Thursday, 16 February 2023 14:30

Sunnyside’s “Change Agent”

Tanisha Manning, a community activist and founder of Engaged Voter, is a graduate of the Department of Neighborhood’s Complete Communities University who seeks to better educate and inform residents of Houston’s Sunnyside Community about voting. Tanisha Manning, a community activist and founder of Engaged Voter, is a graduate of the Department of Neighborhood’s Complete Communities University who seeks to better educate and inform residents of Houston’s Sunnyside Community about voting. Photo courtesy of Engaged Voters

Tanisha Manning uses Department of Neighborhood’s Complete Community University training to engage voters on Houston’s south side.

Tanisha Manning describes herself as a change agent. That’s right, you heard correctly.

“I wholeheartedly believe that I am a change agent for my generation, my neighborhood, and my city,” she said. “I know my voice is a gift that is meant to teach and inspire others to know that their presence in society matters.”

Growing up in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood not only instilled in her a sense of community pride, but also what she describes as “post-election civic engagement.” Attending the Complete Communities University sponsored by the Department of Neighborhoods served to fuel her passion.

“You don’t just wake up and know how to be civically engaged. While it should be easy, there’s skills you learn, people you have to connect with, and systems that you have to understand how to navigate,” Manning said.

“The Complete Communities University acknowledges the need for the average citizen to be granted the opportunity to thrive as leaders in their community. It is a tool that teaches post-election civic engagement.”

First introduced by Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2018, DON re-launched CCU in 2021 and revamped the program, incorporating past topics, adding new leadership training content, and opening participation to residents from all Houston communities. Manning was part of the second graduating class.

Since that time, the community activist has launched Engaged Voters, a non-partisan, non-profit organization she created to educate Sunnyside residents about the process of registering to vote. The mission statement of their organization says it wants “to develop informed voters into agents of change through organized post-election engagement with elected officials.”

“CCU was the first community/city leadership program that I participated in as an adult. I used to look at so many others in my network who were in my shoes and felt like I wasn’t doing enough,” Manning said. “I have encouraged many others to participate, including my family. One of my cousins is a recent graduate of the third cohort.”

Creating socially impactful efforts like this at grassroot levels are the bread and butter for DON’s Complete Communities University, according to DON’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement Community Outreach Coordinator Rachel Gutierrez.

“CCU provides an opportunity to allow passionate residents who are seeking to change the dynamics of their neighborhoods to gain knowledge and resources about the city and partnerships that they may not have the chance to be able to obtain elsewhere,” she explained.

“The city is filled with eager, determined, intelligent and caring residents that want to improve the quality of life for their family and neighbors. So, when an opportunity like CCU arises, those individuals take advantage and commit to being that change agent,” Gutierrez said.

Besides Engaged Voters, Gutierrez said other CCU graduates continue to impact their communities. Two District H participants ran for seats in their local super neighborhoods and won. Another participant became chief development officer of her organization and secured a partnership between the city and District B to provide housing mobility and access to education for under-resourced residents.

And six participants were elected to serve on the Building and Standards Commission, she said. Their role involves hearing and determining cases concerning alleged violations of ordinances relating to dangerously damaged or deteriorated buildings or improvements, or conditions, that will assist in improving the safety and beautification of neighborhoods throughout the city.

“CCU is available to anyone who is passionate about their community. From novices to the experienced, this program is available to those residents who step up and take on the responsibility to be the change they want to see in their community. ‘How can I get involved’ is always a question the city receives. Well, this is the opportunity to do so,” Gutierrez said.

How to create change

Manning credits CCU for giving her the space to increase her own post-election civic engagement. “I volunteer as much as I can through opportunities provided by CCU and the Department of Neighborhoods,” she said.

“Additionally, I can tap into various opportunities such as learning about Boards and Commissions, providing insight on clean neighborhoods, invitations to community meetings, and more through me now being a part of the CCU Network. But above all, I am connected to my councilmembers’ office through CCU.”

Being a community activist, however, does not come without its challenges. Manning said a major challenge for her was getting voters in her community to understand the ballot.

“No matter the age, it is the main issue Engaged Voters was created to address,” she said. “Government structure and processes is not common knowledge for the average citizen and connecting the appropriate level of government to actual issues can be even more difficult. It requires commitment and dedication to break this information down to make sense before voters get to the polls.”

“If you cannot connect the dots, then voting simply doesn’t make sense,” Manning said.

There’s also the generational gap between older Sunnyside residents and their younger counterparts. Manning said the older generation are very present and active, making it easier to motivate them to continue using their voting power. Her challenge, however, is connecting with the younger Sunnyside voters.

“I know they exist, but I am learning what it will take to actually mobilize and get in front of them,” she said. “For instance, you find civic clubs are comprised of older voters, and you will notice that churches are also the same. But I do know that the young voters are here. I am a young voter who is here and although I am young, I’m essentially trying to find the best tools to reach other young voters.”

Manning said the group’s texting campaigns were only slightly successful because voters were inundated with texts during the election cycle.

“Social media is a great tool, but if your following is not large then it can be hard to make the case for your page to be one to follow,” she said. “While these are challenges, they are not stop signs. We will continue to remain committed to rallying voters.”

Manning said academic knowledge and social media activism is not enough and not always needed. Community involvement has not shifted much over the years, she said, but it still requires a commitment and physical engagement to successfully see change in your community.

And she remains undaunted by the challenge, choosing instead to look toward the future … one which she sees herself advocating for the residents of this city either in a grassroots leadership capacity or maybe even a political office.

“As a young black woman with generational history in Sunnyside, who recognizes the plight of Black communities and other marginalized groups, and who has a desire to see what collective voting and civic engagement can do, I will be committed to this work for years to come,” she said.

 Programs like CCU are pathways and a catalyst to guide us directly towards how to be change agents in our community, Manning said. “These programs provide you with the necessary tools and knowledge and connect you with individuals who are just as committed as you are.”

“Who better than natives in the city to know what each community needs and who better than the city to teach you how to fill in the gaps that it may not be able to easily do in its capacity?” she asked. “There is a time and season for it all, and I am grateful for CCU giving me the opportunity that has catapulted me either into other spaces or given me the confidence to navigate in those spaces.”

 

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About Complete Communities University:

Complete Communities University is an 8-week training course for emerging leaders committed to making a positive impact in their communities. 

Course topics include leadership development through civic engagement, volunteerism, and voter education; how city and county governments function and impact neighborhoods; and how to effectively navigate City services and local resources.

Enrollees will be selected through a competitive review process conducted by department staff.  At least 30 individuals will be enrolled in each course. Selection criteria includes commitment to civic involvement in the City of Houston, leadership potential, skills, and experience. Diversity and representation from all City Council districts will also be considered in the selection process.

Contact CCU at CCUniversity@houstontx.gov call 832.393.1061 for more information.

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