HOUSTON – “One issue is economic development. You don’t really hear many discussions regarding how elected officials’ should empower existing communities through new initiatives aimed at revitalization. How do you go about what is best termed, responsibly revitalizing; meaning introducing initiatives that allow for existing residents to access newly introduced resources aimed at improving areas instead of being quite simply run out of neighborhoods that they have lived in across several generations? Two, infrastructure needs. Although it is very difficult to accept, many of the amenities in our urban communities, such as parks, [have been] inaccessible due to the absence of a baseline infrastructure.”
These words were rendered by Councilwoman Amanda K. Edwards, during a past interview with African-American News & Issues. It was just a little over a year ago, when Councilwoman Edwards took office at the City of Houston. She won the runoff election on December 12, 2015, for the Houston City Council, At-Large Position 4. It was the vacant seat of, former Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford.
I chose to begin with a reflection from a past article on Councilwoman Edwards for one reason. In times past, we have been engulfed with scores of political and authoritative personalities that have solicited support from our communities, at an attempt to become an elected official. However, we have seen all too well promises gone unfulfilled, our neighborhoods in a state of disarray and our families left to fend for themselves, alone. Therefore, I was elated to be in interview with the intelligent, humble, determined and invaluable Councilwoman. For after reading this piece in its entirety; it may clearly be concluded that she has been making positive advancements towards the reaching the objectives that she initially set out to accomplish.
Who is Amanda K. Edwards?
Amanda K. Edwards is a native Houstonian. She was reared near the Acres Homes community. From as early as she can remember, she was always passionate about caring for and helping others. Although her father passed when she was a teenager, she was blessed to have a strong and supportive mother to help nurture and guide her along the way. She was raised a devout Catholic at St. Monica Catholic Church in Acres Homes.
She graduated from Eisenhower High School. Afterwards, she went on to attend Emory University in Atlanta, GA. It appears that leadership was in her DNA, as demonstrated by her role as the “Student Body President” both at Eisenhower and Emory. During her tenure at Emory, she earned the: Emory Academic Excellence Award, Emory Overall Excellence Award and was inducted into the University’s Hall of Fame. She earned a degree in Political Science from Emory University. It was in Atlanta, that she gained valuable community building and public policy experience working in community development corporations as a Community Building and Social Change Fellow and in the Georgia State Legislature. From these experiences it assisted with broadening her perspective about how to effect change through urban policy and collaboration.
Afterwards, she worked for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee in Washington D.C. before earning a degree from Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, she served as a Criminal Justice Institute student attorney, chaired the Harvard Black Law Students Association Spring Conference and was awarded the Elaine Osborne Jacobson Award, for her commitment to serving underserved populations in the healthcare law industry.
Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, she made a decision to relocate to New Orleans. While there, she served as a judicial law clerk for Federal District Court Judge Ivan L. R. Lemelle and established Project NOW: The New Orleans Writing Project, which inspired New Orleans youth to empower themselves and their community through the power of writing.
After making a difference and leaving a positive impact on residents there, she returned home with a strong desire to do the same here. Prior to being elected to City Council; she practiced law as a municipal finance lawyer, where she “solved complex issues relating to tax-exempt bond financings, public-private partnerships, community development projects, and non-profit organizations.”
Current Project: Aiding Mayor Turner with Pension Reform
Although, the Councilwoman is still in her tender grooming years at City Hall, she has already proven to be a motivated ally for residents of the city. While she has been able to make a significant amount of progress in a short period of time, significant financial challenges lie ahead. Since her appointment, she has secured the role of serving as Vice Chair for the City of Houston’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee (BFA).
In her role as Vice Chair, she has tirelessly been working to obtain pension reform. Just last week, the Councilwoman journeyed to Austin to ensure that the state legislature approves the pension reform plan that City Council adopted in this past October. At the present, there is an $8.1 billion unfunded pension liability. The Councilwoman emphatically stated that the pension bill is a major item for the City of Houston. She said, “If they don’t pass pension reform, we are going to add $134 million to our budgetary deficit. This will have a huge economic impact on our residents. This means that there will be a substantial amount of cuts and layoffs. So we are trying to avoid that before it comes upon us. We are working very hard to save people’s jobs and keep people safe. This is why we need the bill passed now, meaning this session in the spring.”
The Councilwoman expressed the challenges that they have been facing with getting the bill approved. She revealed, “The state legislature is attempting to make amendments to the bill and the bill is very delicate. The reasons people came to the table are reflected in the bill (without amendment), so you can’t begin to strip it those considerations out or modify it. We have to do what we agreed to do with all parties (police, fire fighters and municipal workers) in order for them to agree to make the cuts that they are making. They are making $2.5 billion in cuts. So, I think that it is our responsibility to fully fund those systems as we initially agreed.”
Councilwoman Edwards is sticking to her agenda and requesting that the community help out in the way that we can. She says, “Call your state legislature, call your representatives and senators; let them know you want to keep police officers, firefighters, and municipal workers on the street and working for Houston rather than being laid off. We need to see the pension reform happen now, and we don’t need to see it with modifications.”
Additional Affiliations within and outside the City of Houston:
Councilwoman Edwards is also a member of the City of Houston’s Economic Development Committee as well as the Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure committee. With respect to the technology and innovation, Councilwoman Edwards initiated the creation of and has been leading the Mayor’s Task Force for Technology and Innovation. In the coming months, this Task Force will present recommendations on how Houston can build a more robust innovation economy. Finally, Councilwoman Edwards serves on the Houston Galveston Area Council (HGAC) Transportation Policy Council (TPC). In her role as Vice Chair of the Transit Task Force of the TPC, she is helping the Houston region concentrate on how to provide more transit options to respond to our region’s growing mobility needs.
Council Member Edwards is also working with Mayor Turner on the development of his Complete Communities Initiative. This initiative seeks to revitalize underserved communities in a comprehensive way, alongside the neighborhood. The program seeks to avoid simply imposing programs on participating neighborhoods; rather, it will work in partnership with those neighborhoods to help make their communities complete. The Mayor will roll out this initiative the coming months.
Upcoming Projects for 2017:
This year, Councilwoman Edwards will launch her community empowerment signature series of events. The 2017 theme for the Community Empowerment Signature Series is, “Be the Solution!” The Empowerment Film & Summit launch event will kick off the series on April 22, at Texas Southern University’s Education Building, from 10:30am to 1:00pm. The event will feature a screening of, The Strange Demise of Jim Crow, the story of the desegregation of Houston. After the film, the Youth and Young Adult panel as well as with the Community Leaders panel will discuss with the audience how strategies from the civil rights era can be used to address challenges faced today. Councilwoman Edwards explained that, “we will use this event to encourage, educate, equip and empower the attendees to “be the solution” in their own communities using the strategies and ideas discussed at the event.”
At the event, we will challenge those present to become a part of the solution to the problems that exist amongst us today. The Councilwoman referenced former President. She said, “President Obama in his last remarks as President, talked about how the power is in the hands of the people. So we have to remember that and not necessarily just always look for one person to lead the way. Sometimes leadership comes from the within the community. So, we are trying to empower people who attend. We are looking for young people, high school college students, and the community as a whole; because we want the full spectrum to come out to this important event.”
Recent Project – Super Bowl LI Community and Youth Public Art Murals
Since being elected to the At-Large Position 4 seat, the Councilwoman hit the ground running. She has been busy in a very positive way. Anyone that has passed by the: Beulah Shepard – Acres Homes Neighborhood Library, Breakfast Klub, Cuney Homes or the Capitol Tower, located at the intersection of Rusk and Travis, may have noticed the beautifully painted murals that adorn these sites. To those that have had the opportunity to gaze upon the skillful artwork and glory that illuminates from them, you have Councilwoman Amanda Edwards and a litany of partners, ranging from the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, Reginald Adams (artist), Amy Malkan (artist), Mayor Turner and First Daughter Ashley Turner to thank for their collaboration.
The City of Houston’s website breaks down the significance of each site, as well as those who labored to complete them. Each mural represents a different idea. The theme at the Beulah Shepard – Acres Homes Neighborhood Library is “READ”. It is a symbol that, celebrates the legacy of the strong matriarchs who have kept Acres Homes bonded together, and yields a dynamic message on the importance of reading. The Acres Homes site was selected in partnership with Houston’s First Daughter, Ashley Turner. Students from various Aldine ISD schools, members of St. Monica Catholic Church and the community all took part in this effort.
The theme of the Breakfast Klub’s mural is the “Heart of a Champion“. This fascinating work exemplifies eight of Houston’s greatest professional athletes. Athletes featured are: Simone Manuel, Zina Garrison, Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Simone Biles, Carl Lewis and George Foreman. Zina Garrison, came out in support of the dedication which was held on February 12th.
The Cuney Homes mural, “I Am Empowered” was led by Amy Malkan, artist and CEO of The Malkan Group, in collaboration with Reginald Adams. This display honors civic pioneers Norris Wright Cuney, Diane Sheffield and Louie Vincent, who empowered the Cuney Homes community. The children of Cuney Homes participated in both the design and execution of this mural.
Finally, the “Tree of Life” mural is located at the Capitol Tower on the corner of Rusk and Travis. It was designed by Reginald Adams in collaboration with 25 students from KIPP CONNECT Middle School in Southwest Houston, The “Tree of Life”, transforms Downtown Houston by depicting a 23-foot-tall urban garden.
The murals evolved from an idea that the Councilwoman envisioned while sitting in her office speaking with a non-profit organization. She was able to secure funding from Super Bowl LI to pay for the murals. She says, “Once we got the funding for it, everything started falling in place. It was a very community-oriented experience and it turned out really well.” “It’s a win for everybody – the community and the people working on it appreciated it.” Her desire is that it will inspire more public art across the city.
Advice to Members of the African-American Community:
Councilwoman Edwards encourages members of our community to, “equip yourselves with accurate information, be empowered and willing to act and make a difference.” She said, “Pay attention to the issues. When people are telling you that there is an issue that affects your community, don’t just automatically accept it or just ignore it…Do your research.” She continued, “Like, in the pension system it seems like it’s something that’s disconnected from the community, but it’s not. It really does impact the community deeply, because if we don’t fix it then we are going to add an additional $134 million to our budget deficit for next year. And a deficit of that magnitude will amount to layoffs across Houston. I want the community to understand that certain issues, like pension reform, are more connected to the stability of the community than they may appear to be on the surface..”
Overall, she believes that it is imperative that we keep ourselves informed and be willing to ask when things are not completely understood. The Councilwoman shared that, “the first thing you do to become empowered is gain that knowledge and then you have to be willing to follow through with action.”
Concluding, the Councilwoman maintains a strong commitment to community service. She has served as President of the Board of Directors for Project Row Houses in the Historical Third Ward community and on numerous other civic boards and committees, including Texas Lyceum, Texas One Voice: A Health and Human Services Collaborative and the Houston Area Urban League Young Professionals. Amanda is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She is a graduate of the Center for Houston’s Future Business/Civic Leadership Forum, Leadership Houston, and the United Way’s Project Blueprint. She attends St. Monica Catholic Church in Acres Homes.