Building Bridges in Brownsville

Brownsville is the southernmost city in Texas. Its city limits are marked by a winding barrier wall, interrupted only by a guarded border crossing to Mexico and part of the local university campus. Breezes from the Gulf of Mexico blow through the small downtown most afternoons. More than a third of the 180,000 residents live below the poverty line and Mexican drug cartels pose a regular challenge to the stability of the economy. Historically, living-wage jobs have been scarce and almost always out of reach for young people without postsecondary credentials. In the last several years, however, America’s poorest city has been cultivating partnerships between educational institutions, employers, and community leaders—all intended to raise the standard of living through investment in youth and local industries. One education to employment partnership called All In—catalyzed in 2010 by a $1.4 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—formed just as Brownsville headed into a time of major institutional and economic change, including a resurgence of the manufacturing and aeronautics industries.

In 2008, less than half of Brownsville high school seniors applied to college. Those who attended the local university and community college were part of freshman classes where only 45 percent of students were considered college-ready. That year, however, the educational landscape began to change, prompted by a broad community conversation that demonstrated perseverance, flexibility, and ingenuity in a region of scarce resources. Community-wide visioning conversations that began in 2008 as Imagine Brownsville eventually led to the creation of the All In partnership. Since 2010, the United Way of Southern Cameron County has been the backbone of All In, convening education, community and industry leaders from more than 10 institutions. These include employers like Wells Fargo, educational institutions like the Brownsville Independent School District, and municipal organizations like the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce. One major task for the group—which leaders acknowledge took longer than expected—involved determining the data indicators that best represented Brownsville’s educational and economic health. The development of the 2013 Community Indicator Report required the United Way and the All In partnership coordinator to have frank conversations with institutional leaders about the importance of sharing educational and employment data that, in an economically disenfranchised area, frequently was not flattering. The successful release of this document solidified the shared leadership and commitment. In May 2015, a former student-leader took over the All In partnership coordinator role and will head up the updating of the Community Indicator Report for 2015.

One key component of All In is the corps of Student Ambassadors who return to their high school alma maters to promote a culture of college-going through direct support to students and their families. In this video, Janeth Rico, a lead Student Ambassador, explains the importance of access to information—both for and about young people.


Student Ambassadors intimately understand the barriers to postsecondary education that youth in a poor community face; the Ambassadors become a trusted source of potential solutions. Often through their own life examples, they are able to explain the intricacies of student aid, loans, scholarships, and work study, as well as equip students to speak with their parents about the importance of a postsecondary education. They have grown from a corps of six Ambassadors in 2013 to almost 20 in 2015 and reached more than 2,600 students in 15 Brownsville public schools in the 2014-2015 academic year. Pre-and post-assessment data show that “students know and understand the college process more after experiencing Student Ambassadors’ presentations.” Qualitative data of Student Ambassadors experience suggest that after participating in the program, youth “feel more comfortable with public speaking, have gained confidence in themselves…and take on leadership roles on [what is now] the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus and in the community.”   The Student Ambassadors have emerged as leaders within the All In partnership, actively participating in task force meetings and co-designing program evaluations. One example of this increased community involvement is the recent hiring of Blanca Davila, a long-time Student Ambassador (now with a master’s degree) as All In Partnership Coordinator, on staff with the United Way.

With new partnerships and programs like Student Ambassadors, the educational landscape has been changing in Brownsville. In 2014, every one of Brownsville’s seniors from six high schools applied for college—a  remarkable 100 percent application rate—and 94 percent completed an application for federal or state student aid, a critical step in accessing postsecondary education for a community consistently ranked as one of the poorest in America. (These figures do not include students who are entering the military or students with special needs who have satisfied graduation requirements and will continue receiving services from the Brownsville Independent School District.)    

Today, this city long plagued by poverty and low educational attainment is on its way to becoming a model of open dialogue and shared measurement, fueled by the destruction of institutional barriers that historically fostered a culture of blame. Leaders today are choosing to focus instead on the shared challenge of equipping students for a changing economy, and it’s working. Reba Cardenas McNair, a community leader and local business owner says simply, “We know that we’re among the poorest cities in the country. But we’re changing, and we’re already rich in so many ways.”

For more information on how Brownsville is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people, read our State of the South profile.