Stories Not To Be Forgotten
By Sheryl E. Taylor
Tapping into one’s passion can be a catalyst for making a difference. Nalani Ortiz took her passion for storytelling to help preserve a community’s stories for younger generations.
Ortiz is a program advisor for the Educational Talent Search Program at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD), which works with nine schools in total—seven high schools and two middle schools. The Program, funded through the Department of Education, partners with the University to provide advising services — from college applications to financial aid. The goal is to connect with students and help take them to the next level.
“There was a need for our services in this particular area,” said Ortiz. “The majority of these students will be the first in their family to attend college. So they may not have the knowledge or resources to know what they will be facing when they attend college. This program steps in by working with their current needs and meeting students where they are.”
At UHD, she also wanted to discover a way to connect with students, faculty and staff. Enter UHD’s Center for Community Engagement & Service Learning (CCESL).
Last fall, CCESL announced its inaugural Near Northside Project Grants. The Center committed to grants ($2,500 per project) for community engagement projects in the Near Northside community spearheaded by UHD students, faculty and staff.
“Our program is important because it engages students, faculty and staff in projects that they organize and implement; creates a partnership between UHD and its neighboring community; and raises awareness of the needs in communities and how a university can use its expertise and manpower to understand and fulfill the needs of the Near Northside,” said Dr. Poonam Gulati, Director of CCESL.
Ortiz realized that there were histories of this vibrant community … located a mere 10 minutes from campus … that were being lost. This unique partnership between UHD and the Near Northside community is an effort to protect the cultural history and character of a neighborhood.
The former sixth-grade reading teacher’s career history significantly centered on social impact and storytelling. So, she wrote a proposal. And, The Northside Stories Project was born.
“I gravitated toward Northside Stories because we are working with a primarily Hispanic community, which is being gentrified and changed,” Ortiz noted. “A lot of these community members feel that the character of the neighborhood is being erased by all the new culture coming into their community.
“As a teacher (at KIPP Charter Schools), I primarily taught black and brown students,” she said. “And I discovered that their love for reading was because I allowed them to select stories that were relevant to them.”
After recovering from her initial shock of taking on such a big project, Ortiz attended the neighborhood’s community and coalition meetings to learn about stories that resonated and deeply connected most with residents. Back at UHD, she brought together a five-member team comprised of writers (staff) and illustrators (students) to create three children’s books that will share Near Northside’s most cherished stories.
“I wanted to help them to tell their stories … to preserve these oral histories and share them with the children of the community … to pass on these stories to new generations in the community,” said Ortiz. “We learned about some amazing stories that we will tell with fidelity and truthfulness.”
This fall, the Near Northside community’s local elementary schools will receive copies of the books.
When History & Literature Collide
Preserving the local culture and character of the Near Northside through the creation of children’s books, the stories seek to tell of heroism fit for elementary-aged students. The project selected three stories that profoundly resounded within the community:
[The Tweet That Saved “La Casa”] When Jackie Garza overheard her father’s plan to close his bakery after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, she took the shop’s fate into her own hands. With a single tweet, and a video of her father preparing a pan dulce (Mexican pastry), Jackie was able to revive the business. Now two years later, the business is still thriving.
“Being able to tell my story as a children’s book is an honor. I hope my story will be an inspiration to the future of our community,” said Garza, who is completing her first year of college as a marketing major and working at her father’s bakery
[The Huelga Schools Movement] When the local school district did not integrate schools in the late 1960s, Near Northside residents created their own schools. The schools were powered by volunteer teachers who taught more than 3,500 students at 16 campuses until the protest ended with districts agreeing to meet their demands.
[A Safe Walk Home] When 11-year-old Josue Flores didn’t make it home from his daily after-school walk, Near Northside residents created the “Safe Walk Home Program” and within weeks, 100 neighbors stood on their lawns after school to ensure children got home safely.
For UHD alumna Galleryy Martinez, who is the writer of “The Huelga Schools Movement,” she never thought that tapping into her creative writing talent could be used to assert her ideas into the world.
“I am humbled to use my love for writing and my desire to make a difference as a way of participating in this project,” said Martinez. “I’ve searched for ways to give back to my community, but I never thought I could make a difference through my writing. Academic writing challenged how I assert my ideas in the world, but it never occurred to me that creative writing could be an outlet for my ideas in the same way. I am inspired and honored to share my message with a generation that will change the world.”
Editor's Note: Story reprinted from the lastest issue of UHD Magazine Fall 2019.
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.