WESLACO, RGV – Should the new university being created by UT in South Texas build and staff community centers in the region’s most populous colonias?

What about the new university providing high speed Internet connectivity to all colonia residents?

These and other ideas that truly connect the region’s 300,000-plus colonia population with the region’s new institution of higher education are being considered by planners charged with creating the university’s master plan.

Dr. Julio León, special advisor for Project South Texas, says he is excited about the possibilities.

“I think that the UT System, with the new university, is going to be involved in some way, probably a significant way, in the development, in all aspects, social, educational, of the colonias,” León told the Guardian, in an exclusive interview at Ranch Viejo on Tuesday.

“If you do not help colonia residents move up the educational ladder then you are not transforming the Valley. They are such a large percentage of the Valley’s population. And, the most important part of this project is to truly transform the Valley,” León said.

Colonia group leaders attended a 'Forum on Community Engagement' hosted by the UT System. It was held at the Knapp Medical Community Center. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Colonia group leaders attended a ‘Forum on Community Engagement’ hosted by the UT System. It was held at the Knapp Medical Community Center. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

The UT System, along with the master plan team, met with colonia community groups at Knapp Medical Conference Center in Weslaco last Friday for a “Forum on Community Engagement.” Over 100 participants were split into four working groups to brainstorm ways of making the new university a part of everyday life for colonia students and their families. The four groups focused on education, healthcare, economic development and regional planning.

Martha Sanchez, a community organizer for La Unión del Pueblo Entero, said the colonia residents that attended Friday’s forum were pleased to be asked their views. She said colonia residents want to have a seat at the table when decisions about the new university are made.

“Our colonias are spread out all over the place, so mobility is a big issue. One question that arose at the forum is how does the university make it easier for students to get to the places they need to go? Or should the university come to the students?” Sanchez said. “We know we cannot have the university in the colonias but why can’t we have satellites in the colonias? Community centers where a student can take a class?”

Sanchez said UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville do not currently play a big role in colonia life. She said this is a pity because colonia residents, generally speaking, are hungry to learn, want to play a part in shaping the Valley’s future, and have a lot to offer.

“Let me give you an example of where communication breaks down. A lot of times the university publishes the dates and times of its public meetings in The Monitor newspaper. But, hardly anybody in the colonias reads The Monitor,” Sanchez.

“We really want to be part of the decision making process. We do not want to be left out, as we usually are. We want to be part of the process, part of the solution. And, we do not want talk. We have heard enough talk.”

Michael Seifert is network weaver for the RGV Equal Voice Network. Equal Voice represents 11 non-profit community groups that work in the Valley’s colonias. “What we want to see is something really big, a big win in the first six months after the new university president is installed. Then you would have buy-in from colonia residents.”

Seifert’s idea of the university staging something really big in the colonias seemed to excite those involved in the master plan, as did the idea of university centers in the colonias and high speed Internet services for colonia residents.

UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen said one way of ensuring that the new university is engaged with the Valley’s colonia residents is to put colonia outreach in the university president’s job description. The master planners appeared to like this idea also. Nelsen said in all likelihood the top three finalists for president of the new university would visit UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville.

One participant at the forum suggested the three top finalists for president be introduced to colonia residents at a town hall meeting in one of the larger colonias. The regional planning working group at the forum was told that such an event would help cement in the wider community’s conscience the notion that Valley’s colonias are an integral part of region’s social and economic fabric.

UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia said she fully supports the new university being part of the life of the Valley’s colonias and colonia residents playing a greater role in the life of the new university.

“I think it is absolutely the right direction to go in. People are involved at different levels and in different communities and with both universities. We have all had outreach. But, this is now a different level of outreach. It is very impressive and it is the right thing for the UT System to do. We have had wonderful discussions,” Garcia said of last Friday’s forum.

Garcia said it only makes sense to bring colonia residents into the equation for the new university because the university’s students will in large part come from colonias.

“That is where our students come from, they come from the colonias. Not all of them but many do. That is where you want to open the door, not only to the global south but to the communities that are often marginalized,” Garcia said.

The discussions between UT System officials, master planners and colonia group leaders is happening under a banner called “United for RGV/Unidos por RGV.” The aim is to make sure low-income community residents are active participants in university planning efforts. United for RGV/Unidos por RGV includes a technical support team which supports the goal of maximizing the economic, social and environmental benefits of the new university for low-income communities.

“Local organizations actively engage the RGV’s low-income community on a daily basis through diverse efforts around community development,” a brochure produced for last Friday’s forum states. “Their work in and alongside low-income communities allows for an intimate understanding of the issues facing these communities. Working to create regional impact in their respective fields, this group is committed to the long-term work required to make lasting LRGV change.”

The community groups participating in United for RGV/Unidos por RGV, include A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE), Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB), La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), South Texas Adult Resource and Training (START) and Texas Organizing Project (TOP).

“Technical assistance is being provided by local and national organizations with knowledge and experience in community engagement, design, planning, and institutional impact. This group is responsible for supporting the local organizations logistically throughout the engagement process,” the brochure states.

The technical groups participating in in United for RGV/Unidos por RGV include buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, Educate Texas, Public Architecture, and U3 Ventures.

National advisors to RGV/Unidos por RGV include: Kevin Barnett, Sarita E. Brown, Jose Calderon, Steve

Dubb, David Maurrasse, Richard R. Pettingill, William M. Plater, Jessica Rothschild, John Saltmarsh, Rupal Sanghvi, John Syvertsen, Nancy Thomas, Casey Tsui, and James C. Votruba.

Dubb, research director of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, gave the keynote address at Friday’s forum. It was titled Engaged Universities & Engaged Communities.

For his exclusive interview with the Guardian, Dr. León added:

“The purpose of this new university is for it to be transformational. To me that is the most important word in the whole piece of legislation. It is going to transform the Valley. Because of the transformation there are going to be many, many opportunities in all fields, not only because of the investment that will take place here as a result of PUF investments in infrastructure but also because of the medical school and because of the impact that it will have on the education of our young people.

“The more you improve the labor force the more you are going to be able to attract other firms, such as preparing people for those opportunities that are going to be in the Gulf of Mexico because of the petroleum industry. Transformation is the most important concept. It is not just going to bring the two universities together and be more of the same. It has got to be different.

“It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. When you think about it, these two universities (UTPA and UTB) have been here for 30 years already and the Valley has improved some but not much. Here you have an opportunity to create the new university with an infusion of funds, with a new mission. If you do not take advantage of that then there will not be another opportunity for a long, long, time.”