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Democratization

California Redistricting Preserves Black Voice in State Politics

For years, political pundits and sectors of the media have reported with barely contained glee on the supposed decline of California’s black population. There has been much speculation about how the demographic changes will lead to a decline in black political leadership. Proponents of this viewpoint saw this year’s redistricting process as a golden opportunity to spin the narrative into permanent changes in political boundaries that would lead to the disenfranchisement of black voters. If these black districts were eliminated, it would be nearly impossible to get them back.

The blows came from all directions. The media led with sensational predictions about African Americans ending up losers in the process. The Los Angeles Times quoted a member of the Redistricting Commission saying, “It’s very hard for people to accept changing demographics.” The message between the lines being, “Their time is over.”

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A Commissioner’s Perspective on California’s Redistricting

When Californians voted to create the nation’s first independent Citizens Redistricting Commission charged with drawing Assembly, Senate, Board of Equalization, and Congressional districts, it was with the hope of ending the partisan gerrymandering of the past. Speaking as one of the 14 Commissioners, I believe we have delivered on that promise—against all odds.

We had less than eight months to bring 14 strangers from diverse backgrounds together, hire staff and consultants, develop and conduct an extensive public outreach process, draw 177 individual district maps that incorporated complex legal and technical analysis, compose an extensive narrative report, and certify the maps with a multipartisan vote. And it was done—on time and under budget. The maps were produced through a transparent process: deliberations were conducted and decisions about boundaries made in public, streamed live with transcripts, and archived online. And although the process was called redistricting, it really should have been called “districting” because the Commission consciously chose not to tweak existing districts with their flawed political baggage, but to start from scratch using its constitutionally approved criteria.

As the youngest Commissioner and one of only two with small children, the public service commitment was grueling beyond my wildest imagination. I can remember one Tuesday morning when I woke up, packed my one-year-old son in the car, and drove five hours to a public hearing that lasted until midnight. The next day, I woke up and drove three hours, and did it all over again. And then again. While most Commissioners spent their daily stipend on sightseeing, I spent it on childcare at the hands of strangers!

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Power Shift in Chicago



Chicago, one of the most populous, politically important cities in the country, has watched its African American population steadily ebb over the last decade, to a point where low-income residents say they no longer recognize the city as a stronghold of working families.

First, there was the demolition of public housing and ongoing gentrification efforts—both of which pushed blacks to the suburbs. Now census figures show that the city’s black population has plummeted 17 percent since 2000. Community activists charge the Census Bureau with undercounting blacks by the thousands and say it is partly to blame for the fact that blacks in the Windy City now stand to lose political representation at the federal, state, and local levels.

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Does the Marin Transportation System Shut Out People of Color?

A recent Texas Institute of Transportation study confirms what many rush hour commuters in the Bay Area have long suspected—traffic congestion here is the second worst in the nation, Los Angeles being the worst.[1] Specifically, in the North Bay, Marin County has logged the largest percent increase in traffic in the Bay Area between 2005 and 2007; up 20 percent from 2004.[2]

PlaNYC: EJ Group takes the Inside Track to Advocate Sustainability

The explosive growth of urban centers worldwide has forced government and civil societies to grapple with the question of how to manage population growth without destroying the environment, while simultaneously ensuring economic prosperity. The quest for this balance is commonly captured by the phrase “sustainable development.” By any measure, achieving sustainable development is a significant challenge. However, when you try to make New York City—the world’s financial and entertainment capital—sustainable, you need more than chutzpah; you need environmental justice (EJ).

Who Takes Ownership of the City?

Forty years ago, as America’s inner cities imploded, the New Yorker ran a sardonic cartoon. It portrayed a smug tower dweller overlooking a vista of tenements. “Ghettoes aren’t a problem, my dear,” he blithely informs his wife. “Ghettoes are a solution.”

Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, 1901 Today, the “urban crisis” is metastasizing across the planet. More than half of the world’s 6.5 billion people now dwell in cities—and more than a billion of them survive in desperate slums. This gives global resonance to the environmental, economic, and social equity struggles of American cities. If we are to heed the words of Gandhi and “be the change we want to see in the world,” thinking globally means acting locally. Creating a sustainable planet starts in our own hometowns.

But even those who recognize this responsibility seldom focus on the fundamentally public nature of this endeavor. Unique challenges of organizing city life gave birth to both the democratic and republican variants of self-rule. The very word “politics” is derived from the Greek word for shared urban space.

Moving Beyond Individualized Solutions
No matter how laudable personal and small-scale endeavors may be, planting trees, carrying canvas shopping bags, tending community gardens, and installing solar collectors will not collectively transform America’s cities into models of sustainability. The sheer scale and complexity of the task will require public will, public resources, public policy, and public action.
While “all politics is local,” there are some commonly shared misconceptions that deter us from fully recognizing the public sector’s vital role in reshaping our cities.

The most pervasive is the mindset that takes for granted that local government primarily exists to provide specific services. Of course, the traditional municipal functions we now take for granted (such as police, fire, parks, libraries, sewers, roads, and land use regulation) were all originally forged out of social upheaval and political struggle. Those who pioneered these services were crusaders, not functionaries. Today, however, the institutions organized to deliver these services have ossified into underfunded and self-perpetuating bureaucracies. Propping up these inherited structures takes precedence over the bold innovation needed to meet today’s needs. If we were starting from scratch (as Sir Robert Peele did in passing the Metropolitan Police Act in Britain in 1829), would we safeguard peace and order primarily through an armed and insulated caste of uniformed officers? If we were looking to eliminate waste, would we construct elaborate sewage systems and provide weekly collection of garbage? That we have grafted elaborate adaptations onto our entrenched structures (from “community policing” to “recycling”) only underscores their anachronism.

This investment in the past in turn reinforces the myth that the public sector is inherently inefficient and ineffective. There was a time when the burning passion of public service could put a man on the moon. Now we wonder whether it can fill potholes.
Another self-limiting mindset is our deep disdain for politics, which has become a shallow, petty, and self-interested game for insiders. The absence of real people in the debate and struggle over the concerns that affect their lives has robbed the public sector of both legitimacy and leverage. A professional political class has gradually supplanted the sphere of citizenship, relegating popular participation to mere voting in elections—and on rare occasions banding together for single-issue self-interest, such as protesting a highway extension, affordable housing project, or tax increase. Without robust and broad-based social and political associations, urban public life is privatized and segregated—and governance becomes an arena for mercenaries. Passivity perpetuates the self-fulfilling prophecy that political activity is futile—leaving politics to private interest lobbying.

A less pernicious, but equally misguided attitude, is the notion that public life is unimportant or simply boring. Whether it is the excuse that “people are busy” or the inescapable distractions of so-called “popular culture” (a euphemism for corporate entertainment), public life is neither compelling nor cool to most people. This is quite convenient for perpetuating the status quo. Our cities and our citizens face such tangible and significant questions as:

* How will we get around in the age of peak oil and global warming?

* How do we best utilize urban land to avoid sprawling onto farmland and sensitive habitat?

* Where should public resources be directed—and what investments should we make in our shared future?

Unfortunately, questions like these are avoided by politicians, neglected by the media, translated into bloodless administrative jargon by bureaucrats, overlooked by well-meaning single-issue activists, and end up being virtually ignored by the people whose lives are directly affected by them.

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