Minutes into her remarks at the Complete Communities University graduation ceremony, Department of Neighborhoods director TaKasha L. Francis delivered her marching orders to the 20 participants seated in front of her.
Complete Communities University had hit the pause button, but this new class had brought together emerging leaders to learn how to cultivate their raw passion for change into practical civic engagement, volunteerism, voter engagement and other ways of improving their communities. And Francis encouraged them to be bold.
“I’m going to need you all to act up,” she said. “Everybody has purpose in life. It’s literally finding the gifts, skills and abilities that each one of you has and figuring out how that serves the world. Once you figure that out, you stand up in the lane aligned with that.”
Francis then referenced civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“There is a time to be conciliatory enough to get into spaces where real change can happen, and then there are times you have to hit the streets and make some noise that will be recognized,” she stated. “You don’t want to just be known as agitators; you want to be known as agitators with a purpose.” Change, “She stated” to “she explained.”
The director’s remarks were a highlight of the night, as the department brought back the familiar professional development program aimed at helping inspire its students to become community leaders and use their talents to bring communities closer together.
First introduced by Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2018, DON relaunched Complete Communities University this fall and revamped the program, incorporating past topics, adding new leadership training content, and opening participation to residents from all Houston communities.
Twenty-three residents representing eight city council districts from Alief, Near Northside, Magnolia, Kashmere and Sunnyside took part in the first leadership training course, which began online on Oct. 6. The weekly classes were conducted every Wednesday evening from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., except during the week of Thanksgiving.
This is DON’s first year conducting CCU, which was originally introduced and administered by the Planning and Development Department as a training component under the Mayor’s Complete Communities Initiative. DON announced the relaunch of the program in late August and extended eligibility from residents of Complete Communities neighborhoods to residents citywide.
The course concluded Dec. 1, culminating in a graduation ceremony conducted at the Houston Public Library’s Julia Ideson Building. Twenty of the 23 students attended the ceremony.
Course topics include Understanding City Government, Robert’s Rules of Order, Volunteerism, and Community Engagement. DON Assistant Director Landon Taylor said the department is considering having future classes in person, online, or a hybrid format.
Francis urged the graduates to put their fears aside when it comes to a life of service to the community.
“Understand that every major movement started with someone who felt strongly and deeply enough about something to do something about it,” she said. “That’s it. It didn’t require a degree, it didn’t require any specialized profession. … It required a commitment to a cause, the right leadership, and the right partners in that journey.”
Having a passion for serving the community is what motivated Shay Jones to get involved. Jones, who works in the entertainment industry, was among the graduates.
“There are so many great personalities that all came together because they have a passion for their communities,” Jones said.
She said she was inspired by her classmates who she said are “truly interested in making a difference in their community.”
“I learned a lot and I’m still learning. But what’s most important is that the spirit of all of us are going to come together and get our project done,” Jones said.
Taylor said by collaborating with the Planning Department and the Mayor’s Office of Complete Communities prior to the relaunch, DON was able to implement its program under the existing name.
“The goal of the Complete Communities University is to take the knowledge to the people,” Taylor added. “Houston is a diverse city, and it is our goal to have citizens learn and grow with each other.
“This CCU model will also allow citizens to engage with like-minded neighborhood and fellow community advocates and educators,” he said. “As we continue to build a more robust curriculum, we plan to present real-life neighborhood problems and issues for participants to assess and devise solutions.”
CCU graduate Trévoir Hudson-Thomas said getting involved with the program aligns perfectly with the vision he shares for reinvigorating his community in the Historic Fifth Ward alongside his husband, Eric Hudson-Thomas, who also attended and graduated the class.
“I come from a mindset that believes that in order to make change happen, you have to be involved,” Hudson-Thomas said. “You have to participate. There are a lot of people who just give opinions, but not necessarily put in the work.”
A corporate trainer, Trévoir said he and Eric recently moved to Fifth Ward from the suburbs.
“We love the community and we’re both people who like to get involved and help. We started doing that the moment we moved in and realized Fifth Ward is a gem with a lot going on and lot about to go down. We both decided to get involved mainly to see what we do to enhance the community,” he said.