Diversity is a topic that touches every sector — higher education, corporations and government. Yet, the issue of diversity in government is typically focused on the state and national levels, with less attention paid to local government.
Through my work as an intern with the CivCity Initiative and as a Community Engagement Leadership Fellow with the University of Michigan’s Ginsberg Center, I’ve looked specifically at diversity in local elected bodies. In the fall, I sent a survey to local elected officials to poll demographic information and received results from 23 of the 34 officials I emailed. In the winter, I interviewed 12 of the 23 respondents — all from the Ann Arbor City Council, Ann Arbor District Library Board, Ann Arbor Public Schools Board and the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. Finally, I researched diversity in state and national government. My work culminated in a report, which addressed where the Ann Arbor community stands in terms of diversity among elected representatives, what we can do to improve and why it matters.
Many of Ann Arbor’s local public bodies have some diversity and could be considered “fairly” diverse and representative of the community — but that’s only when measured against the norm: white, middle-aged men. According to the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments Community Profile of Ann Arbor, even though the median age of the population is 27.8 years, most of the entities do not have any members whose age is between 18 and 30. City Council has only one non-white member, yet 30 percent of the population is non-white. All of the survey respondents have at least an associate’s degree, meanwhile, 24 percent of Ann Arbor’s population does not.
Even if one more minority member (e.g. a person of color) is elected each year, that doesn’t do much to guard against policies negatively affecting minorities. For one thing, having one racial minority on a board doesn’t mean they can, will or want to speak for all racial minorities. What’s more, expecting them to speak on behalf of all racial minorities is both problematic and puts the burden to ensure racial justice solely on that one person of color.
Having diversity in our local government matters because the choices that these elected officials make affect individual lives and communities. Many groups have been, and continue to be, excluded from civic life — through lack of suffrage rights, voter registration laws and restrictions, intimidation efforts, lack of public knowledge about procedures and terminology, lack of public transportation and other barriers. Being aware that exclusions to civic life are not an anomaly or only part of our country’s history makes it critical to care about the who, the what and the why behind local government decisions.
It’s important to push for diversity because if all people in a community aren’t represented — as reflected in the elected officials acting on our behalf — it hurts the community as a whole. Having an elected body made up of people who don’t look like you or share your life experience can alienate you from wanting to engage with the body. It can limit your ambitions and understanding of what you and people who identify with you have the potential to achieve.
Not having representation can lead to public officials making decisions on behalf of a community full of people they don’t know or understand. Without representation, it’s easy to think that your voice, experiences or identities don’t matter. The community suffers because parts of it are neglected or ignored in decision-making that directly impacts their lives.
It’s also important to push for diversity because having a broader range of people, perspectives, talents and identities can lead to more innovative and productive ways to solve community issues. Having a variety of people with different areas of expertise and connections to the communities they serve can help an elected body make decisions that benefit the entire community — including the most vulnerable and marginalized residents.
By starting this conversation, I hope that members of the Ann Arbor community have more meaningful discussions about diversity in local government. I’d love to see more opportunities for students, parents, staff, faculty, elected officials and general members of the community to speak with each other and across groups.
I hope that you come away from this with some ideas of how you can engage civically — even if that just means striking up a conversation about local civics with someone outside your friend group — to ensure that our local government really does serve us and work with us as best as it can.
Chandani Wiersba is a Public Policy Senior