Opeyemi (Yemi) Ogundele and Jazmin Alvarez sat down virtually with Juliet Stipeche to reflect on her career as the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Education, as she prepared to step down from the position.
This is the second of four parts of this interview that will be released over the next few days. You can read Part 1 here. The transcript has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Juliet: [continuing her answer to Yemi’s question: Can you talk about some of the highlights of your role as the Director of Education? And especially about the work that you've done with UNICEF?]
Then Hurricane Harvey hit, and I told folks: We want to work together because we're stronger together. During the storm, I was like, “I don't know what the school districts are doing, and they don't know what we're doing.” So I invited all the superintendents to come in and listen to the emergency calls.
I found out that schools serve as shelters of last resort during hurricanes. I was on the school board for five years, and I didn't know that. They open up the buildings for neighborhoods when they're flooded, when they need food, they need shelter. I didn't know that, right? And the schools have computers and electricity, hopefully, and they can provide more meals. We saw during Hurricane Harvey that Superintendent Carranza was opening up schools, and they were giving out food and water and supplies in a lot of places where people were like, "Oh, we don't want to give money to schools, and we're not going to pay for a bond program."
Guess what? They polled them before the storm. They didn't want it. They polled them after the storm. They said we want it. They wanted to build more buildings.
Hold on one sec, let me let my dog inside! He's like, upset. [attends to dog] Sorry, it's my dog. Dr. Wagner is a Rottweiler that showed up at my front step before the big winter storm. And I was like, “What am I gonna do with this big Rottweiler that's here?” Dr. Wagner is the name of all Mexican wrestlers.
So anyway, so then the storm hit--actually, let me backtrack. Before I first started, Mayor and I said, “Okay, we're going to have the first meeting of all the superintendents in the city of Houston.” There's seventeen school districts that have some little piece inside the city, 25 in the county, 28 in region 4. 1.2 million kids in region 4. One out of five young people in the state of Texas are in Region 4. 900,000 children are in the 17 school districts (that does not include the children that are zero to four.) So lots of young people.
At the first meeting we had with the superintendents, they were like, "Why are we here?" Mayor responded, “I want to work with you.” I had never heard superintendents so quiet in my life. They were like, "well, you can help us with the permits, like when we're building buildings." Mayor said, “Well, I want to help you. When we go to the legislative session, I want to be able to say we're going in as Texas or we're going in as Houston, we're going in together.”
Then we invited all of the presidents and chancellors of the institutions of higher learning: TSU, Rice, U of H. Every institution in the city, we invited them to the table. They said the same thing. Why are we here? What can we do? What's the purpose?
After talking for a while, one provost said, "So you want Houston to be like Boston, where we're known for education." I was like, Boston makes a big deal about Harvard and MIT and all the schools there. You never hear Houston touting all its schools. I mean, we got more institutions than you can imagine. We don't talk about it or promote it.
That was another example. Why are we not collaborating? Superintendents are confused, presidents and chancellors are confused, because it never happened before. It's almost like you get invited to a party by somebody you don't know. Why did this person invite me to a party? You're a little confused, little apprehensive. Do they want something? Should I bring something?
That's why I say people don't know what they don't know. And they especially don't know if they never sit down together. If people in the know and with power and money and institutions aren't working together, imagine what it's like for somebody in the community, right? You don't know what you don't know.
So storm hits, mass chaos, total craziness. I walked into the George R. Brown Convention Center. It was as if a Walmart had exploded. There were diapers and clothing and people sleeping on pieces of cardboard on a hard floor. There were children and elderly people. I went up to the command center and I thought to myself, My God, what are we going to do? I felt really worried for the children.
We ended up using Google Forms to get people’s names, their children's names, and what school they went to. That way, we could start getting their schools information that their child, their student was at George R. Brown. They also needed to start filling out the paperwork to get qualified for benefits and FEMA assistance and homeless assistance and new uniforms and supplies.
We started inviting school district representatives to come in and set up tables to try to get their students back. We told them that we weren’t going to engage in any poaching, we weren’t going to get lists of names and share it with charter schools or get charter school names and share. Whoever the family identifies was who's getting the information.
Every night I would come into my house, sit down in my living room, and type those lists. I would get all the kids from HISD, all the kids from Harmony, or Aldine. Then I sent out the list to the different superintendents. But I wouldn't have been able to do something like that had we not started to build trust. That being said, I still felt like I wanted to do more, I don't know how to do more.
At that point, I got an email from UNICEF. They said that this was the first time they made a public offer. They had helped in the background during Sandy, they had helped in the background during Katrina, and now they wanted to publicly help Houston. The email got to me, and I was able to get on the phone with these folks. And they told me that because the United States has never signed on the Convention of the Rights of the Child, they couldn’t come in without an explicit invitation.
We needed a formal letter from the mayor, and Mayor was probably in a boat somewhere in Kingwood, or Fifth Ward, but I was gonna try and find him. I did, and we were able to get the letter. I can't even remember the timing, but if this happened on a Thursday, I started having conversations with the upper level executives, on like, Saturday morning.
I didn't realize I was talking to the CEO of UNICEF, who was Karen Stern at the time. They started saying, Juliet, we're bringing in folks from Geneva, New York. I was like, Geneva? New York? They said, “Oh, we're bringing in a specialist. His name is Dr. Naqib Safi. He's been to like 50 countries internationally. We send him in during disasters like an earthquake, a civil war, a natural disaster pandemic.”
So he flies in from like, Johannesburg, South Africa, and he stayed with us for about six weeks and helped me and the Mayor's Office of Education. We were a tiny little team of bandits that were there working out of the UNICEF office because we couldn't get inside of City Hall. They taught us how to develop a post disaster plan, and they said, “We love your idea about collaboration, communication and coordination. But Juliet, you have no coordination here. The City of Houston has little to no coordination. And if you don't coordinate, there's going to be another storm or another crisis it's gonna come in, it's gonna be even worse. Y'all were lucky this time because you started to help each other and rose to the occasion, but there could have been a lot more death.”
They also said that the City of Houston has a significant problem with inequity. They were like, “your segregation, your long standing history of racial and economic segregation is gonna kill you in the end, because something bad's gonna happen,” and it's like premonition COVID-19, right? I didn't realize that at the time. I was like, “Oh my god, what's it going to be? Are we going to have another hurricane? What's going to happen? Right?
Dr. Safi said, the storm, the water recedes. The Galleria people are sitting around eating fancy food, drinking wine. Other people are still underwater, living in mildew soaked furniture, breathing contaminated air. What's going on here?
He told me he was like Houston's infrastructure reminds me of Johannesburg, South Africa. That broke my heart, but it was true. I knew it broke my heart because it's so true, right? So those were some of the lessons. We took data and we said, “Okay, there's some areas that were underwater and some schools that were spared, and some schools that were underwater in neighborhoods that were spared."
The distribution of adverse impact from the storm was so discombobulated, so we created a list of schools that were most impacted and prioritized economically disadvantaged schools and schools where many students were displaced. [UNICEF] helped us set up all these different models.
We set up that hit list of the targeted schools that needed the most help because when there was money and benefits and opportunities that would arise, we would target those supports to the people that needed it most. We wouldn't just say, everybody gets a car. It was gonna be like, “No, you need it. You need it, you and so on.”
That list came in very handy, because fast forward, Mayor gets a call. And it's a group called Cantor Fitzgerald from New York. Cantor Fitzgerald is one of the investment firms in New York City that was in the Twin Towers. And Mr. Lutnick, who was the CEO, was taking his daughter to her first day of kindergarten on September 11, 2001, so he avoided death. His sister called in sick because she had a sinus infection, and she avoided death. The other people I met were all the widowers of the people that died on 9/11, and they created this fund to help folks with disaster.
They called the mayor and said, ”we have $5 million, and we're going to give it away. We want to give away 5000 of these $1,000 gift cards. Pick two or three schools, and we only want to give it to elementary school children. People can use them for whatever they want. Just get us the schools. We'll set up the distribution. We've done it before, we'll do it again.”
I told Mr. Lutnick and these folks, “Thank you, but we've got a different way of distributing here. We want to give the cards to people that were actually displaced by the storm. And they were like, how are you going to do that? I said, “we've got the list, we have the names and we have a context.”
We weren't going to ask anybody whether they're documented. If they could bring some proof that they went to the schools, they were gonna get the money. We worked on making sure that we prioritized the school districts most in need.
We were able to open up a huge wing in George R. Brown, and they sent in all of these volunteers. There were all these widows of the people that had died. They were so generous, so caring. I saw these big two guys carrying the briefcases in their suits with the handcuffs, and it was because they had American Express cards with everybody's name on it. And all each person had to do was walk up, show their proof of ID and get their $1,000 to spend on whatever they want.
I remember it was a lot of work getting the space for free, and getting the stuff set up. I just remember when they were leaving, I finally left George R. Brown, they loaded up and headed back to the airport, and I just cried. I saw a line from the GRB all the way to the Dynamo Stadium, and I said, my little team, we helped all those folks, you know? Sorry I'm getting a little emotional. [pauses]
Jazmin: No, of course. It's bringing tears to my eyes, because it's something so incredible that happened out of the disaster. We greatly appreciate that, and it was so needed at the time. We appreciate you actually trying to make a change and bringing so many people to the table, whether it be the district or other stakeholders… No worries, yes, it's bringing tears to my eyes. Very, very impactful. [pauses]
This is the second of four parts of a conversation with former Mayor’s Office of Education Director Juliet Stipeche. Throughout the week, we will be posting parts of the interview.