Felipe Arenas Gallo | Class of ’17 | April 6, 2015
Studying urban inequality in Houston through our SOCI 470 course has certainly been interesting for me as a Civil Engineering major. Our discussions on topics ranging from transportation to criminal justice, food security to gender relations, have been incredibly enlightening for me and have most certainly helped me process and reflect on the real life manifestations of these issues that I deal with at my organization. What’s more, it seems that these kinds of discussions, about the issues that make Houston unique and that overwhelmingly affect the daily lives of 5th Ward residents, are relevant to all Houstonians.
To help share the perspective that I’ve gained I want to describe a very interesting experience from last Wednesday. While at the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program – an after school program for Middle and High School students in the 5th Ward – I was brought into a discussion that some of the older high school kids were having. These kids were going to spend the weekend on a field trip to Austin, where they would be participating in a youth conference with students from all over Texas, representing the 5th Ward. At one point during this conference, they would have the opportunity to meet with a representative from the Texas government, who has direct jurisdiction over them. The purpose of our meeting on Wednesday was to discuss some of the issues that they perceive in their neighborhood, in order to organize a list of priorities that they wanted to bring up to this representative.
The issues that they came up with had a very wide range. It was great to see the students, on their own account, bring up several of the problems that we have discussed extensively in class and that they think could be improved upon if brought to the attention of their representative. The list that they ended up with included the following issues:
- Public transportation, and its inadequacy and unreliability
- Local construction, and how disruptive it is, especially given how long it takes
- Lack of suitable teachers at the public schools
- Trains stopping indefinitely on the tracks, blocking traffic
- Police presence, and the fact that it is seen as intimidating instead of helpful
- Stray dogs/other animals, that often make it unsafe to walk outside
- Abandoned and empty housing
These are a few of the topics that they discussed. It was great to see these adolescents realize the fact that they were going to represent their neighborhood and really get to have important conversations about these issues, which they thought were quite important (albeit to differing extents). Programs such as FWEP are only as successful as the kids that they produce, and these young men were approaching the issues that have made their lives so difficult with a great sense of maturity and responsibility. I can only hope that as they grow out of high school, such qualities will prevail and be rewarded.
I sat down to write this blog post over the weekend when they were going to be in Austin. The following Monday, I went to my internship excited to hear about their experience, only to hear their disappointment at having been stood up by the aforementioned representative. They arrived in Austin only to be told something along the lines of “oops, he just left for Houston, sorry.” Thus, their travels resulted in little more than “a long drive, but the pizza was good,” as they said.
This, to me, demonstrates the fundamental reason why the 5th Ward has so many problems, including the ones that they identified. When these kids, excited by what they can do, have the opportunity to talk to someone important, a system that has little interest in their plight stands them up. The sad truth is that their ability to organize and lobby effectively, especially when the issues involve help from outside of the 5th Ward, is quite compromised by their absolute poverty and the unhelpful ears of those in power.
It is truly unfortunate that this lesson had to come through on a day when the message was supposed to be the exact opposite.
Felipe Arenas Gallo is a sophomore double majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Latin American Studies. He was born in Colombia, but spent most of his life growing up between Brazil and Indiana. This has pushed him to pursue an education that will help him return to Latin America and contribute to the development and improvement of his beloved continent. Given this, he is very excited to work with the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program and gain experience in working with individuals in order to try and improve their community and lives.