How can cities fight political inequality and push toward an equal voice for all their residents? The everyday grind of politics elevates some voices and leaves others behind, but there often aren’t ways to trace who is being ignored. So I developed a set of tools to measure, critique, and ultimately change exclusion patterns in city politics.
Talking with neighbors in West Oakland and the insightful students of the Bay Area Urban Debate League back in the day revealed a potential trap: when asked where they would go with a problem in their city, most people said they would go to a city council meeting – but every expert I talked to said that those meetings were the last place an everyday person should go to have their voice heard.
It wasn’t hard to find people who had attempted to engage their council and left feeling disappointed, shot down, or ignored – and I had a hunch that this experience was widely shared. So I put together a research project to trace patterns in political exclusion in the city councils of Oakland and Berkeley – who gets listened to and who goes ignored – and developed a toolkit for anyone who wants to trace exclusion patterns in their own cities.
The context: National political inequality
From all the think pieces debating the role of the working class in the 2016 presidential elections, it would be easy to get the idea that low-income people are highly engaged and empowered in American politics. On average this is far from true. Class-based political inequality is still real, with census data showing that the voting gap is big as ever:
Starting into the research, my hunch was that everyday political institutions like city councils contribute to this political inequality by giving less attention, affirmation, and applause to non-elites. In diverse liberal cities like these, it’s hard to find open prejudice by race or gender by a public official, so they are perfect places to study implicit bias – and the first step in fighting implicit bias is bringing invisible patterns to light.