Flooding will be the focus of Rice’s inaugural Houston-Centered Policy Challenge Feb. 22

Flooding in Meyerland will be the focus of Rice’s inaugural Houston-Centered Policy (HCP) Challenge, a competition in which teams of students submit specific policy proposals designed for the real-time challenges faced by Houston communities. Following weeks of workshops and panels with community leaders and Rice professors, these proposals will be judged by a panel of experts Thursday, Feb. 22, at 6 p.m. in the Kyle Morrow Room in Fondren Library.

Rice students help out in a flooded Houston neighborhood post-Harvey. (Photo by Brandon Martin)

Rice students help out in a flooded Houston neighborhood post-Harvey. (Photo by Brandon Martin)

Judging this year’s HCP Challenge will be Ellen Cohen, mayor pro tem and city council District C representative; Lee Wunsch, past president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston; David Robinson, city council at-large 2 representative; Bill Fulton, director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research; and “flood czar” Stephen Costello, the city of Houston’s chief resilience officer.

HCP brings students into conversation with neighborhoods and local government working to address issues such as the repeated inundation of Meyerland and its surrounding areas with water in the last few years — most recently and notably during Hurricane Harvey, when 1,900 out of the neighborhood’s 2,300 homes were flooded.

Rice hosted a similar Houston policy challenge event for Rice students in 2016, tackling the topic of mobility. Though its student-generated proposals for policy changes were impressive and the public presentation of those ideas was well-attended, the challenge was organized as “kind of a one-off,” said Libby Vann, Center for Civic Leadership director of programs and partnerships.

But two students on the winning team — Martell College seniors Elizabeth Kalomeris and David Ratnoff — found the challenge left them changed. They wanted to ensure other students would have the same opportunity in years to come, but as seniors they knew they’d have to get buy-in from younger students and Rice faculty alike to ensure the HCP Challenge would have a future.

“There are many students on campus who are interested in design and many others who are interested in public policy,” Kalomeris said. “We wanted to find a way to engage disparate student groups on campus and apply that energy and interest to issues facing the Houston community. As a result, we pitched the idea to Dr. Vann, who agreed to be our adviser, and brought in (Duncan College sophomore) Meredith McCain, who has been an invaluable team member in this endeavor.”

McCain was drawn to the HCP Challenge, thanks to an interest in human-centered design and a lifelong appreciation of public-policy work instilled by her family. “I’ve been interested in policymaking ever since my mom was elected to the school board in Fulton County, Ga., where I’m from,” she said. “Learning about education policy from her made me realize how policy intimately affects our everyday lives, from where we live and work to the quality of education and resources in our communities. By helping plan this event, I wanted to make policymaking feel more accessible to students from all disciplines and majors.”

It was a huge undertaking, but the students were determined. “My biggest challenge in spearheading a project like this is that it can be difficult to keep your initial goals and intentions for the project front and center, especially in a multi-month project with so many moving parts,” Kalomeris said. “Throughout this project, David, Meredith and I spent a lot of time reminding ourselves of the reason why we committed to the project, which is to add value to the Houston community and to create a new avenue for Rice students to connect to Houston.”

Engaging Houston is one of the goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade.

At the Feb. 22 competition, seven interdisciplinary teams will present their proposed solutions to policy prompts that were written and researched by Kalomeris, Ratnoff and McCain themselves, with assistance from Vann. The prompts are aimed at providing points of entry for students of all majors and include questions about how to create a sense of community for displaced Meyerland residents, how to empower individual homeowners to have agency in their buyout decisions and what Meyerland might look like in 20 years.

Some of the students on this year’s HCP teams participated in post-Harvey cleanup efforts and other volunteer work in Meyerland. This challenge, Vann said, “gives students an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, we’re past the muck; what’s next? What are the immediate needs and what are some of the long-term challenges that people are thinking about and need to deal with?’”

The winning team will receive a small cash prize, but the real reward is getting a behind-the-scenes look at how public policy is created, meeting the stakeholders involved in that process and better understanding the delicate balancing act that is policy work.

“There are so many students interested in making active, positive contributions to what’s happening in Houston,” Vann said. “If they’re hooked, I hope we see more of them doing this work either in informal policymaking capacities or as advocates or in other roles professionally or just as part of their lives moving forward.”

For her part, McCain hopes to make the policy challenge a part of her own life moving forward. “I would love to see another HCP Challenge next year,” McCain said. She plans to brainstorm next year’s competition with Kalomeris and Ratnoff at the end of this semester and work with a new team in the fall to get the next round of HCP off the ground.

“We will likely focus on another Houston neighborhood, and it may not be flood-related, but a lot of the future details are to be determined,” McCain said. “Regardless, we’d like for HCP to become a household name here at Rice.”

The HCP Challenge is hosted in collaboration with Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership, the Baker Institute Student Forum and Rice’s chapter of Design for America, with funding provided by the Office of the President through the Houston Engagement and Recovery Effort fund. For more information about the challenge, visit ccl.rice.edu.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.