Yesterday's Seattle Times editorial criticizing mayor Ed Murray's decision to stop using the city's neighborhood district councils for community outreach and planning, dismissed the mayor's social justice rationale with a hand wave of privilege.
"Neighborhood groups are a traditional entry point for civic engagement," they write, adding that Seattle's traditional planning formula has made "Seattle one of the nation’s most livable cities" and one of the reasons "Seattle became so successful."
"Livable" for whom? one might ask. And who exactly has become successful?
Last week, citing low participation of renters, people of color, immigrants, and people under 40 in the district council model, Mayor Murray announced that the city would no longer use the 13 neighborhood district councils as the gateway and litmus test for crafting city policy. Practically speaking that means the $1.2 million in staff resources the Department of Neighborhoods has been budgeting on district liaisons is going away and the councils will no longer serve, through the Community Neighborhood Council, as the arbiter on community spending.
Instead, Murray, and his neighborhoods director, Kathy Nyland, a former longtime district council chair from Georgetown, are setting out to come up with a new system that would seek input from a more diverse group that reflects Seattle’s actual demographics; 52 percent of Seattle are renters and 34 percent of the city are minorities.
Listen to the Seattle Times literally blame the victim:
In dumping the councils, Murray cast it as a social justice issue, noting that most participants were older, white homeowners.
This divisive tone implies councils were discriminating or excluding people. Actually anyone could participate but only some people chose to — a big difference. The reality is that people who are older and own homes are more likely to engage — and voluntarily spend evenings discussing land-use policy.
For starters, it’s not “divisive” to point out that one group of people is benefiting from a system while another is being left out. The Times reaction sounds a bit like a white man accusing a woman of being shrill or an African American of being strident for raising issues of sexism or racism.
Secondly, people are only “more likely” to “choose” to engage when they are privileged enough to have the means to engage. Accusing marginalized groups of choosing not to participate (in meetings that work best for 9 to 5ers) would be as weird as blaming the achievement gap on students who “choose” not to spend enough time on school work rather than acknowledging that those students face obstacles that don’t exist for their wealthier, white classmates.
As support for its argument that young people, for example, simply don’t engage in the first place, the Times points to lower voter turnout among young voters versus homeowners. The Times is justified in calling out young voters, but their analogy to district council meetings doesn’t work: Today we vote by mail. It's pretty easy to vote. But for many, attending a two-hour community meeting could require dropping an evening shift, calling a babysitter, or putting off important errands.
But let’s say we go with the Times' flawed analogy. It actually works against them. Guess who votes at higher rates than any other subgroup: Black women. Black women, however, do not appear to be a big presence at neighborhood district council meetings.
This tone deaf and frankly oblivious Seattle Times editorial also accuses the mayor of pulling the plug on the district councils because, they say, he wanted to derail any opposition to his pending upzones, which would pave the way for more multifamily housing in traditionally single-family zones.
Ok. But if it requires an exclusive group of older, white homeowners to block the mayor’s policy, it’s probably time to acknowledge that the mayor’s policy is about making the city work for a broader group of people.
Divisive? I’d say overdue.