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Engaging African-Americans in the Civic and Political Life of Their Communities


Terry Amsler, director of the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative, conducted the interview and can be reached at tamsler@ca-ilg.org.


Local officials in California’s increasingly diverse communities are looking for strategies to fully involve residents in the civic and political life of their cities. Mike Gipson, mayor pro tem, Carson; Lee Pierce, council member, Santa Rosa; and Sedalia Sanders, council member, El Centro, offer their views on how cities can better communicate with and involve African-American residents.

How can cities support the involvement of African-American residents in the civic and political life of their communities?

Lee Pierce: Make city hall feel more welcoming to all residents, and create opportunities that remove the mystique of local government. For instance, at a city council meeting, issue a proclamation to a deserving member of the African-American community and encourage her or him to invite friends and family. African-Americans and other minorities need to know that local government views them in the same way that a private sector business views its customers --- it wants them back!

Sedalia Sanders: Reaching out to all constituents is important for local elected officials. Public policy is best developed when all members of the community participate in the process. My experience tells me that the African-American constituency is and continues to be interested in civic issues. Our respective communities will be well served if we develop inclusive opportunities to actively encourage their input.

Mike Gipson: The paramount thing is to simply create opportunities for dialogue with the African-American community. Give people a voice. Ask them for the pros and cons of proposed actions and policies, and be informed by this and use what you learn in your decision-making. Use and partner with print and electronic media that serve African-Americans and address their issues.

What obstacles prevent fuller involvement of African-Americans in local government decision-making?

Mike Gipson: It can take time and effort to do the necessary outreach to open up dialogue and communication and especially to have these efforts filter down to people at the grassroots level. And not everyone will be convinced you’re serious and that you’re truly interested in their issues. New and productive opportunities and avenues for expressing community voices have to become a regular part of how local government works.

Lee Pierce: African-American people have spent a lifetime avoiding being perceived as law-breakers as opposed to law-makers. Generally speaking, there exists a feeling that unless I am asked directly to get involved, I am probably just going to continue minding my own business and being the law-abiding citizen that I’ve always been. This has contributed to persons of color being historically underrepresented on policy-making bodies. The more instances there are of African-American and other minority groups in policy-making positions, the more likely these populations will say, "I want to be a part of this --- it’s open to all of us."

Sedalia Sanders: In my view, the biggest barrier is time constraints. The commitment to family and the responsibilities of work leave little time for some to participate in civic activities.

What specific civic participation strategies might local governments consider to more fully engage African-Americans?

Sedalia Sanders: As with any group, there is no single way to reach the African-American population. However, four ideas come to mind. First, use technology to the fullest extent possible. Questionnaires and surveys can be placed on a city’s website to obtain input on interests or concerns. Second, hold public forums in the various neighborhoods. Third, engage the faith-based communities. And fourth, add to city boards and commissions by appointing individuals that reflect the community’s diversity. These efforts shouldn’t end with recruitment alone, but should include ongoing educational and training workshops to help new appointees become effective in their new roles.

Mike Gipson: One idea is to bring grassroots leaders, clergy and other residents together and ask them what channels and processes need to be developed for public involvement. Such a gathering can be a kind of focus group from which to learn about the issues that African-Americans most want to discuss. Dialogues and discussions can’t focus just
on what the city wants to talk about.

Lee Pierce: Be proactive about finding opportunities to appoint African-Americans and other people of color to city boards and commissions. There may not always be a lot of candidates from which to choose, so be prepared to increase your networking and outreach efforts to include local schools, private sector employers, nonprofits and referrals from other successful African-Americans and other groups.

Are there relevant historical or cultural factors that local officials should be aware of when seeking to engage African-American communities?

Lee Pierce: I’ve learned a great deal from residents about the stories of African-Americans who have lived in Santa Rosa in the past, including freed slaves who became prominent citizens, Tuskegee airmen and many others. Local governments should publicly and permanently incorporate and display African-American culture within the heart of the city. Commemorating the achievements of African-American and other minority pioneers and trailblazers provides powerful and inspiring visual icons and a feeling that you belong. It is a bit of a stretch in terms of civic engagement, but it begins to pull back the curtain and show that we are truly part of the community, too.

Sedalia Sanders: We should avoid buying into the myth that African-Americans have little interest in participating in public policy development. During my tenure as an elected official, I have found that their interest and concerns mirror the interest and concerns of the larger community. For example, they are interested in quality education, police and fire protection, nice parks, affordable housing, jobs and a variety of recreational opportunities for adults and youth. Throughout the state, African-Americans comprise about 8 percent of the population, and in our cities this population is woven throughout every neighborhood. We should actively recruit and promote new faces and fresh ideas.

Mike Gipson: Acknowledge up front the struggles that African-Americans have traditionally faced for every gain achieved. Be respectful of the efforts that community members, especially some of your more senior residents, may have played in fighting for civil rights. It’s important to acknowledge this very real history and how, at times, this history may have played out in your own community. Those who become engaged today in your city’s dialogue and decision-making processes have taken up the mantle of engagement, leadership and struggle from those such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the others who have gone before them.

Are there intermediary organizations with which local governments should work to more effectively reach out to and engage African-American communities?

Mike Gipson: It depends on the specific community, of course, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) can be partners in outreach and developing more inclusive participation strategies. Churches are key in reaching out to African-American communities --- this is traditionally where African-Americans have gathered, found support from one another and, often, organized for their rights. Clergy and church leaders are often leaders in the community as well. Develop relationships with clergy and congregations and recognize the civic engagement role that these faith communities can play.

Lee Pierce: The African-American chambers of commerce, NAACP, community-based and professional organizations and faith-based institutions can all help local officials communicate with and engage African-American residents. It’s important to avoid finding just one or two people from an underrepresented community with whom you are comfortable and then burning them out through over-commitment. As elected officials, we have to get out of our comfort zones and go into the neighborhoods where people live, work and play.

Sedalia Sanders: Yes, senior centers, schools, service organizations and the faith-based communities are such intermediary organizations. In El Centro, the African-American Ministerial Alliance hosted a breakfast that brought members of different congregations together, and they were engaged in discussing issues of mutual interest. This is not only good for the city, it’s respectful of the church’s role in the African-American community.

Any final thoughts?

Sedalia Sanders: We have to govern from the inside out, encouraging the participation of everyone in our community. In addition to race and ethnicity, we also have to ensure that diversity includes gender, age, socioeconomic status and ideas. If we succeed, our African-American residents will recognize our efforts and move toward active participation.

Mike Gipson: You can’t govern from city hall alone. I learn a great deal in the local barbershop --- that’s where you can find out what people are really thinking and talking about. And I like Cornel West’s philosophy that you must love the people you serve and serve the people you love.

Lee Pierce: There is a wealth of untapped knowledge, insight and perspectives in the African-American community available for the asking. As a former Hewlett Packard employee, I was always impressed by the "management by wandering around" practice of the founders, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. As a local elected official, I have adapted that HP management practice to city government. I call it "governing by wandering around." Try it --- you’ll find welcome mats out all over town, just like the new one soon to adorn your city hall.