Building bridges with Houston

Amy Hodges

Building bridges with Houston
Rice University’s Community Bridges Fellowship Program seeks to eliminate poverty in Houston’s Fifth Ward

Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Beginning this fall, a new Rice University program will allow undergraduate students to be that positive change in one of Houston’s most historic neighborhoods.

The Community Bridges Fellowship Program, sponsored by Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Center for Civic Engagement, will combine academic coursework and active fieldwork in an effort to sustainably reduce poverty in Houston’s Fifth Ward neighborhood.

Students will spend the fall in intensive training to prepare for the spring semester, when they will be assigned to one of five participating Fifth Ward organizations: the Small Steps Nurturing Center, the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, the Julia C. Hester House, the Pleasant Hill Leadership Institute and YES Prep Fifth Ward. Once assigned, students will work with staff members of each organization to develop long-term projects that can address the needs of the Fifth Ward.

Simultaneously, students will be enrolled in Inequality and Urban Life (Sociology 470), where they will discuss academic literature related to their projects and reflect upon what they’ve learned in the community. Michael Emerson, co-director of the Kinder Institute and the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology, will teach the course. “We’ve designed the coursework around what they will experience in their neighborhoods, and vice versa,” he said. 

Community Bridges is the brainchild of Rice alumna Jecca Steinberg ’11, who currently serves as its program coordinator. As a student, she was actively involved in service opportunities in Houston, the U.S. and abroad. She was interested in finding an experiential learning opportunity that incorporated service, but none of the existing community outreach programs at Rice incorporated sustained, long-term field work for academic class credit.

“It inspired me to start a new program that combined the two things I was looking for,” she said.

Steinberg is excited to see how the program will benefit Rice students and the historic Fifth Ward neighborhood, which is steeped in culture. It is also one of the city’s most impoverished areas.

“There’s no question about the benefits of this relationship between the Fifth Ward and Rice students,” she said. “The students will engage in activities specifically aimed at poverty improvement. We’re very excited to see how things unfold.”

Emerson, who also serves as chair of the Fifth Ward Community Development Corporation, has been partnering Rice interns with community organizations for years. He is looking forward to seeing the impact the students can have with a concentrated, sustained effort in one area of Houston.

“Our students have done wonderful work, but the internships typically last only one semester,” Emerson said. “The idea behind this new program is for the next group of students to pick up where the last ones left off. Now there will be a sense of continuity. And we believe the continuous effort will make a bigger impact.”

Kathy Payton, president and CEO of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp., is a former resident of the neighborhood, a graduate of Rice’s Leadership Institute for Nonprofit Executives program and has spent her career working toward positive growth in the community. She has partnered with Emerson and Rice students for a number of years and is excited to see how the new program will further impact the area.

“We see this as a mutually beneficial relationship,” Payton said. “We expect to learn as much from the students as they learn from us. Their fresh ideas about the organization and regarding community change will be a tremendous benefit.”

Payton believes the academic part of the class is essential for students to get as much as they can out of the program. “I think it’s really important for the students to understand the neighborhood’s culture and be able to process their experiences,” she said. “I’m so happy that the academic course will parallel what they will do in the community.”

Stephen Klineberg, co-director of the Kinder Institute and professor of sociology, said he expects the program to be popular among Rice students, many of whom are eager to make a difference in the world.

“It’s my impression that students increasingly know just how privileged they are to be at Rice,” he said. “They have a real desire to give back to their community.”

For more information about the program, go to

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