Elders provide wisdom, experience

By Cierra Duncan

Spirits are high each week when members of the Elders Institute of Wisdom gather for their weekly meetings at SHAPE Community Center.

Each gather begins with a word of prayer. The elders then participate in a moderate exercise routine, listen to a guest speaker or performer, and discuss current events and how they can improve issues in the community.

Members of the institute come from various backgrounds and occupations, including activist, teacher, minister and poet.

Members of the Elders Institute of Wisdom and supporters gather at Shape Community Center. (Photo: Cierra Duncan, Defender)

Members of the Elders Institute of Wisdom and supporters gather at Shape Community Center. (Photo: Cierra Duncan, Defender)

“The institute is extremely important in terms of getting the wisdom of the elders, what they’ve been through and what they can help you with,” said Sister Valerie Mawiyah, a member of the National Black United Front and former development worker in Haiti. “They can do mediation and give you a perspective of many years.”

A key part of belonging to the Elders Institute of Wisdom is being able to provide guidance to the young.

“We speak openly,” said Milton Randle, an ordained minister and leader in the elder’s institute. It is not uncommon to see Randle or another elder being a mentor to a SHAPE youth.

Randle said the Institute of Wisdom is derived from an African concept where elders are the leaders in a community. Elders make the final decision when an issue is brought before them and that decision is honored and carried out by younger members in the community.

SHAPE executive director Deloyd Parker and Elder Milton Randle emphasize the contributions that older adults make to the community. (Photo: Cierra Duncan, Defender)

SHAPE executive director Deloyd Parker and Elder Milton Randle emphasize the contributions that older adults make to the community. (Photo: Cierra Duncan, Defender)

“An elder is someone who’s old and wise,” said Deloyd Parker, executive director at SHAPE. “You don’t have to have a Ph. D. Your wisdom, knowledge and understanding make the difference.”

“As a collective, SHAPE is healing,” said Mother Jean Dember, founding member of the National Black United Front.

She said people have come into SHAPE disoriented and lacking focus due to the disrespect they’ve encountered in their everyday lives. However, once spending time at the center, interacting with the elders and being respected, they gain a new outlook on life. “That’s what gives them dignity,” she said. “They are respected here.”

Dember became involved with SHAPE shortly after she moved to Houston. She was encouraged by a doctor at Riverside Hospital to become active in the community.

“We do not need a list of the problems,” she recalled the doctor stating. “We need a list of solutions. What are you going to do about the problems you see in the community?”

Dember has been a long-time activist in Houston. Most recently she has fought in support of keeping the Southmore Station Postal Office open. She has also been vocal about HISD’s decision to repurpose Jones High School and close Dodson Elementary.

She said some political and community leaders have lost their reverence for elders.

“They are supposed to come to the elders and find out what we have learned in life and what we can transmit to them,” Dember said. “Then they can put them into the laws, customs and services that we need.”

The Elders Institute of Wisdom has made a vital impact on SHAPE Community Center. It has not only reenergized and enhanced the lives of its members but the institute has also been a source of knowledge for younger generations.

Elder Ade leads the elders in a moderate exercise routine during each meeting.  (Photo: Cierra Duncan, Defender)

Elder Ade leads the elders in a moderate exercise routine during each meeting. (Photo: Cierra Duncan, Defender)

“The community would not be if it weren’t for SHAPE,” said Lillie Starks, a retired City of Houston employee.

Starks came to SHAPE after retirement to continue working with people. She said she enjoys the center and the elders because of the community and interacting with people close to her age.

“If their life is enhances and extended then that means we benefit more because they are here for us,” Parker said. “It’s like a circle of interdependence, when they grow we grow. Then they can teach us, we can learn from them and they can continue to learn.”

“They are active,” he continued. “They are not elders sitting down, lying down and waiting to die. They are elders who are making a difference. They are still making a difference.”
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 26 (May 1, 2014) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX. (http://defendernetwork.com/)


Hearing highlights voting rights issues

By: Cierra Duncan

The National Commission on Voting Rights recently held an open hearing in Houston to give the public an opportunity to speak on their voting experiences.

The commission is currently holding hearings, and will document speakers’ testimonies to help create election reform efforts that can help end voter discrimination.

The forum was held at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law. A panel of state voting rights leaders heard testimony on such issues as young voter disenfranchisement, suppression and administration problems such as record maintenance.

“Voting rights is not the denial of the rights of anyone,” said Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. “It is the opening of doors of opportunity for all.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee speaks on the importance of voting rights. (Photo: Cierra Duncan)

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee speaks on the importance of voting rights. (Photo: Cierra Duncan)

“The Voting Rights Act safeguarded the rights of Americans to vote and stood as an obstacle to many of the more egregious attempts by certain states, including Texas, to gain the system by passing discriminatory changes in their election laws and administration policies.”

She added that the Voting Rights Act is needed more than ever to prevent disenfranchisement.

Cynthia Spooner, a Houston resident, said she has lived in Texas for the past 10 years. She has voted in six other states but said Texas is the only place where she encountered challenges. She tried three times before she successfully received a voter’s registration card and has been challenged at least eight times while trying to vote in Harris County.

“I have lived my life believing that I’m not here on a hall pass,” Spooner said. “I want every right that my parents fought for and that everyone deserves. It’s not just about my rights. It’s about the rights of the whole community.”

In addition to the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, supporting organizations included the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, Houston Area Urban League and 100 Black Men of America, Houston Metropolitan Chapter.
The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 23 (April 10, 2014) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX. (http://defendernetwork.com/)

Post office supporters won’t back down

by Cierra Duncan

Third Ward residents continued to rally to save the Southmore Post Office on Almeda while commemorating the 54th Anniversary of Houston’s first sit-in.

In March, 1960, Texas Southern University students marched to what was then the Weingarten’s supermarket on Almeda. Their objective was to be served at the lunch counter like their white counterparts.

TSU students sitting at the lunch counter at Weingarten's supermarket on March 4, 1960.

TSU students sitting at the lunch counter at Weingarten’s supermarket on March 4, 1960.

Today the post office is one of six still being considered for closure or repurposing by the U.S. Postal Service. Supporters refuse to stop fighting to keep it open, and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is urging residents to write letters of support to a postal executive by March 26.

Jackson Lee also asked residents to inform others who may be unaware of what is going on.

“Everyday people are using the post office and they don’t even know [it could close],” she said. Jackson Lee added that the facility remains busy and is needed by the community.

“This post office may seem like a small issue,” said Assata Richards, a Project Row House board member. “But it is an opportunity to galvanize our community and say that our community is not for sale, that the history of our community is valuable and that we are valuable.”

Serbino Sandifer-Walker, a journalism professor at TSU, reflected on the facility’s history. She played an instrumental role in getting a historical marker commemorating the sit-in placed at 4110 Almeda.

Texas Southern University professor Serbino Sandifer-Walker talks about the Southmore Post Office's history.

Texas Southern University professor Serbino Sandifer-Walker talks about the Southmore Post Office’s history.

“The students did something in this city that had never happened before,” she said. “They stood up and they said change would have to happen… They wanted justice and equality for African-American people who had been treated like second-class citizens for years.”

Letters of support for the post office can be addressed to Vice President of Facilities, c/o Sandra Rybicki, Southern Facilities Service Office, P.O. Box 667180, Dallas, Texas, 75266-7180.

The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 19 (March 13, 2014) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX. (http://defendernetwork.com/)

Little Rock Nine member visits Houston

by Cierra Duncan

The nine African-American students enrolled in a Little Rock, Ark. high school in 1957 played an integral role in the Civil Rights Movement. Their desegregation of the school made national headlines and became a defining moment in Black history.

Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the Little Rock Nine, spoke from his memoir “Lessons from Little Rock” during a recent trip to Houston. His appearance was sponsored by the Ant-Defamation League, Southwest Region.

Roberts, now 72, lives in Pasadena, Calif., and is the CEO of a management consultant firm devoted to fair and equitable practices. He maintains a private psychology practice and presents workshops and lectures on an array of topics.

During his Houston appearance, he talked about the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which resulted in the Little Rock crisis. The court ruled that separate school systems based on race were unconstitutional and violated the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

“It was an important marker in time and space because the law was now on my side,” Roberts said. “Regardless of what you think about the law, regardless of whether you think it’s just or fair or needful, it is now written. The law now supports Terry Roberts. I had prepared my whole life up to that point for it.”

Once Brown v. Board of Education became law, Roberts said he no longer felt he had to remain subdued about his beliefs on equality. When NAACP representatives asked local students to help integrate Central High School, he was one of 150 students who initially volunteered. The number soon dwindled to nine.

“We quickly found out that we were not loved as a group, primarily by the governor,” Roberts recalled.

Little Rock Nine Students with Daisy Bates

Little Rock Nine Students with Daisy Bates

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied the Supreme Court’s ruling and placed the National Guard at the school’s front entrance to stop the Black students from entering the building. They were not able to attend school until the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne were brought in as escorts due to the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Racism continued

“Once we finally got into school, white kids in the school got up and walked out of the class each time we walked in,” Roberts said. “I thought that was odd because I was so in love with education, I could not conceive of a moment that I would leave an institution designed to help me in that enterprise.”

Roberts, who was 15 when he entered Central High, said he initially believed the racism would diminish due to fewer students in the classroom. He soon found out that those students who remained would be “more fierce” in their actions towards them.

“We were attacked daily,” he said. “Without the presence of military, I don’t think any of us would have made it through.”

The students were recruited by Daisy Bates, president of the NAACP Arkansas chapter and a Black newspaper publisher. Bates’ home became headquarters for the school integration battle and she remained a supporter of the students.

At the end of the school year, eight of the “Little Rock Nine” remained at Central High. Minnijean Brown was expelled due to fighting. This caused the remaining students to recommit to their vow of nonviolence.

“Once you understand there’s a bigger principle at stake, you can consider giving up violence,” Roberts said.

At the beginning of the following school year, Faubus closed all Arkansas schools in an attempt to stop desegregation. Roberts did not want his education to be hindered so he moved with relatives to California and completed his senior year in Los Angeles.

“My first grade teacher said you must become CEO of your own independent learning enterprise and I took her up on that,” he said. “I became CEO of the ‘Terry Roberts Learning Institute’ and I have not given that up.”

In 1967 Roberts received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University. He earned a master’s in social welfare from UCLA in 1970 and a doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University in 1976.

Roberts serves on the Board of the Economics Resources Center in Southern California, the Western Justice Center Foundation, and the Little Rock Nine Foundation.

He is the recipient of the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal for his courageousness in Little Rock.

The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 14 (February 6, 2014) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX.

Jones High supporters oppose school closure

by Cierra Duncan

Concerned parents, students and community members recently gathered at Jones High School to discuss the school’s future. Supporters want Jones to stay open, and asked HISD to consider other options.

Jones is one of five under-enrolled HISD schools being considered for closure or repurposing at the end of the school year. According to the district, the proposed plan will allow enrollment and resources to be better distributed across campuses.

“Roughly 2,000 children are zoned to Jones High School but only an estimated 440 students are currently enrolled,” explained Michael Cardona, HISD’s interim chief high schools officer.

“When you want to offer services such as electives and [advanced placement] courses, it becomes more difficult the smaller the school gets.”

If Jones is closed, students would be re-zoned to Sterling or Worthing High Schools. Some supporters believe HISD has not considered students and parents in the proposed closure.

“HISD wants to know how to bring children back to the school but they haven’t asked the community,” said Assata Richards, vice chair of the Houston Housing Authority. “If you don’t ask your consumers that question, how do you create a product that your consumers want?”

Another Jones supporter, a concerned parent, said HISD should invest in the community.

“In the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ there is a quote that says ‘If you build it they will come.’ There is no building in our community, and because there is no building they are not coming,” the parent said. “You all are going to have to step out on faith and money and invest in our community.”

Other supporters said HISD should bring work training and college preparatory programs back to the campus.
The community’s feedback and the proposed closures will be presented to the HISD Board of Education on Feb. 20.

The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 15 (February 13, 2014) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX.

Residents fight to save post office

by: Cierra Duncan

Concerned citizens and community leaders are rallying to save the Southmore Station post office located at 4110 Almeda.

The facility is one of six post offices in Houston being considered for closure or relocation. Supporters contend that closing it would inconvenience residents, especially the elderly and the disabled. The post office also has historical significance and was the site of Houston’s first sit-in in 1960.

Southmore Station Post Office located at 4110 Alemda. (Photo: Cierra Duncan)

Southmore Station Post Office located at 4110 Alemda. (Photo: Cierra Duncan)

Wayne Mitchell, the Houston UPS district manager, said the proposed changes are due to financial difficulty.

“We have to be able to have financials in order to support our operations,” he said. “We cannot tell our people who have invested their lives and career into the organization that they no longer have jobs because we can’t make the bottom line.”

Sandra Rybicki, a real estate specialist for USPS facilities, said the post office will not be closing in entirety. If chosen, the current location would consolidate some daily operations with another location and find replacement facilities for the remaining retail presence.

“The bottom line would be right-sizing the operation,” she said. “It’s not economical to maintain that facility with all that excess space.”

Post office employees offered their own solutions to keeping the building open. Brady D. Randall, a 35-year postal service employee, recommended expanding hours of operation.

Some supporters also expressed concern about lack of communication between Houston City Council and its residents. Until a City Council meeting last month, many residents were unaware of the possible changes being made to the Southmore station.

“We expect our elected officials to fight for us,” said Kofi Taharka, national chairperson for the National Black United Front. “A business that has the ability to touch every household in our community and you mean to tell me that we couldn’t find out about the potential of it being closed? We have a trust issue here.”

Congressman Sheila Jackson Lee, who organized a town hall meeting to address the issue, wants the facility to stay open.

“I think the tragedy is that the Postal Service itself didn’t do the research it needed to do,” Jackson Lee said.

Congressman Al Green sent a letter to the postmaster general asking that the facility remain open.

“I understand that the Postal Service has difficult decisions ahead of it due to financial problems that they continue to face,” Green said.

“However, I ask that the historic importance of this post office, where the first sit-in demonstration in Houston occurred in 1960, be considered to a greater extent along with other factors before any decision to close or relocate this post office is carried out.”

The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 11 (January 16, 2014) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX.
The online version is available at http://issuu.com/defendermediagroup/docs/01.16.2014_e-full

Bank robbery trap, Black men recruited for crimes: A Conversation with Deric Muhammad

Community activist Deric Muhammad is concerned about the plight of young Black males and their increased involvement in crime. For this reason, he organized “Project Forward,” a citywide initiative geared at stopping violence, increasing economic development and fighting for justice within the Black community.

He also hosts an annual Black Male Summit, which encourages participants to make smart choices.

Muhammad talked about how increased community involvement can help solve the issue of crime.

Defender: Why should the Black community be concerned about the bank robberies?

Muhammad: The particular issue the Black community needs to be concerned about is that the overwhelming majority of the individuals going to jail for bank robberies in Houston are African-American males. There is a “dark” type of mentorship going on in our community where you have older Black males recruiting younger Black males to commit crimes rather than recruiting them to do something positive.

Defender: What does the seriousness of the crime say about problems in the Black community?

Muhammad: There is a saying that says “extreme conditions sometimes cause extreme measures.” The behavior that you see in our young people is an adequate reflection of our condition. Our condition is so bad that people think that they have to result to that which is not even humane in order to survive or succeed.

Defender: What can the community do to help lead young Black men down the right path?

Muhammad: Special attention needs to be paid to the plight of the Black male because that is where the need is greatest. We have to start giving back to the Black male in our community by way of mentorship. We have to make sure there are enough programs that are specifically designed to enlighten the Black male and create opportunities and options for the Black male. We have to get ahead of the problem because too often, the problem doesn’t come to our attention until it’s too late.

Defender: What should young black men who are desperate for money do if they feel there is no other alternative but crime?

Muhammad: What you should do to make money is first identify your gift or talent. Then you have to find a way to turn that into a profitable business. Start small, be patient until it grows. It is better that you go after the finer things in life using your gifts and talents and having the patience to build up your business than to go into a lifestyle where you have to constantly look over your shoulder.


The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 6 (December 5, 2013) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX.

The online version is available at http://issuu.com/defendermediagroup/docs/12.05.2013_e-full.