If you don’t regularly attend local government meetings or read the printed newspaper, it can be easy to forget what our elected leaders look like. Here are some photos from a few recent meetings of elected officials in Wayne County, courtesy of the great ongoing coverage by WCTV:
Yep, it’s a mostly male, mostly white crowd. The largest diversity we tend to have in our legislative bodies is 20-30% representation by women. There are parts of our government that are literally run by “old boy networks.” I believe there is only one non-white elected person in all of Richmond city and Wayne County government.
I don’t point this out to criticize our current elected officials or to suggest that their race, gender identity or other characteristics somehow diminish their service to the community. There is certainly more diversity in local government overall, and we have a growing group of high-profile, non-white, non-male community leaders in other sectors here.
But it does seem worth noticing that in a population that is ~51% female and ~10% non-white, we have a ways to go in having a body of elected leaders that represents the diversity of Richmond and Wayne County. This gap probably grows further if you start to look at age, national origin, income level, sexual orientation, disability, religious affiliation and other factors.
Why is diversity in elected leadership important? The reasons are many. Effective democracy requires diverse representation. A lack of diversity often filters down to other appointed offices within government. Just having more women in elected leadership has shown to increase educational achievement among young women. In a time when many minorities in the U.S. experience precarious tensions with local law enforcement, diversifying our leadership and police forces can help. Job-creating companies looking to expand may value how we approach diversity and respect for differences in deciding to locate here. And so on.
I personally worry about this most in the context of what inspires young people to get involved in local leadership. If a young woman of color took an interest in local politics, what would she find to encourage her to volunteer or even run for office? If a member of the local Hispanic or Latino communities felt there was a community issue where they could make a difference, would local government offer a good place for them to start?
So, what do we do to increase diversity?
We work hard at it.
It’s not just a matter of hoping non-white and/or non-male people just decide to run for office, especially if the leadership structures in our community aren’t modeling or encouraging the same.
Our local political parties need to demonstrate through action that they are trying to increase the diversity of the candidates they support while reaching out to broader cross-sections of the community in organizing and mobilizing voters.
Local educational and youth-oriented organizations need to advocate for and support the engagement of people from all backgrounds and identities to join in the political process.
Everyone invested in the future of Richmond and Wayne County needs to call out and reject racist, misogynist or otherwise discriminatory practices and structures.
And current elected officials need to make sure that as they refine the structures of government to adapt to a community’s changing needs, they look beyond the meeting rooms filled with white men for perspective, concerns and counsel.
Increasing diversity here is an issue that affects all of us, and should be important to anyone thinking about a strong and vibrant future for the place we call home.
Photo from Twitter/WCTV