Does the Left have a diversity problem?

A few days ago, a Facebook post from a well-known local environmental activist was attacked on the grounds that, apparently, only well-connected, older, white people were invited to meet with the County Executive and the new Department of Environmental Protection director.

Granted, some folks on the right and center-right are inclined to simply press CTRL-F “Elrich” and release their daily angst on whatever comes up, but this time, they may have stumbled upon an actual issue worth talking about on the left: Do some activist circles lack diversity?

Robin Ficker gave us all a few laughs when he incessantly referred to Montgomery County’s political establishment as coming from the “Takoma Park Trapezoid.” This criticism, however, extended beyond the GOP’s perennial court jester candidate. David Blair’s almost-successful County Executive primary bid was driven largely by younger upcounty residents of color seeking to give their communities a voice, and perhaps shift some political influence away from Takoma Park/Silver Spring to also heavily populated Germantown/Gaithersburg. These residents are not wrong.

In Montgomery County, the “establishment/outsider” dynamic is not so clear-cut as Washington’s “progressive-insurgent/centrist-insider” dynamic. How can Takoma Park politicians be the “establishment” while they are also the most “far left”? Is it now “anti-establishment” or even “edgy” to be more centrist, conservative, or pro-business? This could be a topic for another time, but what is worth considering is the diversity of Montgomery County’s political Left.

It would be incorrect to suggest that the political left consists of mainly old white people, but certain activist groups, based on my observation, do trend older and whiter. Again, based entirely on my own observations, Progressive Maryland’s core is very young and quite diverse, while the Democratic Socialists of America is young, though skewed white and male. I had commented on the facebook group in question that there are a number of stakeholder advocacy groups centered around racial identity, immigrants, and faith-based initiatives that regularly meet with and influence the Council and the Executive. The criticism of Executive Elrich and the Takoma Park Left-activist “establishment” (these words do seem very strange to put together) stems from the idea that there is an inner circle of long-time political activists that know each other well and are first to consult with one another and answer each other’s calls. This may or may not be true. Aside from trolls or people simply looking for something to complain about, no one is suggesting that the activist left is intentionally racist, but that they had simply formed a clique by nature of working with each other for decades.

While I can’t speak for the lizard-skinned hippie cabal of Takoma Park baby boomer leftist – probably because this cabal really isn’t a thing – I can speak for the fact that “they” are not shutting people out of their “clique” intentionally. Most activists, such as environmental activist Diana Conway and education activist Laura Stewart, are very easy to talk to. There is no specific roadblock – or password, or secret handshake – to having one’s voice heard on a variety of issues. The problem, in my opinion, is accessibility.

A friend of mine, a 20-something activist named Danielle, has agreed with me that aside from civic activist groups directed specifically towards younger people, civic engagement in local public policy and/or campaigns tends to be “old white people.” Take the County Executive for example. Even if Elrich won votes from young, working class people of color – they didn’t really make up the demographic that attended his events and rallies. Aside from his interns and volunteers and their friends, most in attendance were Baby Boomers who had known Elrich for a while. This doesn’t make Elrich or his supporters less progressive, but it does say something about an accessibility or enthusiasm gap.

What Danielle and I agreed upon was the problem that those for whom public policy affects the most…unfortunately have the least accessibility to influence them. When you think about how to get involved or have your voice heard – it means waiting in line to speak at listening sessions at two-hour forums in the evenings. It means driving or taking transit to Silver Spring or Rockville to attend events. It means sifting through the constant Trump news to the local section of the Washington Post (and getting around the paywall) to find out what’s going on in Montgomery County (and then sort from the slanted editorials to the actual news). Try doing all of this when you are the one who is actually working the minimum wage jobs and trying to raise children. If you are juggling bills, multiple jobs, and a family, are you to be shamed for not knowing that there is an election coming up? Are you supposed to have the right opinion about whether or not the Beltway should be expanded? If your number one local policy concern is whether or not your rent is going up, how do you know who to believe – Hans Riemer and Dan Reed who tell you that we need to deregulate real estate development so we can build more housing everywhere, or the Takoma Park Left who tell you that rent stabilization will solve the problem? You probably know my answer, but how are busy people supposed to know?

It is an unfortunate, but fair argument to make that civic activism is a “luxury” for those who have the time and resources to commit. It is understandable that two to three-hour biweekly meetings in a single downcounty location would be dominated by retirees, stay-at-home spouses, or those successful enough in their careers that they can make their own schedules. Or, you know, lonely weirdo single nine-to-five people like me. I would argue that this is why some factions on the left may have a “diversity problem” – not so much because of deliberate exclusion.

A number of us younger activists are making the following suggestions to the Takoma Park/Silver Spring “Old Guard” of well-meaning progressives:

  • Offer more online and live stream options, such as the recent Virtual Town Hall, on specific issues that affect low income residents.
  • Continue the effort to have more public forums in upcounty and East county locations, but advertise them more on social media.
  • Encourage small group meetings, such as the recent meeting we had on affordable housing, to discuss specific issues that involve young people and people of color.

And our suggestions to fellow local activists:

  • Address environmental issues that affect low-income areas and articulate why they are important to someone with a busy schedule.
  • Involve immigrant and faith-based stakeholder groups in discussions of environmental, labor, and housing policy, so that our respective interests are not siloed.

To elected officials and activists alike:

  • Be open to solutions to problems that might not align with one’s ideological mindset. Approach solutions to concerns about housing, jobs, the environment, income inequality, and transportation that are governed by data, case studies, and real life evidence, as opposed to a particular ideological interpretation. The idea is to find out what works, not what gives us the most leftist street cred – or what makes us look more appealing to the center. Leave politics aside for a moment. Solve a problem, then campaign on having solved that problem.

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