Hurricane Harvey struck Harris County, Texas—which includes the city of Houston—in August 2017, and a year later many residents still had blue tarps draped over gaping holes in their homes.
Particularly for poor African American, Latinx, and immigrant residents of neighborhoods like Houston Gardens and Kashmere Gardens, it was a nightmarish déjà vu. They had suffered years of disinvestment and prolonged disaster conditions after Hurricane Ike, in 2008.
Immediately following Hurricane Harvey, community organizers from the grassroots nonprofit organization Texas Organizing Project (TOP) went doorknocking in Harris County’s hardest hit neighborhoods.
Founded in 2009, TOP organizes Black and Latino communities in Dallas, Harris, and Bexar counties with the goal of transforming Texas into a state where working people of color have the power and representation they deserve.
The organization already had deep relationships and a base in these neighborhoods from work in the aftermath of previous hurricanes. TOP had also organized to improve housing conditions, increase voter turnout, and mitigate impacts of climate change.
Organizers could smell the mold ravaging homes up and down so many city blocks. Even people with respiratory problems were simply living with this mold or staying in temporary trailers outside their homes. Many people had no savings or government help such as housing vouchers or cash assistance; thus, they had no choice but to stay. TOP organizers distributed food and water and provided grants to smaller grassroots organizations that were helping gut people’s homes. They also formed the HOME Coalition, a broad effort to advocate for housing and infrastructure rights, which is still active.
Over $4 billion in federal recovery aid was funneled to Texas after Harvey, but inequitable distribution of relief left many communities without needed support.
Top organizers and members realized that they would need to push to change the allocation of disaster recovery funding in order to properly assist their Black and brown members. So they began to strategize as to how to shift the way Harris County spent flood prevention money since members could have more influence on local decision making in terms of spending. They were thinking about how to resist the status quo, in which wealthier, whiter communities had greater decision-making power and had always received the lion's share of relief and assistance. TOP determined that the answer was to secure seats for low-income people of color on the local boards and commissions that decide where resources should go. They then embarked on an electoral strategy to ensure that the area’s most vulnerable communities had decision-making power within these historically exclusionary institutional bodies—in the process, unseating a longtime incumbent county judge and electing an equity-minded successor, and implementing a racial equity-based governing framework.
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