Most of us say that we want our local organizations to be more diverse and that we need to do better outreach. But before we can build more inclusive communities and civic bodies, we must understand that there are real barriers that prevent some of our neighbors from participating equally; some people may not feel welcome to speak up or take a place at the table. What messages of belonging are community leaders sending, and what messages are being heard?
It is vital for us to think deeply about this issue because many of the proposed changes that affect all our lives, from transportation projects such as the Purple Line light rail project and bus rapid transit (BRT) to affordable housing and land use, happen (or don’t) thanks to input from members of local civic groups. When these groups are not representative, a biased sample of residents can get a disproportionately large voice.
This question is personal for me. I’ve lived in the United States most of my adult life, but because of the vicissitudes of the US immigration system, I only became a citizen earlier this year. I’ve always been outspoken about my views. But I also grew up in an English-speaking democratic country and I’m economically-stable and university-educated. I’m likely to be the exception. Political engagement when you’re not a citizen is precarious. This country has you at its sufferance, and you never quite forget that.
We are living in a time of real threats to those suspected of being outsiders. Municipalities, including those in our region, that are perceived to be lax on immigration enforcement may have their funding threatened, and rumors are rampant of immigration raids in public spaces and outside houses of worship. This last February, a minor panic ensued on local social media after an unsubstantiated report of individuals being profiled and pulled off buses in Wheaton and asked for legal papers.
Indeed, for those of us from certain visible minority groups, our newsfeed isn’t just a political drama but also a roadmap for our day-to-day reality. Therefore, when the discourse on neighborhood listservs seems inordinately concerned with suspicious activity —and you’re aware you’re more than likely to be profiled on the wrong side of “see something say something”—you may not feel like this is truly your community.
The ground floor for community engagement for many of us is our local civic association. I wanted to get involved, so I went knocking on doors in my single-family home subdivision. One time, I was leaning over to place a flyer within a screen door when the door flung open. A younger white man gave me an accusing look. I became suddenly aware of my racial difference and quickly informed him that I lived down the street, and was representing the civic association. He told me he was already a member and closed the door. Most likely, he was just busy and I’d interrupted him. But I couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t belong there at all.
Who is welcome to participate?
Historically, many civic associations in neighborhoods of single-family homes were formed to preserve the character and status of the area and protect the community from outside encroachment. In these more enlightened days, “outside encroachment” usually refers to transit development or multi-family or rental housing.
But the dog whistles aren’t so different, however, from the bad old days of restrictive covenants. When we say we care about our property values, we make assumptions about the types of changes that likely pull those down—and the types of people associated with those changes.
These assumptions shape how people inhabit their neighborhoods. I recently attended a meeting in Silver Spring where renters on more urban blocks were pitted in dialogue against homeowners on suburban blocks, as if these were non-overlapping constituencies. When I spoke about this to a friend, another woman of color who rents space with her young son in a single-family home near me, she said that she never answers the door or speaks to neighborhood representatives because she assumes local organizations aren’t for her.
My immediate neighborhood has a mix of residents of all races, religions, and immigration statuses, and the civic association is, of course, open to everyone, even renters. Still, the most active members are mostly white and homeowners, and do not include any recent immigrants. Many don’t see this as a critical issue. As I pointed out in May, we don’t all live in the same worlds. It’s hard to see the outside of the bubble from inside of it.
I initially wondered whether civic associations’ emphasis on dues and membership was off-putting, excluding those who don’t have the disposable income to spend on something they may initially view as a mere social club. I’ve also wondered if the problem isn’t something less easily remedied than waiving a membership fee. When the vast majority of people who are participating in local politics or activism are white and American-born, it may not be easy to believe that your participation would be truly welcome. You may worry that you may initially be cheered in order to showcase diversity but dismissed if you express an opinion outside what was formerly acceptable. You may decide, then, to hunker within your own bubble too.
The other day, I noticed a neighbor, an immigrant from Central America, loading up his van with furniture. A bank had repossessed and auctioned his single family house and he and his wife had to vacate. They had lived in the same home for over a decade, growing a large vegetable garden and befriending other older couples who lived nearby. I had told him about our civic association but he had never become a member. It’s possible that we could have helped them with legal resources, or in other ways, but it’s not certain that we would have; this situation, common but invisible, was outside the scope of our bylaws.
What is the scope of our organizations?
Our local organizations must make deliberate decisions as to whether we truly wish to benefit our entire population or just those individuals who are most vocal and currently actively involved. Civic representatives are not obligated to consider the needs of all residents in a given area. Community borders—virtual and actual—may be drawn to exclude some individuals and amplify the voices of others.
So, it’s technically fine for a select group of well-heeled property owners to pursue multi-year lawsuits against the Purple Line, ignoring the wishes of others in their community who have waited for decades for a better east-west transit and bicycling connection. It’s understandable that relatively affluent white citizens will want to say something to the police whenever they see something or someone visibly different from themselves in front of their homes. It’s reasonable that a cadre of drivers will want to block bus rapid transit from operating in dedicated lanes, significantly watering down the utility of this project to those who are transit-dependent. In all these cases, the definitions of community don’t include those who may take an opposing view or may be adversely affected.
We all live in bubbles, being serious about inclusivity is difficult, and I don’t pretend to have the answers. But assuming we sincerely wish to do better, we will have to be more aggressive about meeting people where they are—at the bus stops, on the streets, in the parks and playgrounds—and communicating why our community organizations and civic involvement in general are relevant to their lives. We will need to respect that some individuals, due to immigration status, legal history, or other circumstances, may not feel comfortable giving out their names and may not be able to donate money or time. However, if we are to be democratic in our institutions and representative in our policy-making, we will need to think deeper and differently and be more empathetic to all of those who inhabit our community.
A version of this post previously appeared in Pyriscence.