14:02 PM

Houston Endowment Gifts College of Public Service $730K For Voter Rights Initiative


By Sheryl E. Taylor

UHD Assistant Professor of Social Work Dr. Liza Barros-Lane’s email signature includes a graphic that reads: “Voting Is Social Work.”

For UHD’s College of Public Service (CPS), it’s more than just words, and Houston Endowment agrees: The private foundation awarded the College a $730,000 grant for interdisciplinary work over the next three years.

Barros-Lane is joined by Dr. Jonathan Schwartz, Dean of CPS and fellow faculty members Dr. Diane M. Miller, Associate Professor of Literacy, Department of Urban Education and Dr. Fei Yang, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Department of Criminal Justice and Social Work and Director of Houston Laboratory for Crime and Justice. Miller and Yang served as co-primary investigators on this grant. Miller will lead the program that works in the high schools and Yang will serve as team lead for the justice initiatives in the community.

In the application to Houston Endowment, the College merged its community- and collaboration-oriented Vision Statement components with the faculty members’ project-specific goals surrounding real-life opportunities with voting rights and civic empowerment initiatives.

“The only way to create empowerment and the opportunity for positive change in the community is to build partnerships with all the stakeholders. That allows everyone to bring their expertise to the table. Faculty members working on this project have their own sets of expertise, but we need input from community experts, youth, and community organizations about what issues they care about, ideas for how to develop a program that works, and best ways to measure success,” said Barros-Lane. “Our program philosophy is that empowerment requires reliance on the wisdom, experiences, and resources of each of the stakeholders. Through this partnership, we will build trust and esteem in our shared ability to successfully plan and execute a vision.”

This work builds on the civic engagement work started earlier in the College of Public Service. In the Fall 2021 semester, the CPS hosted two lectures to raise students’ awareness and consciousness on voting engagement issues. The lectures featured two public policy experts giving nonpartisan educational discourses on voting issues. University of Houston’s Dr. Suzanne Pritzker lectured on the historical context of voting in the U.S. and Texas; and Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria discussed voter turnout in Harris County in the previous election and voting policy changes in Texas.

The lectures were part of the College of Public Service’s effort to promote an environment where civic engagement is a central part of students’ educational experiences at UHD. The grant will enable the College to continue this work, specifically to: 

  • expand its civic engagement campaign to the community. 
  • train students to become leaders and organizers in promoting civic engagement in the community by proposing a program to train CPS students to become civically engaged leaders in the Fifth Ward community at Wheatley and Kashmere High Schools.
  • build on existing relationships with Wheatley and Kashmere High Schools to collaborate on student-led civic engagement activities, including community educational events around civic issues, engagement efforts, and information sharing at the State Capitol regarding issues that impact these communities. 
  • train CPS students to promote and support civic engagement among youth involved in the juvenile justice system.
  • prioritize helping members of the unsheltered community to access legal IDs, which is necessary to engage in civic participation.

For the College of Public Service, it’s a win-win to have the opportunity to change the civic landscape not only at UHD but for the communities it serves—and of course, UHD’s Gator students. “We hope that our students gain an understanding that civic engagement relies on relationships and partnerships with people in the community,” emphasized Barros-Lane.

Dean Schwartz recognizes the cohesive value of this project for the College, and he sees the mission and vision of CPS as promoting equity and justice. “We believe that civic and voting engagement are an important part of making a positive difference in the community,” he said. “This grant will provide an opportunity for our social work students to be leaders in these communities and to engage Houston youth in learning and advocating for change, which we hope will lead to a lifetime of civic engagement.”


About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.