Rodney Ellis seen here speaking at a Nov. 6, 2018 mural unveiling event in Houston's Third Ward. Photo by Aswad Walker.

Economic equity has been the charge and battle cry of the most recent iteration of the Harris County Commissioners Court, due to the leadership of Commissioner Rodney Ellis, along with Commissioner Adrian Garcia and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

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The group’s latest move to get more procurement dollars going to minority- and women-owned businesses is to designate a $200,000 Disparity Study Fund to help such entities implement an MWBE program. 

To that end, officials with the Lone Star College System and Alief ISD said recently they support using that fund to conduct their own disparity studies.

“We have asked and have found that no Houston-area community college or independent school district has ever conducted a disparity study to evaluate whether their procurement and contracting activities are open and fair to all firms,” said Ellis. “The federal courts require these studies to adopt MWBE type programs. 

“Our research reveals that agencies with strong MWBE programs ensure equal economic opportunities to compete and fair access to contracts for everyone in their communities.  Community colleges and independent school districts are working with businesses to provide construction and professional services and it would be a game-changer to find out how much of that business is going to minority- and woman-owned businesses.”

Ellis led the effort to get Harris County, Metro and the Port of Houston to conduct disparity studies to compile the evidence and data to show what many assumed: the lion’s share of contracts are going to white- and male-owned businesses, with MWBEs falling woefully behind. Just how far disadvantaged businesses were being left in the dust was shocking.

Still, some question why such studies are even needed. But Ellis is crystal-clear why the data must be gathered.

“While national and regional trends point to there being disparities when it comes to accessing economic opportunities for MWBEs in public procurement, the federal courts require a disparity study for a specific agency to be conducted and for the study to show a disparity in order for that agency to implement a narrowly tailored race- and gender-based MWBE program. These programs will allow community colleges and independent school districts to legally set MWBE participation goals on their contracts,” said Ellis. 

Carlecia Wright, chief diversity officer for Lone Star College System, of which 60% of its students are minorities, said disparity studies are required to legally implement an MWBE program.

“That is why Lone Star is committed to doing a disparity study and making sure we implement a program that is race and gender-conscious so that we can create opportunities not just for our community,” she said, “but for our future community and for students who aspire to be entrepreneurs.”

Ellis and Garcia are speaking to the school district and community college boards in Harris County to convince trustees to take advantage of the fund, which Commissioners Court approved in November.

“We are going to go to every school district and community college in our region and say, ‘you ought to do more than just march in [a Martin Luther King Jr.’ parade and read the I Have a Dream speech. You ought to give every student at your community college and your public schools the opportunity to build the schools that they attend,’” Ellis said, referring to minority and female students who could become contractors.

“There’s a lot of strong talk when it comes to celebrating our diversity, but all too often, entities don’t put their money where their mouth is,” said Garcia. “So, I challenge every educational institution in our region to recognize that when you do disparity studies, you are bringing others to the table.”