Diverse communities making Houston better for all

In a well-quoted story in the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus is questioned by a lawyer as to who are our neighbors. “Are they only those of the same race, faith and class or persons of other beliefs and ethnic groups?”

Living in a diverse city, we have seen that the term continues to be inclusive of all. As new groups move to Houston, they recognize an obligation to not only care for those who look like themselves but their neighbors wherever they come from. Truly, this makes Houston a very special place.

As an attorney specializing in immigration and nationality law for the past 36 years, I have had a front row seat in observing the changing demographic of this city. This was even heightened while serving as an at-large member of the Houston City Council.

As each group has joined in the fabric of Houston, it has not forgotten its role in making the cloth itself better. I offer three examples:

Recognizing the lack of affordable healthcare available to the thousands of uninsured in our community, the Pakistani community created the Ibn Sina Foundation in 2001 to create its first of now six community clinics. Medical attention can be provided with no appointment and only a small donation.  No questions are asked about legal status only your health. While manned in large part by volunteer physicians of South Asian ancestry, the clinics now serve almost 60,000 Houstonians annually from all walks and back-grounds. Several other clinics have also been formed, including the Hope Clinic — the first Federal Qualified Health Center in the International District off Bellaire Blvd. to address this population.

The Houston Royal Oaks Lions Club, primarily consisting of Filippine-Americans, and their back-to- school drive and health fair. Their two events this year — one at Northwest Mall and the other at PlazAmericas — assisted almost 7,000 children in getting needed supplies to begin the school year.

Statistics tell us that we are seeing a “greying” of America.  Addressing the need for affordable housing for our aging population, one Vietnamese organization worked closely with the City’s Housing and Community Development Department to create the Golden Bamboo Senior Citizens Village in 2007.  The group has recently opened its third project in Southwest Houston’s Alief area with 300 quality units — all affordable and with private garden plots for tenants to grow vegetables to supplement their diets and incomes. The grand opening featured a United Nations of tenants from all parts of the world.

The Apollo 13 astronauts are known for the phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.” Well, Houstonians continue to amaze me with their solutions. Whether they arrived last week or last century, caring for our neighbor is in our DNA. We are indeed fortunate for the diverse communities who have made Houston their home. They continue to give of their talent and treasurer to make this a better place for all of us. 

Gordon Quan has a long history of community activism. He was the first Asian American elected citywide to the Houston City Council and first to serve as Mayor Pro Tem, Professionally, he is the co-chair of Foster Quan, LLP, the second largest U.S. immigration law firm in America, with offices in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Washington, The Rio Grand Valley and Mexico City.

Anti-Defamation League's programs seek to end hatred

For 100 years, the Anti-Defamation League has worked to promote the twin causes of diversity and tolerance, with its eyes on the prize of wiping out hatred. With its 25 regional chapters across the country, the organization hosts programs, designs outreach initiatives and works with legal and other community organizations to promote the concept that we are a stronger nation when all voices and views are free of injustice and prejudice, and we are tolerant of each other.

“Our organization has always believed in freedom of speech and expression,” said Dena Marks, associate director of the ADL’s Southwest Region, which includes the area from Orange to El Paso and all points south, excluding Austin. “But, when we hear hate speech or something we don’t agree with, we speak out.”

That’s part of what the organization’s No Place for Hate Campaign, an outreach program for K-12 students and their schools, is about. Working with campuses on an individual plan that helps incorporate the teachings of diversity and tolerance into the school community, the ADL helps foster an understanding for everything from anti-bullying to cross-cultural communication.

“Hate has to be taught,” said Marks, echoing the lyric from the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II song ‘You Have to Be Carefully Taught’ from South Pacific – a song critics of the day found inflammatory and wanted pulled from the show, something the composer and lyricist flatly refused to do – which she says her team talks about a lot. “And it can be un-taught,” Marks added. “We focus on showing people how something can be hate speech or disrespectful and teaching them we are all human.”

To that end, No Place for Hate is an initiative that schools must apply for each year. To be listed as a No Place for Hate campus, the school must offer programming that aims to eliminate bullying, promote diversity and show students that injustice and hate speech are unacceptable throughout the academic year. It calls for a committee of students, faculty and other stakeholders to help spearhead it. Marks said the campaign is often spread through word of mouth and tells stories of students going from one school that’s No Place for Hate designated to another campus that’s not and pushing to have the program there. So far, more than 400 schools have taken part.

Building on its success from No Place for Hate, the organization also has a program designed for the workplace, Communities of Respect, which focuses specifically on eliminating bias and building tolerance in businesses, houses of worship and organizations. Like the schools taking part in No Place for Hate, businesses wanting to be designated a Community of Respect must create a diversity committee, complete three programs each year and sign a Resolution of Respect. Marks said on-the-ground programs like this are beneficial for everyone involved.

“The schools and businesses with these programs are rejecting hate and promoting a message of respect and love,” Marks said. “We have such a diverse population here,” she marvels. “Whether we’re talking about people who come from a different place geographically or are different races or religions. And diversity thrives here. Houston’s been such a successful city not just because of its cost of living or our job growth but because we embrace diversity and know it’s vital to our region’s core values.”

Marks knows that she and her organization have a long way to go before bias and prejudice and intolerance are things of the past. But she believes those goals are achievable.

“How fantastic would it be if there were no more hatred in the world?” Marks muses. “Sometimes it seems unattainable, but this is what we’re working for.”

Holly Beretto is a new staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine and a long-time freelancer.

Diversity Council leads our nation in conversations about inclusion

What began as a college classroom discussion on workplace diversity nearly 10 years ago has now grown into a nation-wide organization for education and best practices, with its headquarters in Houston.

Dennis Kennedy, founder and CEO of the National Diversity Council, had worked both in corporate America and as a college professor, teaching business and human resource management courses. It was while he was teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio he began to formulate the idea for a state-wide council that would address the need for education and awareness on issues of inclusion and diversity.

The Texas Diversity Council, founded in 2004, grew into a national organization in 2008 and now has councils in 15 states and activities in 25, according to Jason deGroot, vice president. Kennedy’s goal is to ultimately have councils in all 50 states, with its national headquarters here in the Houston.

“The reason the council has grown so fast and the success of the council is due to the changing demographics of this country,” Kennedy said. “America is rapidly becoming a more diverse nation. It’s no longer just a conversation about black and white; it’s a conversation with black, white, brown and yellow.”

“In addition to that, you have LGBT, people with disabilities and veterans, so diversity now encompasses many differences,” he added. “It’s no longer a racial or gender issue. Diversity is all inclusive and includes white males as well. When an organization begins a diversity initiative, it should open for everyone to participate.”

“When I worked in the corporate world, I saw the lack of diversity in leadership,” said Kennedy. “The biggest challenge many organizations face is the challenge of inclusion, such as the opportunity for women and people of color to move up the chain of leadership.”

The number of women on corporate boards has significantly increased over the last 15 years, so corporate America has made huge strides, but the numbers still are not where they should be, according to Kennedy.

“Nationally, women make up 17 percent of Fortune 500 corporate boards, and people of color make up less than that, so we still have a long way to go,” Kennedy said. “Diversity and inclusion starts at the very top of an organization. Unfortunately, some organizations still have a homogenous leadership team and a heterogeneous workforce.”

“Today, there is a very strong business case for diversity: the changing demographics of the workplace and the marketplace, and research that shows diversity leads to more innovation,” he added.

“As Kennedy began to get a lot of forward-thinking companies engaged in the council and its mission to promote diversity and inclusion in both the workplace and the community, word began to spread to those companies’ other locations across the country,” deGroot said. “The council — both on the national and state level — now enables organizations and individuals come together to share best practices regarding inclusion and diversity, including diversity of thought,” he added.

“We reach out to youth, college students and professionals. We have programs and educational sessions for all of those segments,” deGroot said. “Training programs include classes like ‘Building a Respectful Workplace’ and ‘Managing Diverse Talent: Acquisition and Attrition.’ In Texas, the council's structure includes a state board with representation from 30 companies, including retail, medical, higher education and government entities. Its advisory boards are located in major cities across the state — Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi. In each of these markets, corporate members place representatives on these advisory boards, which deGroot calls “the hands and feet of the organization.”

They meet monthly, share best practices, bounce ideas off each other and go out into the community and business world to advocate for diversity and inclusion.

The organization is funded by corporate memberships and from highly popular events like the Women in Leadership Symposiums across the state. In addition to the Gulf Coast Symposium in March, sponsored by Houston Woman Magazine and several local companies, the Women in Leadership events are also held in Greater San Antonio, Greater Dallas, Central Texas (Austin), Fort Worth, Corpus Christi and Lubbock.

The council will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year in San Antonio where it all began at the Texas Diversity and Leadership Conference, deGroot said, but Houston is the ideal home base for a national entity with this mission.

“Houston’s such a melting pot, so it makes it easy to have an organization like this here,” he said. “It’s really been very beneficial for us.”

Deborah Quinn Hensel is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine and a free-lance writer.

Ensemble Theatre proves 'E' is for Everyone!

It all began in the back of George Hawkins’ car — back when Houston was just another sunbelt city, suffering the woes of the 1970s. He had a vision for an all-African American theater here, and he traveled around with like-minded actors and designers and put on shows across the city, hauling costumes, set pieces and props in his trunk. Fast forward 37 years and The Ensemble Theatre now has a permanent home on Main Street, its own stop on METRO’s light rail, an enthusiastic board of directors, a solid reputation as a place to see innovative and enlightening performances and two women at its helm.

“This was always George’s dream,” said Artistic Director Eileen J. Morris, who began her career with the Ensemble as a volunteer in 1982, before she found a grant that would make George share that dream with everyone he talked to. He was passionate about it.”

That passion is evident in the company’s enduring mission: to preserve African American artistic expression and to enlighten, entertain, and enrich a diverse community. As the theater has grown, Houston has, too, and today, The Ensemble Theatre offers programming that appeals to an ever-more-diverse audience.

“The stories we tell are universal,” says Janette Cosley, who has been the Ensemble’s executive director for the last 10 years. “They’re stories about families, sibling rivalry, faith. Everyone can identify with those things.”

In fact, those universal pieces are exactly what Morris looks for when she’s working with the board of directors to determine the performance season. She says she’s always reading plays and scripts, and she goes to see as many shows as she can – both around the country, and here in Houston at other performance arts companies. She keeps a journal of things that she likes and playwrights she feels are telling solid stories that can appeal to Houston’s broad audience.

“We have to look at everything,” she said. “A blend of comedy and drama and musicals, what we have the budget for, how it fits our mission of showcasing African-American expression, which artists we will be able to secure.”

Over the years, the company has seen the number of actors auditioning for roles grow from a few handfuls to hundreds.

“We’ve become a place where artists want to work,” said Cosley, who credits the board of directors and her fellow team members with creating an environment for the theater company to thrive, including the creation of a small endowment, something the company has never had before.

Additionally, as the Ensemble has grown, both Morris and Cosley are proud of the relationships they’ve developed with various playwrights, whether it’s producing all of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle or bringing works by Thomas Meloncon to the stage. This year, The Ensemble commissioned its first play, a musical for the holiday season called Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten.

“Musicals are always popular for us, and they attract a completely diverse audience,” said Morris.

Diversity, said Cosley, is one of the things that makes the Ensemble unique. Even as it promotes and preserves the work of African-American writers and artists, people of all races have worked both behind the scenes and on stage in the company’s productions. And, over the years, the audience and subscribers have morphed from being nearly all African-American to being much more representative of the city the theater calls home. Cosley and Morris agree it’s partly because they’ve watched their area of Midtown grow and diversify lately. But they also know that it’s word of mouth, with theatergoers have a great experience and telling their friends about this little theater company.

More than that, though, it comes down to storytelling.

Cosley concluded, “When you peel back the layers of a show, and you don’t look at what race the people are on stage, you get to say, ‘I know this story.’ And, I believe we’re so much more alike than we ever realize.”

Holly Beretto is a staff reporter and free-lance journalist.

Far-sighted individuals founded society to build bridges between U.S. and Japan

Before starting law school, Patsy Brown went to Japan for a year to share American culture with middle-school students. She had already fallen in love with Japan and its culture from the time she was a little girl flipping through her parents’ travel photos. That one year turned into three. Then she moved to Japan for college.

“Japan has truly shaped who I am,” said Brown, a Korean girl who was installed executive director of the Japan America Society of Houston in mid-April.

The Houston chapter, one of 38 members of the National Association of Japan-America Societies and a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was founded 45 years ago by “farsighted individuals” from Japan and Houston who realized not only that their two countries would help shape the new century, but also that their futures were inextricably tied together, Brown said.

The national coalition started in 1960, when the presidents of nine Japan and Japan-America societies joined a committee chaired by John D. Rockefeller III to celebrate the centennial for the first Treaty of Trade and Amity between Japan and the United States.

“Japan America Societies are the only organization of its kind that exists for the sole purpose of bringing two countries together in friendship,” Brown said.

The Houston chapter elevates and strengthens the vital cultural and educational foundations of the U.S.-Japan relationship and supports understanding in the areas of business, culture and education, Brown said. Each year, it hosts the Japan Festival, Ladies Luncheon and the Texas State Japanese Language Speech Contest. It played a vital role in the establishment of the Japanese Garden in Hermann Park and holds Japanese-language classes, lectures, teacher workshops, student exchange programs and other cultural events that explore the uniqueness of Japan for Americans and America for Japanese.

“Through ongoing initiatives, JASH brings Japanese culture to Houston in the form of dynamic, thought-provoking experiences that not only awaken audiences to the beauty of Japanese art and culture, but also pave the way for new understanding and new ideas,” Brown said. “The fruits of this valued relationship have delivered employment for the region, cultural education for area schools, and enjoyment for all.”

One of Houston’s 26 sister cities is in Japan – Chiba City, Japan, has a 40-year relationship with the city that includes the handling of the annual Houston-Chiba Youth Ambassador Exchange Program. More than ever, it’s necessary to adopt a global mindset in order to remain viable and relevant in today’s global marketplace, according to Brown.

“It’s essential that differences be managed and leveraged in ways that allow people from all backgrounds to hear and be heard, understand and be understood, and work together productively," Brown said.  

The Society, which has more than 200 members, continues to play a role in the soft diplomacy between Japan and the United States.

“I’m proud of the work the Japan America Society of Houston undertakes each day,” said Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez, who traveled to Chiba City with the Houston chapter in March. “As a vibrant international city, our diversity and cultural awareness makes us incredibly competitive in the global marketplace. JASH has a long history of promoting the Japanese culture and strengthening ties between our two nations.”

Dave Schafer is a staff reporter for Houston  Woman Magazine and a free-lance journalist.

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