Worcester Government’s Lack of Diversity Misrepresents Population
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
In recent decades, racial and ethnic minorities have made up a larger slice of city residents, and fewer individuals are identifying as white. Nearly 40 percent of school-aged children in the city today identify as Hispanic. But there remains only a handful of elected officials who don't trace their ancestry to Europe.
“People vote ethnically in the city of Worcester,” according to Bill Coleman, an activist and long-time local candidate for office, who threw his hat into the ring most recently for mayor and an at-large seat on the city council last November, where he finished eighth. “Italians vote for Italians, Irish vote for the Irish.”
Coleman points to the city's growing African American population as a sign of changing demographics. Despite that growth, and candidates for the choosing, there have only been two black men to serve on the city council: The last, Charles Scott, held office between 1917 and 1938.
“I've tried a lot, I've tried running,” Coleman said. “We have a race issue in this city,” which he described as communities living apart from one another, by choice. “There's a big element of diversity fear,” Coleman says, not racism per se but rather that “we don't know each other.”
Minority women have seen more success than their male counterparts.
Benefits to broader representation
“My perspective is that we can all benefit from diversity,” said Hilda Ramirez, who won a first term to the Worcester Public Schools committee this past November. “As a Gateway City that welcomes new citizens, we need to represent the people that live in our city. Many of our children are English Language Learners and we need to be able to communicate with them and their families.”
More than 40 percent of students in the WPS district speak a first language other than English, and 34.3 percent were were considered ELL, still gaining English proficiency, in 2011-12 according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In 2012-13, self-identifying Hispanic students comprised 38.1 percent of the total student population.
Ethnic background is not the sole yardstick.
“I believe that our diverse communities need a voice at city government, but I also understand that it's not just about ethnic diversity, but our families with special needs need a voice, our LGBT community and the many immigrants that make Worcester their home (need a voice),” Ramirez continued. “I hope that our city can reflect the needs of all of its residents.”
Better connectivity with all communities
Sarai Rivera, currently the city's district 4 representative, grew up in Worcester and works as a clinical therapist and pastor. A first-generation Puerto Rican American and two-term councilor, Rivera said she worked for a broad group of residents in her district on the council.
“People care about the same issues: schools, public safety, economic development,” regardless of background, Rivera said. “It comes down to maintaining that connectivity.”
2010 Census shows more diversity and foreign-born population
The city of Worcester has seen a marked increase in ethnic and racial diversity according to the most recent U.S. Census. From 2000 to 2010, the number of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino increased 44.59 percent: From 26,155 to 37,818 — more than one in five residents.
The number of respondents identifying as black or African American increased 77.06 percent over the same time period: From 11,892 to 21,056.
The number of respondents who identified as white dropped, meanwhile, both in absolute terms and as a percentage, falling 5.57 percent as a portion of the entire population.
So how can city government better reflect the changing community? For one, outreach begets more participation, according to Rivera. Recent presidential elections have turned out new voters to the polls, but they haven't returned for local elections when turnout was abysmal.
Rivera said the dilemma was ensuring people were connected with local government so they could stay — or become — better involved.
“There's not one particular thing we can do to solve it all,” according to Coleman, who suggested reversing the decline in polling locations around the city to boost voter participation, and adding more opportunities to meet local candidates like public forums.
“I'm close, a lot of people are close — things are going to change,” Coleman said. But “we have to change the mindset on the whole voting concept,” making it easier to vote, meet candidates, and support different leadership.
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