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Spring 2023 Community Impact Scholarship Winner

Anjali Sivasothy

Anjali is starting at Rice University this fall as a college freshman. She will be pursuing a major in Electrical Engineering. In Anjali's essay, you learn of her powerful leadership capabilities along with her drive to make a difference in her community.

Anjali Sivasothy

Read Anjali's Essay:

My leadership style could've been summed up in three words—I'm a doer.

Got a problem? I'll solve it.

No standing around gathering consensus.

No overanalyzing.

Let's go.

And that worked…until I built a sidewalk to nowhere.

I co-founded the Texas Urban Redevelopment Foundation (TURF) to tackle housing insecurity and blight in inner-city Houston. TURF builds affordable, single-family housing units for low-income Houston residents—promoting a community-led "gentrification" process. We've been building and working in the neighborhoods since 2018—but we became an official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with eight completed builds at the end of Summer 2022.

TURF's homes are modest, energy-efficient dwellings that rely on labor from local volunteers. They are built in the style of surrounding homes to ensure minimal economic impact to existing neighbors. Our homes are leased to qualifying, low-income city residents at below-market rental rates. This allows community members to remain in place and “gentrify” their own neighborhoods.

I work as a junior laborer and "runner" on a construction team. I'm the only female laborer at most of our sites—but I've earned the respect of my crew.

Our project on Flintridge Drive in Harris County's Precinct #3 is the most memorable. The lot was a sea of waist-high field weeds—a precarious entanglement of crabgrass and sandburs punctuated with old rubber tires and box-spring mattresses. We cleared the land and laid the foundation for the community home.

During construction, the City of Houston notified us that the building code required the construction of a sidewalk in front of each new residence. Our sidewalk would have the peculiar honor of being the first and only strip of sidewalk on the street.

As we wrapped up construction, several neighbors gathered on the street in front of our sidewalk to voice their concerns.

Why didn't our sidewalk extend to the other properties on the street?

Why had we wasted our time building a sidewalk with no connections? Essentially, a sidewalk to nowhere?

Their concerns were valid. Our public sidewalk had become the lynchpin for much deeper discussions about the land and community in Houston. Systemic economic depression in low-income communities means that dilapidated homes and vacant lots cycle and turn over into new construction at excruciatingly slow rates. The city's plan to align sidewalk creation with this organic, neighborhood renewal process creates an impact that is far too slow and fragmented to have any real effect on public safety and community revival. Although the city's requirements were intended to create value, the policy had been inconsiderately implemented. (At least from the standpoint of our frustrated neighbors on Flintridge Drive whose plight can still be seen from Google Earth.)

If this continues, older neighborhoods in Houston will remain a patchwork of disconnected sidewalks—and sadly, many residents on these streets will never enjoy a fully functional neighborhood sidewalk in their lifetimes. TURF is fighting for change. We worked with community residents to share their concerns with Houston's Public Works Department. Helping community members find their voices and supporting them in advocating for their needs strengthens and empowers communities.

But there is so much more to do.

I believe that we have an obligation to the places we call home and to our neighbors who find themselves bound by the same geography. Our first feelings of community come from where we live—and from this connection, we gain the ability to build many others.

Houston, Texas is my home.

I truly believe that efforts to increase housing availability and affordability make the biggest difference in a community. My decision to study engineering at Rice University here in Houston means I can continue my commitment to scaling TURF, fighting housing insecurity, and solving problems in this community.

I see a bright future ahead for housing in Houston. By taking advantage of the market power of larger housing developers, financial institutions, other non-profits, and governments—TURF could even be scaled to benefit other needy communities. I'm excited about the prospect of using engineering and philanthropy to reimagine community spaces and promote ethical, “human-first” allocations of scarce community resources like housing. Having the ability to leverage my talents, skills, and relative privilege to support my neighbors and community is incredibly humbling. I take my responsibility seriously, and it inspires me to never shy away from big problems.

Houston's sidewalks challenged my leadership style.

Today, I'm a doer who is also willing to learn from others, understand their challenges, and stick with them over the long haul to find solutions.

I've carried these lessons with me as I've taken on other leadership roles. As chair of the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council for the City of Sugar Land, I created a city sustainability plan to amplify the environmental concerns and voices of our city's youngest citizens. As Chairwoman of Sugar Land's 35-member Council, I led a cohort that represented 11 area high schools. Although our proposal did take some criticism for its lack of focus on the budget (like most plans dreamed up by seventeen-year-olds), I was proud that our community leaders gave us a platform to speak. Our work was recognized by Sugar Land's City Council and the School Board President.

Houston's sidewalks also showed me that I have the power to organize and motivate people to accomplish great things. I've raised over $15,000 to build out water well infrastructure in the developing world by working with Vyrian Inc. and Drop4Drop. Over two summers, our fundraising provided clean water and water education to more than 6,147 global villagers in India, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda.

As a future engineer, I learned quite a bit while building that “sidewalk to nowhere.” First, community exists wherever we dare to find common threads. We must constantly monitor the impacts of our decisions (and technologies) on greater society—understanding that even well-intentioned innovations and solutions can have unintended consequences. To avoid “inconsiderate implementation,” our technologies, policies, and initiatives must be reviewed with representation from the community. Otherwise? We risk creating initiatives—or sidewalks—with no connection to our neighbors.

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