Houston, TX: Compassionate City of the New South

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 was a big day in the history of Houston, Texas! Over 35 people from various organizations included in a grassroots movement known as Compassionate Houston gathered at City Hall to witness the City's acknowledgement of the vision of the Charter for Compassion, Houston’s legacy of compassion, the work of Compassionate Houston, and the Mayor’s proclamation of Compassionate Houston Day.

This milestone achievement for CH and for the city of Houston, was the result of a three-year campaign involving people and events across the city. The campaign established regular contact with the mayor’s office and city departments, meeting and providing them with material on educational, outreach and direct action initiatives. CH offered to partner with the City in commemorating 9/11, and then marshaled a network of more than 100 community partners to support that event. Over a three year period of networking, meeting, and participating in events around the city (City tribute to the Homeless; City service for solidarity with the Sikh community; ML King Day parade) CH established the credibility needed to support its proposal.

Report by Ann Bugh, a CH Founding Partner

Some journeys begin without a clear road map going forward.  This vision was too important NOT to carry forward, though the path only became clear looking back.  In the summer of 2010, The Charter for Compassion had already attracted the attention of a group of Houstonians who had begun to ask, “What would it take to make Houston a more Compassionate City?” As seeds were being planted by these Houstonians to build a network of individuals and organizations throughout Greater Houston to foster compassion as a “clear, luminous, and dynamic force” in our community, we were about to learn that making a vision reality would teach us all compassion’s greatest lessons:  the importance of commitment; the power of connection; the value of patience, mutual respect, open heartedness, non-judgment and much more!  Every success spurred us on. Every misstep tested our commitment as well as teaching us lessons. Even what we first perceived as false starts, in the end became stepping stones.  So how did we grow the seed of a vision into the proclamation signed by Mayor Parker for the city of Houston on February 26, 2013?    


A core of dedicated Houstonians passionate about the vision, kept the conversation going, combined talk with action and refused to give up, no matter what.  Early on we developed a 3-pronged approach.  First came a public education/awareness campaign that included hosting public forums, panels, a weekend retreat and ongoing presentations focused on compassion.  As word spread, our second area of focus became outreach/networking efforts.  In the interest of leveraging existing resources and “supporting those already serving” Houston, we made cold calls to nonprofits, organized meetings and brainstorming sessions, established a Google group, established a web site, and gradually compiled a list of partners (civic, faith-based, nonprofits, corporate and individuals).  Our third area of focus was direct action.  CH worked with local groups serving the homeless and the HIV communities to gather blankets, hygiene products and other needs. We partnered with the Houston International Festival to sponsor a children’s Art Contest imaging Houston as a Compassionate City.  We supported diversity events such as the Martin Luther King Parade.  Modeling and practicing compassion as a call to direct action enabled us to “walk the talk” behind our vision. 

Early on, Betty Adam, the group’s founder and driving force, also reached out to the Mayor, city council and several city departments exploring ways to partner.  Our CH/City partnership in the fall of 2010 for the Tenth Anniversary of the Commemoration of 9/11 was a major success.  This 3-day event included faith based presentations, a musical tribute by the Houston Grand Opera, city tributes to first responders, and a host of volunteer efforts and projects happening around Houston designed to “give back” in commemoration of those who gave so much.  During this period, Betty and a core of committed Houstonians worked to establish CH as a 501c3, reached out to CAN and the Fetzer Institute for mentoring, and networked with peer Compassionate Cities such as Louisville.  

Has it been an easy 3-year journey?  There is nothing easy about Compassion, but the rewards are life-changing.  There were disappointments--people who couldn’t hear what was being said or “see” the vision.  Together we had to learn how much “bigger” Compassion is than any one of us.  Whenever we attempted to decide in advance what success should look, or to define compassion too narrowly, or tried to “steer” the vision the way we believed it should go, we were invariably forced to let go.  Moving forward we know that Compassion is never about “one person” or one person’s vision.  It is about what connects all of us.  Because of that, it will always be “bigger” than any of us.  The more we come together in that spirit of interconnectedness to move its vision forward, however, the more often we will find ourselves following “true north”. 

We are excited to see how the next leg of this journey will unfold, as we continue to transform our community and expand the culture of Compassion in the Bayou City.  While Houston has yet to officially call itself a “Compassionate City,” those of us who live here know it has always been one in its heart.  Houston has had a long legacy of both local philanthropy and city-wide compassionate action (as evident during  Hurricanes Katrina and Ike).  As the nation’s 4th largest city, and one of its most culturally diverse, Houston is uniquely positioned to be a beacon and a model for others  as it continues making the vision of a more compassionate culture its reality.