these entertainment jobs, because that's what Black and Latino men especially are represented as in the media. It cuts off their exposure to potentially other types of jobs that would be very fulfilling to them.”

Ankoor’s work with these students was valuable in expanding their ideas of what job opportunities they could have, and how to eventually achieve them academically, he said. Now, he works at the Houston Education Research Consortium, which is another program affiliated with the Kinder Institute along with Community Bridges. His experience with Community Bridges has influenced his current position as a Community Engagement Manager, Ankoor said. 

“Working with the young men that are in Urban Enrichment Institute has helped me better understand the real educational disparities in Houston. All we do [at HERC] is research about social inequality, educational inequality, racial inequality,” Ankoor said. “So having that on-the-ground experience working with the young men is worth more than any journal article or news story or anything, just having that interaction with people that are going through it has been super valuable in my role.” 

Participants in Community Bridges said that the program allows students to surpass the boundaries of the classroom. 

“We get to study inequality. But a lot of us study it from an arm's length,” Lee said. “You read about it, and right now, you turn off your laptop and you go live your life … I think a lot of people run into the trap of objectifying what they study. ” 

For Park, Community Bridges has helped her avoid this trap. 

“Not only do they show you those concepts in class, but they also help you realize those concepts on your own, through working with community partners and organizations,” Park said. ”Community Bridges really puts you out there outside the hedges of Rice.”

[3/25/2021 at 4:03 p.m.] This story was updated to correct the name of a community partner. HERC stands for Houston Education Research Consortium, not Houston Education Resource Consortium.

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