Introduction

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.1 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.2 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.3 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.4 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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What is Economic Democracy at Demos?

This case study is part of Demos’ new Economic Democracy project, which asks how poor and working-class people, especially in Black and brown communities, can exercise greater control over the economic institutions that shape their lives. This framework has 3 goals:

  1. Break up and regulate new corporate power, including Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
  2. Expand the meaning of public goods and ensure that services are equitably and publicly administered.
  3. Strengthen “co-governance” strategies so that people and public agencies can collectively make decisions about the economy.

With the accelerating frequency of climate disasters, it is especially important to build the power of those most impacted by disasters— often Black, brown, and Indigenous communities—to ensure they have equitable access to the resources needed to recover and move forward.

This case study tells the story of how the Texas Organizing Project pursued an “inside” strategy after Hurricane Harvey. TOP worked with the Harris County Judge they helped elect to create new ways to allocate resources, and trained members to be able to serve on local boards and commissions. At the same time, organizers applied pressure from the “outside,” using electoral and issue-based campaigns to ensure equitable distribution of county flood bond funds.

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This case study follows Pittsburgh United and its partners in the Our Water Campaign as they seek to restore public governance over the local water authority. After a private company left Pittsburgh’s water infrastructure corroded and contaminated, local organizers built community pressure to hold the agency accountable, increase oversight and civic participation, and ward off threats from other companies hoping to privatize the city’s water supply. 

Banking for the Public Good: Public Bank NYC (Forthcoming)

This case study follows the New Economy Project as it organized a cross-sector coalition of local worker collaboratives, housing cooperatives, and community wealth-building organizations to win public-banking infrastructure in the city and state of New York—the finance capital of the country. 

Standing Tall Against Corporate Power: For Us, Not Amazon (Forthcoming)

This case study follows the coalition For Us Not Amazon (FUNA) and members of the Athena Coalition as they organized to prevent one of the biggest corporations in the world from taking over the civic, social, and political life of Northern Virginia and beyond.