In the city of Houston, a wide spectrum of efforts – run by both individuals and groups – exists to support the needs of newly arriving immigrant families. As one player in the vast, decentralized network of activists across the city, we have made contributions in line with our personal values and capacities. In recent years, we watched new program services come and go, advocacy or welcoming initiatives took their momentary place in the public spotlight, and the country felt seismic shifts in political discourse. However, the fundamental pathways traveled by families building a new life in Houston have not changed.

This month, we take time to reconsider the strategies and standards guiding community investment, as the institutions that were once thoughtfully designed to fill gaps in services find themselves furthest removed from the families they were built to support. Whereas we each - as individuals - contribute to our surroundings based on personal ethics rather than simplistic economic calculations, institutions have exclusively pursued detached, pseudo-empirical models for assessing the impacts of their investment. By reinforcing personal values as the guiding posts of our work, we offer a new framework through which to consider social services and public investments. Most importantly, we consider the degree to which this value-driven work brings us together for purposes beyond meeting our most basic needs.

Photo by Yehuda Sharim - Lessons in Seeing (2017)

Multicultural Self Reliance

Firestarter has been playing a unique role in publishing data, connecting isolated networks, and redirecting investment for the benefit of newly arriving families in Houston. Whereas institutional interests have been stuck in the gravitational well of dubious economics and banal stereotypes, we come together to re-imagine a multicultural model for sharing common resources, retaining collective knowledge, and creating new space for critically-missing perspectives. For context, it is worth noting a few factors that create turbulence upstream of our efforts.

The city’s physical landscape creates a distinct impediment for organic meeting space. With more affordable housing and several large employers found in the suburbs outside the city, immigrants often move away from the urban hubs soon after finding stability. Consequently, when they might benefit most from the guidance of experienced mentors, families looking for level footing can find themselves most isolated. These factors limit the size and robust capacities of multicultural support networks, but most importantly, they take a heavy emotional toll on families living in isolation across Houston.

Systems designed to support vulnerable communities are increasingly unable or uninterested in offering services that speak to real needs. The steady divestment from public services in Texas has been paired with a relentless campaign to paint dehumanizing caricatures of anyone in need of support. In Houston, we see that the largest remaining pools of funded programs are most distant – culturally, ideologically, and procedurally - from the communities they intend to serve. Across the country, as popular waves in philanthropy evolve from targeting service gaps to investing in systemic coordination, generational poverty and inequitable resource distribution remain unencumbered by even the best-led planning sessions. The political climate, regressive macroeconomic forces, and cultural difference each play a role in this process. However, in this moment, we consider the degree to which our own actions serve to further entrench or subvert those trends.

Our experiences suggest that handing out funds from unattached donors only serves to broaden the divide between those that are perceived to wield power and those who are painted as passive dependents. Large funding streams, dependent on data that demonstrates an ability to plug a quantifiable gap in social services, are unable and ill-equipped to capture vital feedback about the underlying causes of power inequity. Nothing stifles creativity and separates communities from one another – and from funders – as quickly as passing out money through those institutional, dispassionate conditions. Yet as individuals, we recognize instances where our values lead us to contribute our own resources in an equitable, socially conscious, and globally beneficial manner. In those moments, our personal values together with the guidance of collaborators and friends, draw the clearest line between augmenting power inequity and actualizing communal sustainability.

That delicate balance is at the heart of our work to build multicultural support networks unbound by traditional models. The degree to which those efforts fall in line with our values is the first necessary question that we must ask ourselves. Are we filling a unique role in a larger movement and inviting meaningful contributions of others? Have we adequately listened before taking decisive action? Is the future we envision achievable based on the work we pursue today? These are the issues we consider here and for which we invite your perspectives.

Champions of the Community

Dr. K sits attentively as the conversation moves back and forth between dinner guests and the small group of discussion leaders. Hummus and kebabs are shoveled onto plates, and green tea is set on the table after the piles of rice dwindle to small clumps. She waits for her turn as new guests describe their backgrounds and interests, the final agenda item for the night.

After watching a film about immigrant families accessing healthcare at The Hope Clinic, Dr. K reached out to the filmmakers and was invited to attend dinner. Throughout the evening, young men and women from around the globe offer calculated thoughts to support one another and intimate stories about personal experiences of migration. Finally, her turn comes, and Dr. K discusses her work giving healthcare to uninsured youth.

A young man quickly raises his hand to see if his uninsured child can use her services – with several other dinner guests who would later reveal themselves to be uninsured eagerly awaiting a response. The man asking, Duc, is one of the champions who led the dinner discussion, driving from Cypress through the rainy winter night to take part, as he does each month. Dr. K takes a deep breath after another dinner guest, Asim, tells the group that he chose to pay the tax penalty rather than getting coverage. “See me after class” reads across her face in Asim’s direction before she can audibly formulate a response to the deluge of questions.

After the dinner agenda is complete, Dr. K sits with Duc to discuss options for his children, especially the newborn. She regularly glances in Asim’s direction to make sure he isn’t leaving without hearing her full case. But he isn’t going anywhere. Asim, a refuge from Iraq, and Maria, a dreamer from Mexico, are engrossed in conversations about full stack development, front end user design, and digital marketing.

A month later, the duo starts meeting regularly with other immigrant programmers to develop the next steps of their digital application. Between productive talk about functionality of digital service directories and user design, the group can’t help but drift into aspirations and long-term visions of their digital tools. In a free community meeting room in Southwest Houston, the small group recognizes the power they have to permanently change their home.

A problematic arrangement has long existed within the insular world of refugee resettlement, having deeper implications for immigrants more broadly. Since we first began studying the federal system of resettlement, we observed agency case workers enlisting the volunteer assistance of one or two members from each ethnic group to address the complex needs of many newly arriving families. Unpaid and unsupported, immigrants who themselves were navigating the complex terrain of Houston are asked to carry out the most vital tasks of social adjustment, emotional support, and managing long-term health, while public systems focus funding on an unjustifiably narrow employment lens.

By far, the most profound commitments being made to support immigration come from the personal investments we make in our family and friends – not the myopic focus of social service providers. As simple as reading mail for neighbors, as precarious as speaking to police about children playing in unsafe areas, and as tedious as driving elderly to the doctor or friends to job interviews, individuals within each community work around the clock for the benefit of others, while simultaneously building a life for themselves. As welcoming committees formulate vacuous plans to rebrand ineffective public infrastructure, the overwhelming need remains to expand the capacity of individuals across Houston who play the most meaningful role in supporting newly arriving immigrant families – a decentralized network of community champions working outside of formal systems.

Unfortunately, present circumstances make that role entirely unsustainable. The pressures placed upon an individual are unhealthy. The tools offered are too few to see palpable progress. The demands of personal life as an immigrant in Houston are too stressful to carry the needs of others along with our own uncertainties. Despite its limitations, this decentralized network of committed individuals - driven by their personal values, rather than a detached systematic objective - is a tremendous source of knowledge, investment, and social support. Fortunately, decentralization comes with a powerful advantage: A tool built to empower any one individual can quickly spread throughout the network.

Over the last year, we have joined a group that is taking the first, most critical steps towards envisioning and building those tools. On the first Wednesday of every month, led by a rotating cohort of champions who serve in a formal role for 12 months, we gather for dinner to help one another fulfill personal commitments to family, neighbors, and friends. The dinners are open to anyone interested in raising the standard of care for newcomers or looking for a safe space to enjoy a free meal with friends.

As plates of food are shoveled across the table, refugees, asylees, immigrants with pending status, and long-time residents from a diversity of backgrounds meet as common collaborators, rather than politically isolated demographics. While our organic structure encourages the most unpredictable encounters, we start the evening by covering a regular agenda that ensures our individual perspectives are most broadly shared. A portion of our discussion focuses on sharing knowledge to ensure resources available to any one node are made available throughout the network. When one of us has a good experience with an immigration attorney or if we heard about an education program and would like to ask others if they have utilized it in the past, our monthly dinners are the ideal space to gain insight into ways that others have overcome the challenges we presently face.

Additionally, the gatherings facilitate an incubation process that translates the shared visions expressed each month into new sustainable, community-run tools. Over time, we heard from one another about untapped potential for community investment, and so, the collaboration began designing programs based on our most commonly shared unmet needs. As a single voice in the collaboration, Firestarter has contributed our unique strength in program incubation, while looking to the future of our community’s long-term digital development goals.

Each month, we use the same informal agenda. Guests share experiences with one another and contribute thoughts on our community-run support programs.

Firestarter offers basic administrative assistance and financial management for the programs being incubated by our community champions to ensure those tools grow in line with local need, rather than to scale operations of the organization offering them. After our programs reach a point of maturity, it will be nonetheless valuable to partner with local institutions who can administer these programs in the long-term. Firestarter has been inviting local institutions to play an active role in our monthly gatherings so that our group can choose the right partner. By the time we choose an ideal long-term manager, our ongoing discussions and feedback will ensure that services are built to serve our interests, rather than those of detached bureaucracies or influential donors.

Looking to the future, Firestarter has also become invested in a burgeoning vision for the role that digital systems can play in strengthening our communities. Modern digital tools, built through an open-source framework, can function as public infrastructure built by community users. The construction of digital public infrastructure redefines the notion of public services, moving away from systems built for the “voiceless” through involuntary tax contributions into a new paradigm for community self-reliance. As such, our work to build tools for immigrant families can have a profound impact locally, as well as for countless individuals across the US. In this way, Houston lends itself to the perfect development environment, and our community gatherings have become creative and safe spaces for digital ideation and development of decentralized technologies.

Altogether, the gatherings of community champions have been organized through shared values, spurred by the need for personal action, and guided by commitment of incredible collaborators. New contributors join us each month, expressing valuable tactical objectives, but most importantly, adding faith in our shared values to treat one another as equals and to claim ownership of our own future. By coming together, we take an unflinching position on the labels, borders, and definitions that are useful for the accumulation of power in the hands of a distant few.

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Photo by Yehuda Sharim - Seeds of All Things (2018)

To date, two actively used tools have emerged from the burgeoning collaboration for the benefit of local champions, friends, and community members throughout the city’s decentralized networks. The first, our Community Connections Portal, is a tool to encourage personal connections that can extend networks and offer guidance to families in their new homes. The second is The Opportunity Fund , built for individuals to access education and vocational training. Both are being developed with ongoing feedback of our multi-cultural community model. The programs’ goals, long term trajectory, and metrics for success are culminations of collective values expressed by countless contributors, month after month.

Community Connection Portal: Extending networks of support to newly arriving immigrants in Houston

We have equated being an American with being all alone.
A hundred bucks for food a month breaks from self-reliance culture.
And yet, a million dollar start up fund is a small business loan.
Self-reliance culture is a break from self-reliance culture.
Independence transformed to serve the interests of a few,
When you rely only on yourself, your self is suddenly all gone.
Collected, bought, sold, and forced to work each day, anew.
When you rely only on yourself, your self is suddenly all gone.

What began as an email list between a dozen strangers has now developed into a robust network of Houstonians working to create meaningful connections for newly arriving immigrant families. After 40 weeks of sample trials, we are now releasing initial outcomes and future plans for the Community Connection Portal. Simply by forwarding e-mails between friends, members of the network contribute to a mechanism for building personal ties in the city’s vast, isolating landscape.

The first version of our digital portal came when our collaboration was in its earliest stages. Through the process of documenting quotidian experiences of diverse immigrant communities and conducting research into local support structures, we began building social ties across cultural silos and witnessed, in person, the strength of long ties. Over time, we formed a small e-mail list to expand networks for new friends who were interested in finding opportunities for mentorship, personal contacts, and social support. As friends invited their friends to join the e-mail list, we began testing the capacity of our network, finding each time that offers for help were one e-mail chain away.

After 40 weeks of experiments and in conjunction with burgeoning monthly gatherings of community champions, we have built an ideal portal for locals to play an active role in supporting new immigrants - action beyond social media posts and sending donations. The vast majority of contributors to the network made a profound difference by forwarding an e-mail to someone that can offer help. Others capitalized on opportunities to become English language partners, employment mentors, or new social ties. While we have immense room to expand our portal, 77% of requests were met within hours, leading to meaningful personal connections for families from around the globe. Some of the key lessons we learned and features we have permanently integrated into the portal include:

1. The most specific requests were met the fastest.

Over time, it became overwhelmingly clear that the network was best at finding specific people to make purposeful contributions. We found biochemical engineers, Dari translators, or violin teachers with ease when our list was still miniscule. While we experimented with enrolling volunteers to help local nonprofits or to gather items for donation, these requests were more difficult to organize and fell drastically short of the impact made by direct person-to-person connections. By searching for connections in a narrow field for the benefit of a single individual - rather than enlisting general mentors or asking for funding assistance - we made optimal use of our network.

2. Requests for assistance came from a variety of sources.

While it might be difficult for a new arrival to ask for help from a source of support they never knew existed, community activists from a variety of backgrounds found the tool useful for helping friends and neighbors. Local community centers, service providers, and ESL teachers, as well as our community champions and dinner guests, all asked for contacts on behalf of members of the community who might benefit from a network tie. Beyond using the portal for our relatively small group of activists, it is encouraging to see diverse members of our decentralized networks utilizing it effectively.

3. Employment mentorship offers transformative support.

In conjunction with The Opportunity Fund, we began connecting individuals who were interested in pursuing higher education with local professionals working in their chosen fields. For individuals who were seeking recertification, meetings with new network ties offered invaluable guidance for unlocking a lifetime of schooling and professional experience, which local employers might not immediately recognize. Similarly, individuals who were looking to enter a new field, utilized mentors to choose the right program and gain insight into the prospects of long-term employment. In this way, our network’s ability to make introductions for future employment and education is a vital piece of supporting long-term wellness.

4. We were unsuccessful in building a reliable system to address support for youth.

Safety was of paramount importance to us throughout this process, and so we approached work with youth cautiously. While we made plans to conduct background checks and additional vetting after getting a request to find network ties for youth, no responses ever came. Currently, we feel as though the portal is not well-suited for youth outreach.

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5. When used to support the needs of organizations, connections did not lead to meaningful exchange.

When we first began our trials with the portal, several organizations approached us for help recruiting volunteers. Interest in those opportunities was clearly low, and the few connections that were made did not have lasting effects. The portal will thus remain as a channel to bridge individual connections person-to-person, rather than pipelines to recruit organizational volunteers.

6. Local business owners are interested in extending valuable offers to new arrivals.

While our network primarily facilitated connections to individuals, at times, local businesses eagerly came forward with offers of free services and valuable help in response to our call for assistance. At no point did we offer to publicly recognize those businesses in the past, and none of our calls for connection were made in conjunction with financial solicitations. Nonetheless, these businesses responded with offers to share expertise and deliver free services to new arrivals using the portal. This is an encouraging development, and we plan to pursue further ties with businesses that strengthen our community-led efforts.

With those valuable lessons learned in the initial trials of our Community Connection Portal, we are eager to expand the network and help it realize its potential for fostering supportive communities in Houston. Our next target is to run a full year of requests, sending out one call for a new network connection each week. While the responses of our initial tests suggest unequivocally that local residents have endless desire to offer assistance, there are many opportunities, sectors, and individuals who we have not been able to reach, yet. With each additional node in our network, we open new doors and invite new contributors to guide our efforts moving forward.

On the horizon, some big questions lay ahead for the community champion incubation efforts to consider. As our connections are made more frequently, we are building plans for long term follow up to be done with mentors so that their experiences can be included in our common knowledge. Likewise, it is vital that the information collected by our champions makes its way into the hands of mentor volunteers. Whether through formal trainings or digital tools, we can empower mentors to continue their work creating meaningful connections for newly arriving families.

The most pressing challenge for our efforts to overcome, however, relates to larger cultural phenomena, which demonize those of us who dare to ask for help. Decades of isolation, combined with the normalization of performative charitable work, have convinced us all that offers for assistance come with a hidden price. To become vulnerable, to find words that express our complex desires, and to envision something beyond the monotony of low-wage labor, we must continually create those meaningful ties. With each one made, we express an act of loving defiance, modeling the supportive community networks we wish to see.

Photo by Yehuda Sharim - We Are In It(2016)

The Opportunity Fund:

Investing in ourselves and the future of our communities

It’s 3 AM. Malik has been driving in the dark for nearly an hour. The radiator's hissing has grown only slightly louder than at the start of the ride, a positive omen for this fateful day. No one told him what to expect, but he came prepared with a resume and suitable clothing to make a positive impression. Three weeks ago, he was living with his mother, coming home from a good paying job as the director of IT for the local university, and imagining how life might change in America. He thinks of his mother. She is praying for his safety. He feels strong.

The bottom floor of the warehouse is filled with steam. Men in plastic suits sort through layers of rented tuxedos, placing them at the appropriate level of the conveyor belt. He steps into an adjacent office, where a manager extends a firm handshake and welcome. “We start at 4 am,” he says. “Shipments need to be out the door by noon. How’s your English?” It’s good, but that doesn’t curry favor in the warehouse. Neither does his professional attire, which makes the sweltering heat of the steam-cleaning room physically unbearable by sunrise.

On his first short break, Malik imagines his wife and children cleaning up their breakfast plates. He sits down to eat his packed meal besides a man with a long beard, who he immediately identifies as also being from Iraq. “Are you a Muslim?” the bearded man asks. “You should not shave, unless you want to become like them.” It is an offensive notion to Malik, who was taught by his mother to think kindly of others and to welcome the change that life presents. He thinks to himself that he better avoid his former countrymen if he hopes to find happiness in his new home. But not here in this warehouse. This isn’t - can’t be - his way.

Education is about more than jobs. It is more than a pathway to higher wages. It is intimately tied to our sense of self-worth, dignity, wellbeing, and relationships with the people around us. Access to education – both in pursuit of specialized work and as a gateway to broader worldviews – is a strong measure of a community’s overall health. Especially as our local economies experience radical transformation, it is vital to create opportunities for learning new skills and gaining new insights. Unfortunately, formal systems built to guide immigrants have continually failed to realize the benefits of investing in education.

Over time, immigrants and refugees have been systematically deprived of access to education thanks to strategies that denigrate their productive capabilities in favor of creating reliable low wage labor supply. Whereas funding support for education access has been widely utilized throughout the history of American immigration, in recent decades, this strategy has been replaced with a monolithic focus on entering rapid employment. Instead of waiting or advocating for those systems to be reformed, our common vision has helped to create a community-run funding mechanism that helps immigrants pursue higher standards of professional or educational achievement.

Over the past two years, we have worked with local agencies, community representatives, and the burgeoning community champions infrastructure to establish The Opportunity Fund in Houston. We launched the fund to support two families in its first year, growing to ten in its second, and it is, now, on pace for fifty in 2019. With each new participant, we gain insight into programs, ranging from traditional universities to online programs and vocational trainings, that can extend access to education for immigrants of all backgrounds.

In 2017, we ran a small pilot to explore the models through which an investment in education access could support the needs of newly arriving immigrant families. By putting our full resources and attention into two individual cases, we gained a depth of knowledge about the external factors that complicate even the best-case circumstances for new arrivals. Issues of childcare, transportation, international transcript verification, network connections, program quality, and cultural expectations all played a role in supporting those first two community members, who both came with extensive schooling and strong work histories. We also quickly discovered a valuable link between access to education and our Community Connections Portal, which helped the participants navigate complex bureaucracies through the support of a new network tie. Those experiences, together with the successes and challenges faced by ten families we supported in the following year, have laid the groundwork for sustainable growth of The Opportunity Fund.

The values shared by our community champions and many collaborators are central to the ongoing incubation of the fund. Recognizing that education access is about more than a simple economic calculation, we are working to define new metrics of success. English language acquisition and familiarity with educational opportunities are in many ways more indicative of success than hourly wage increase or labor participation, especially in the short term. In addition, we believe that a community-funded mechanism must consider long term sustainability and fairness through a free-loan structure, in which each individual success paves the way for another family. Lastly, we believe that these instruments must be accessible to the widest number of our community members. Rather than focusing on one small group of “highly employable” or “unskilled laborers”, we are interested in systems that give us, as individuals, the choice to pursue our own ambitions.

At present, we are working on a three-step process of incubation for the fund. First, with each participant, we are expanding our directory of quality training programs and gaining insight into the industries that are best suited for members of our community to enter. Factors such a schedule, cost, and cultural competency also play a role in helping us build reliable tracks for new arrivals to pursue. Second, we are focused on a three-year transition to offering primarily free-interest loans, rather than grants. After finding ideal candidates for loans and through the guidance of our friends at Hebrew Free Loan Association, we have already built a small portfolio of outstanding loans to members of our community. Finally, the last step of our incubation will be to identify a local institution that can build a long-term management capacity for the fund. The ultimate objective is for us to be able to use this tool, once we have taken the time to craft it for our own direct benefit.

Some of the key lessons we have learned through our experiences running The Opportunity Fund include:

1. There exists huge value in offering a community-supported alternative to rapid employment.

Within the extreme pressures of a system based on rapid employment, there is no option, both legally and through basic financial considerations, for an individual to turn down any employment opportunity. Yet, we know that in the long-run, the short-term gains are outweighed by long term costs. Nevertheless, in that moment amid a complex journey of migration, no one is able to make an accurate calculation of risk and return. Especially when alternatives are not discussed, new arrivals have no real choice to express their own time preference.

Simply by suggesting there might be an alternative, we have already seen that a change in mindset can manifest into a radical change of outcomes. Given the diversification of educational opportunities and through the social support of a local community, alternative pathways are within reach. By removing that immediate pressure to accept a job offer, which will likely remain available due to chronic staff turnover at many of the city’s top employers, we give members of our community a moment to consider their strengths and imagine an attainable path of their own.

2. Education and vocational training leads to better outcomes when paired with mentorship.

By the time our education grants were launched, the burgeoning collaboration was already utilizing the Community Connection Portal with success. One of our first education grant recipients struggled to choose between two engineering programs in which to enroll. When paired with an employment mentor through our portal, he made an informed choice based on the experiences of professionals who work locally in his field and came to this country with foreign degrees. Since then, we have matched nearly all our participants with an employment mentor to guide the way and offer encouragement. The synergy between these programs has been a fantastic emergent property and further showcased the invaluable role that increased person-to-person connections can make.

3. The system of public education fails to inform immigrants about opportunities and career paths.

Thanks to some regular guests of our monthly dinners, we have built relationships with individual staff from Houston Community College. They have been extremely helpful in addressing the needs of individuals, and yet, as a whole, public education is nearly impossible for immigrants to navigate on their own. Since HCC closed the office built to support refugee arrivals, no replacement has emerged. Limited information about program costs, degree opportunities, and vocational trainings is shared within our broad network. As we build a body of knowledge, private programs continue to offer better opportunities that major public institutions.

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4. Professional recertification and transcript verification require a more systematized approach.

By covering fees for transcript verification and recertification examination, we are making a stellar investment in the future of a family. Yet, these processes often require a higher degree of handholding than most of our employment mentors are able to extend. Over time, we hope to gain expertise in vertical industries to better guide qualified professionals in reclaiming their educational achievements in Houston. Our efforts might benefit from larger groups and professional associations that can offer guidance from within their networks.

5. ESL can become accessible to all willing and able immigrants only through a collaborative, citywide effort.

The demands of work, limitations for childcare, cultural sensitivities, and physical barriers all present a challenge for delivering quality ESL education across Houston. According to the Houston Refugee Consortium, only 54% of enrolled students completed the first level of ESL education in 2018, a troublesome statistic when considering the small numbers and distinct advantages that refugee service providers have compared to other immigrant community support efforts. We have worked with multiple partners to find effective solutions for culturally competent and physically accessible language instruction. While we have found a small group of quality options, it has been extremely challenging to make those programs broadly accessible, especially to women and single mothers. In addition to the economic costs of inaccessible ESL, we cannot understate the emotion and cultural consequences of never learning to speak English.

We envision systems that help small ESL providers broadcast their capacity and maps that assist new arrivals in finding conveniently located class offerings. The diversification of ESL provision is necessary for broad access. Funding for delivering ESL instruction must be more broadly accessible as well to support those efforts. We are interested in utilizing our digital tools to better coordinate ESL instruction. Ultimately, we have been exploring any method by which qualified teachers are financially supported and seamlessly connected with the heavy demand.

The lessons we have learned position us for sustained growth of The Opportunity Fund. As we move forward in the incubation process, it is incumbent upon our efforts to create multicultural self-reliance through a growing network of trust. All partners in the effort, ranging from educators to funding recipients, continue to play an intimate role in shaping its future. Much like our monthly gatherings and our digital development goals, the work grows when we successfully invite new talents and perspectives into the conversation. Altogether, the distinct puzzle pieces fit perfectly in place insofar as our individual community members - coming from all corners of the globe - find common ground in this strange urban setting of Houston, TX.