The New Influencers

Four who are giving our town a lesson in civics, retooling the school system, remapping the indie music scene and offering hope to the homeless

Catherine D. Anspon. Portraits Jack Thompson and Jenny Antill.
April 03, 2012

Politically Correct: Randall Morton — The Progressive Forum

When Randall Morton founded The Progressive Forum seven years ago, his first programming foreshadowed the wow factor of what was to come: Robert Kennedy Jr., introduced by then-Mayor Bill White at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in June 2005. A rapt, near-capacity crowd at Sarofim Hall listened to an impassioned Kennedy address “Our Environmental Challenges,” followed by a post-lecture book signing where hundreds queued up for the guest of honor to inscribe copies of his Crimes Against Nature. Another big night followed in June 2006, when Al Gore spearheaded the American debut of his bellwether best seller An Inconvenient Truth with a talk and book signing organized by The Progressive Forum, once again at the Hobby Center. Improbably, Morton’s road to found The Progressive Forum actually led through the oil patch. The Georgetown grad/one-time political speechwriter directed an eponymous marketing/PR company for decades that focused on the oil industry’s heavy-equipment companies. His experience establishing
The Oilfield Breakfast Forum segued into launching The Progressive Forum after seeing RFK Jr. on Larry King Live and his disappointment over the 2004 national elections. As Morton underscores, “I’m confident we’re making an impact.”

Flash forward dozens of speakers later, and you’ll find Progressive Forum audiences reaching 2,000 per engagement to hear voices of our age from Gloria Steinem to Ken Burns. The Forum has clearly lived up to its motto (“Great minds, great answers”), as well as its lofty goal of “advancing ... the individual, our species and life on the planet.” Indeed, The Progressive Forum has made the greatest contribution to environmental issues — witness one of the most intriguing evenings ever, when Robert Redford and then Shell Oil president John Hofmeister shared the Wortham stage with ranchers and environmentalists to dish about coal mining in Texas as the film Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars screened. Stay tuned for 2012 headliners including rock-star architect of sustainability William McDonough (Tuesday, April 24, at the Wortham).

IMAGE: Randall Morton

Father of Education: Fr. TJ Martinez — Cristo Rey

A decaying, abandoned school building in Houston’s gritty Southeast side and a young cowboy-boot-wearing priest might seem an unlikely stage and protagonist to reform Houston’s secondary-school system. Yet this script is successfully performed every day at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School.

At its helm is the dynamic Fr. TJ Martinez, founding president of Houston’s Cristo Rey, which is part of a national network of innovative Catholic high schools offering promise — and rigorous college prep — to the kids of urban America. In Houston, the Cristo Rey campus near Hobby Airport revived a Catholic high school that had closed due to shifting demographics and declining enrollment. Enter the recently ordained Fr. Martinez, a Boston transplant raised in South Texas who was tapped after receiving his Harvard degree not only to lead, but to forge the Houston branch.

The campus opened in August 2009, with its first class set to graduate in May 2013. It currently serves 270 students culled from the Woodlands to Needville, and is set to enroll grades 9 through 12 in the fall of 2012. The new school “relies on the private sector, not the government, to educate Houston’s youth who are living in poverty,” Martinez says. At the heart of Cristo Rey’s model are high-powered corporations — energy to finance, ConocoPhillips to Deutsche Bank — which pay the students’ tuition as part of an intriguing work-study program: Each Cristo Rey kid is employed one day a week by his or her sponsoring firm throughout the school year. The community has embraced the new college prep’s vision, with a lead gift of one million dollars from the Kinder Foundation and an inaugural gala in January 2011 that raised an astounding $1.6 million. Giving a tour of Cristo Rey’s gleaming hallways, then dropping in on a chemistry class where students enthusiastically cluster around lab experiments, Martinez emphasizes the power and primacy of his school’s mission: “Cristo Rey Jesuit marries Houston’s corporate culture with a college-prep culture serving children living in the most financially challenged neighborhoods, to form a partnership that will not only save the lives of these children, but [ensure] Houston’s future as well.”

IMAGE: Fr. TJ Martinez

Hydration and Hope: Elena Davis — I Am Waters Foundation

“It’s often the simplest things that bring profound change,” proclaims I Am Waters Foundation’s book Dream, penned and overseen by its creator, Elena Davis, who also founded its mission four years ago. A former 1980s-era glamour girl who’s graced the cover and pages of fashionable magazines the world over, from Cosmopolitan to Harper’s Bazaar‚ Davis was enjoying a privileged life in Houston as a mom and wife when an encounter with a homeless woman moved her. It was a scorching summer day, and the imploring lady at a roadside intersection made an impact. “As I rolled down my car window to hand her the water she requested, I realized that while I had never met her before, I felt I knew her well,” Davis writes. “It was at that moment that a fire was lit within me; that fire has become the I Am Waters Foundation.” Since the summer of 2009, more than 500,000 water bottles — emblazoned with words that offer simple, positive messages of change: Love, Joy, Peace, Faith and Hope — have been delivered directly to the people who need them with the assistance of Davis and her heartfelt nonprofit. I Am Water reaches out to Houston, Fort Worth and Austin agencies serving the homeless, from Star of Hope to SEARCH and the Salvation Army. The goal for summer 2012 is to serve 600,000 people in need of hope and hydration.

The foundation’s Dream volume and Web site give a face to homelessness in America while sharing Davis’ personal story of growing up as “one of four children born into a broken home and poverty.” Modeling provided a way out; Davis’ life comes full-circle this month as I Am Waters organizes its first fund-raising luncheon — set for Wednesday, April 25, at River Oaks Country Club — which draws upon its founder’s career with its “Super Models of the ’80s” theme. “I asked those I knew from the modeling world, and, incredibly, everyone I called said ‘yes,’” she recalls. Among the headliners coming to town for the cause are cover girls Kim Alexis, Dianne deWitt, Kelly Emberg and Cheryl Tiegs, who will participate to push along Davis’ vision: “We can’t allow one American to remain without life’s most basic needs — water and the will to dream.”

IMAGE: Elena Davis fulfilling the mission


Music Men:  Omar Afra and Jagi Katial — Fitzgerald’s, Free Press Houston

At first glance, hipsters Omar Afra and Jagi Katial seem more like a pair who would frequent a bar than own one. However, appearances are deceiving: Not only are these diehard music fans — both under the age of 35 — the proprietors of the newly revamped Fitzgerald’s in the Heights, but they also delve, individually and in tandem, into myriad other (ad)ventures. Their projects range from publishing the Free Press Houston (a reincarnation of the old Public News, where yours truly got her start, revived by Afra and grown into a monthly with a readership of 100,000) to serving as concert promoters of the wildly successful Summer Fest every June. Katial works as a booking agent via his Pegstar productions; he’s also a former NASA programmer, while Afra, a UH political science grad, is an occasional musician. In the summer of 2010, this pair bought Fitzgerald’s,
the almost crumbing shrine to live music on White Oak, from owner/founder Sara Fitzgerald. The stalwart Fitzgerald opened the dual-venue concert hall in 1977 and, for 30-plus years, brought in the red-hot and up-and-comers to perform at the historic space, circa 1918, that once catered to the Polish community as the Heights social club Dom Polski. The upstairs stage showcased headliners who crossed time and genres, from James Brown, Tina Turner and Steve Ray Vaughan to ZZ Top, R.E.M., The Ramones, Etta James and Marcia Ball. The downstairs space — originally the hall’s kitchen with adjoining stables — featured free concerts by rising talents.

Thanks to Afra and Katial, Fitz’s now lures hundreds of ardent new Gen-X and -Y fans to its hallowed halls each week. Oft compared to CBGB’s for its preeminence as an incubator space and cited by Afra as “the best live venue in Texas” (he met his future wife while playing a gig there), Fitz’s is readying for the next 30 years. As the crisply painted signage proclaims: “Fitzgerald’s. If music be the food of love, play on.”  

IMAGE: Omar Afra and Jagi Katial