When Neil Degrasse Tyson, a popular scientist from the States, was discussing the US Government he made the following observation, “What professions do all of these Senators and Congressman have? Law, law, law, businessman, law, law, law . . . where are the Scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of . . . Life?”
He was lifting up that a diversity of opinions paired with genuine conversations focused on solving problems produced better results than a monoculture of people trained their whole life to argue their side.
And, on October 22nd, there’s a good chance we could be looking at our City Council and asking ourselves an even more fundamental question, “Where are all the women?”
When you look at who’s running and where the races are at, we see that an all male council (and majority white) is a strong possibility.
So, why is that an issue?
First, let me back up and say that I think the most important criteria for someone to be on City Council is that they’d kick ass at the job. And, for me personally, that they have a progressive set of values. I want my City Council to value smart growth, urban infill, to see sprawl as a problem, to support local food and our farmers, to be promoters of local arts and to value sustainability and social justice and to heavily support local business over box stores. I want them to have a vision for a better Edmonton that we’re all inspired by.
To me, that comes first.
But, within that, I want the most diverse team of people possible. I want multiple backgrounds represented. I want a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. And I want a balance of genders.
The more diverse the room, the better the solutions are that will appear.
Do I want a woman on council just because she’s a woman? No. See Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman as examples.
Do I want a woman as Mayor just because she’s a woman? No. It’s no secret who I personally support in this election.
But to have a council that might have no women?
And almost only white people?
To me what that means is that there are huge swaths of experience and backgrounds missing. Experiences and backgrounds that could do so much to make every policy better and more relevant to a wider range of Edmontonians. Details that you would never consider if you weren’t a part of that group or community.
In community organizing, one of the most important principles is that of ‘representative leadership’. It’s the idea that a community should be able to easily see itself in their leadership.
That is something that most black americans had never really been able to do. They would look at the President of their country and, year after year, decade after decade, see people who did not look like them, did not grow up in their neighbourhoods and was, largely, unaware of what their lives were like. When Barack Obama won, it was a profound moment for black America. A moment most thought they would never live to see. ‘Someone like me is the President. I am being represented by someone like me.’
Can you imagine an official government panel working on women’s reproductive health issues . . . made up entirely of men? Neither could most women in the US when it happened.
One of the rookie mistakes in community organizing – one of the classic things you see – is the young, wide eyed, white teenage girl from a middle to upper class community, going to do work in a lower income community of colour full of pre-conceived ideas of what she is going to do. But, for all her good intentions, she doesn’t know the reality on the ground. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be them or where the help is truly needed. And so, she will have wonderful ideas that, for the most part, won’t work. That won’t resonate with the community. Not that she can’t learn, but precisely that she will need to learn a lot. She might want to plant a community garden when what they really need is jobs.
This happens all of the time in international development.
Or when there’s an a struggle about pollution in a community, often an outside group will come in to run a campaign. But those consulted are not the people living there who are dealing with it. Representative leadership says that the people most impacted by the issue should be the ones at the forefront of resolving it. Resources and money should go to them. Support should go to them. But often they go to the outside organization that lacks any street smarts in the community. Building up local leadership is a longer game. It takes time but, in the end, it’s so much more effective. People from a community already know more about the community than you could learn in years.
Even Mitt Romney, to his credit, realized this when he saw that the majority of people being suggested to him for leadership roles in his cabinet were men. So he directed his staff to find him qualified women (which he then sadly referred to as his “binders of women”). But he knew that there must be women just as qualified for the job as the men and that diversity mattered to him.
Diversity makes us stronger. Differing opinions with shared values make solutions smarter.
What happens when the only people elected to office are the ones who are, to some extent, in the pockets of the developers and industry? Or those who already have deep connections there? What happens when the interests of money are at the table more than the interests of the people? That’s also a monoculture in its own way. Or what happens when groups like the Manning Foundation and developers are pouring money into getting Conservative Candidates elected? When big money enters into politics we see a very different kind of politics emerge.
When we plan our Green Drinks events, there is a lot of brainstorming as to what type of activities would be best. And we don’t always agree. There’s a lot of back and forth. I’ll think I have a great idea and then someone will point out why it’s not. And vice versa. But, in the end, we always come up with even better ideas. Ideas we’re all excited about. Bad ideas are discarded. Good ideas are polished.
I am a white male. They way I have experienced the world and see it now is different in many ways than how people of colour and women see it. And I’m not particularly even saying that as a feminist. But, I don’t think twice about walking home alone after being out late at the bar – for a simple example. Many women I know do. When the new bathrooms on Whyte and 103 Street were built, glass walls were put in for safety sake so nothing could happen in them without being seen. As a man, that would never have occurred to me.
So, if we end up with an all male council . . .
The first question in my mind is this: how will they work to take into account the experience of half of the population of the city? Whenever the leadership is a monoculture (of whatever – Big Money, Men, White People, Lawyers etc.) there’s going to need to be work done to get outside of the box of their experience. If they want their solutions to work for everyone, they’re going to have to stretch themselves to consider the experiences of others that may be very different from theirs.
The next question has to do with how do we do better next time?
How do we make sure our city council is as diverse as possible a collection of badasses? How do we make sure that more progressive women and people from various cultural groups are also running for council? What policies and structures do we need in place to foster leadership in more diverse communities? And how can we better support those voices when they run?
I welcome any of your thoughts and comments below.
— Tad Hargrave