Here at Connecting Caring Communities, we hold some ideals near and dear to our heart. We believe in listening to people instead of coming in claiming to have all the answers. We strive to value our neighbors, especially when the have not been well represented in places or power. We see good in the places that are often overlooked or looked down upon. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for others. It’s easy to ignore or drown out the folks I live amongst in College Heights. Same goes for my friends living in ANI-designated neighborhoods. There are lots of folks who have been pushed aside due to their economic standing, race, ethnicity, and any number of other reasons.
That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about a new focus that our staff has untaken. Three of us have become Deputy Registrars, which means we are now able to register folks in our neighborhoods to vote! We will not be advocating for any specific policies or politicians; we will simply help folks who are able but are not yet registered get their paperwork in order. Whatever their political leaning, we will be encouraging them to make their voices heard through voting. It’s a fantastic way for us to work towards empowering our friends and neighbors. We are excited to be a part of increasing voter registration and are considering ways to improve voter turnout in our neighborhoods as well.
While researching voting, elections, and representation, I have been reminded about a widespread challenge facing so many communities, including Abilene. Underrepresentation. It seems a part of life, no matter what country, state, or town you examine. Folks of all kinds of political persuasions cry out when they think they are underrepresented in their governments. For instance, I have read suggestions that the Supreme Court nominee should have been a minority to better represent those populations, while others have suggested that the nominee should have been an Evangelical to represent that group. (By no means do I want to try to wade into that debate, I simply thought it was an example of how folks on both sides of the aisle tend to see underrepresentation as a problem if it is happening to them.) The main point is that underrepresentation happens, and it takes work to correct it.
I see underrepresentation in the neighborhoods in which I live and work. More specifically, I see it in the way our systems have been designed to exclude so many of the folks I’ve been getting to know.
There are a lot of Hispanic/Latino folks in the Abilene community as a whole and in CCC targeted neighborhoods specifically. AISD’s website says that our student population is 43% Hispanic, 39% White, and 13% Black. That’s a plurality of students who are Hispanic and a majority who are not White. And yet, before the recent elections, 100% of the School Board was White. After the elections, that percentage has remained the same.
This is not to say that any of those serving on the School Board are unqualified, nor is it to insinuate that they are bad people. I sincerely hope that they do a great job of listening to the voices of all the groups that make up our city’s schools, and that they carefully weigh what is best interest of these students. But it is telling that most of the students in Abilene are not White, while all of the biggest decision makers are White.
There are challenges that Hispanic folks and Black folks experience that I simply do not fully understand. No amount of listening will ever fully impress on me what it is to be a racial/ethnic minority, and no reading or research will get me there either. Even relocating into a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood hasn’t changed that reality, nor will it ever. There are perspectives which I am not qualified to articulate, and there are certainly barriers that prevent those perspectives from reaching me fully. (One of the myriad of reasons you won’t catch me running for office.)
Why am I typing out a blog post about underrepresentation? Because I believe it matters. Not just to the folks with whom I work, but to me. I want to live in a city that does a better job of representing students and their families. If I have a child in the Abilene school system someday, I want AISD to be a place that works to understand the culture of all of its students: Thriving and vibrant schools supported by teachers, administrators, and board members who represent our wide variety of kids. I know that our city will be buoyed by better educating the tens of thousands of students we serve each year, and that means better representation from top to bottom.
From personal experience, I understand that it’s difficult and uncomfortable to give up power and influence. If there is an underrepresentation, there must be an overrepresentation. Folks who look like me, who have college educations like me, and who are overly represented like me have more power than we care to admit. It’s easy for me to look at the micro scale and pretend as if I have just as little power as anyone else. But the more I look at the world, the more I see ways in which I get extra influence, extra opportunity, extra power. And the more I look at myself, the more I see the ways those privileges work against my goals of community development. More than that, they damage my pursuit of the path laid out by a marginalized carpenter/teacher.
There isn’t a quick, simple solution. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over three years in this job, it’s that there is never a quick, simple solution. So I’ll do what I can: acknowledge that our city isn’t as representative as it could be and work to empower folks in our targeted neighborhoods to have more of a voice. I don’t know what that would look like for you, intrepid blog reader, but maybe it involves learning more about our city, our schools, and our local demographics. Perhaps it entails becoming more involved by voting in local elections or encouraging others to do so. It might even mean giving up some power and influence to ensure other voices are heard. No matter what your part looks like, may we be people who work to see all of our community represented well.