By Sunggeun (Ethan) Park (University of Chicago), Jennifer E. Mosley (University of Chicago), Colleen M. Grogan (University of Chicago)
The results of political inequality and disenfranchisement are becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to ignore. It is not just the horrific scenes of black people, almost always from poor urban communities, being shot by police officers on video. It is also the voices of despair and anger as well as calls for justice and reform that are heard after such horrendous events occur. Street protests, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and everyday people on social media platforms have shed light on the palpable sense of political and civic isolation that exists in many urban communities. As Venice Williams, the director of Alice’s Garden and The Body and Soul Healing Arts community center in Milwaukee, said in response to the riots that ensured after another police shooting: “Our situation here in Milwaukee in the African American community is one that has been defined from the very beginning by red-lining, and where we can and cannot go, and where we are and are not welcome…The feeling of —this is not our city–even though we comprise the majority of this inner city, is just a feeling of being invisible (The Takeaway, WNYC, Aug 17, 2016) .”
This lack of voice was the starting point for our recent article in Urban Affairs Review. We know that many urban communities that are predominantly low income and minority suffer from poor political representation and low voter turnout. If the standard version of political representation doesn’t work, what does? In an attempt to increase citizens’ voice in the policies that impact their lives, local governments have developed a plethora of participatory processes to engage the community. Because of the difficulties inherent in involving citizens directly, however, these processes often rely on neighborhood organizations to serve as informal community representatives.
However, leaders of local organizations are not elected, have limited accountability to the community, and come from many different types of organizations: religious organizations, schools, or human services organizations, for example. Do residents in marginalized urban communities trust these organizations to speak on their behalf? If so, how does that compare to the trust they have (or don’t have) in local elected officials? Do they trust some types of organizations more than others to speak on their behalf?
By surveying low-income people in predominantly African American communities on the south side of Chicago we found that residents’ viewed non-elected neighborhood organizations as understanding their experiences and promoting the interests of their community better than their elected officials. Residents also viewed those alternative representatives—especially community organizations and schools—as more trustworthy to speak on their behalf. For example, while 56% of residents reports that they believed their local elected official (their alderman, in the case of Chicago) was more interested in promoting themselves than helping the community, only 33% of residents believed that about community organizations. Over 40% of residents trusted community organizations to speak on their behalf all or most of the time, while only 23% trusted aldermen in that way.
Interestingly, we found that trust in those organizations did not vary much by individual factors, like age and gender (although older people are slightly more trusting overall), and community-level factors do not help explain the relationship between residents and trust, either. We found that despite varying levels of poverty and violent crime rates, residents in different low-income African American neighborhoods are equally as likely to have low trust in aldermen to speak on their behalf and higher trust in community organizations and schools.
Based on these results, we conclude that expanding ways to include neighborhood organizations in local and regional decision-making may be one method of mediating known political inequality in urban, low-income, communities of color. Providing opportunities for these organizations to become involved in participatory processes may help address the problem of political inequality, because residents believe these organizations understand their views and trust them to speak on their behalf. With formal representation channels viewed as untrustworthy, residents in marginalized communities may be able to rely on community organizations to become visible—especially when they feel invisible—and to amplify their voice for change.
That said, despite the fact that residents of marginalized urban communities typically trust these organizations to speak on their behalf, that trust is still not as strong as one would hope. Although these organizations are often considered an important voice for the poor and segregated urban communities they serve, 15-20% of residents (depending on organizational type) report that they do not trust these organizations to speak on their behalf either, and there may be very good reasons for this. Research has been mixed regarding the degree to which community-based organizations advocate on the same issues their constituents care about. With limited and stagnating resources, human service organizations often focus on delivering services, rather than nurturing low-income residents’ civic skills and engagement; the membership of churches in these communities often does not include current community residents, which undermines the churches’ attachment to the community and residents’ trust; and schools are frequently perceived to be unduly politically influenced.
For organizations to overcome this “trust deficit” they should have ongoing communication with residents, which would help them identify challenges in the local environment earlier, thus enabling them to advocate for residents’ interests with legitimate constituency information. While this may be a challenge for capacity challenged neighborhood organizations, it is vital in order for participatory processes to do the job they were designed to do: give residents a greater voice in the policies that affect their lives and communities.
Sunggeun (Ethan) Park is a doctoral student in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. His fields of research interest include human service organizations, coproduction, public-private collaboration, democratic participation, and organizational strategy. His dissertation explores how human service organizations employ diverse responsiveness mechanisms and how those efforts impact organizational outcomes, using a nationally representative sample of substance use disorder treatment centers in the U.S.
Jennifer E. Mosley is an associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Her research broadly focuses on the political engagement of nonprofit and community based organizations. Recent projects have explored the relationship between advocacy and improved democratic representation, how organizations balance self-interest with larger community goals, and how public administration and nonprofit management trends, particularly collaborative governance and contracting, affect nonprofits’ advocacy role.
Colleen M. Grogan is a professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Her broad areas of research interest include welfare state politics, health policy and politics, and participatory processes. She is currently working on several projects looking at the ACA Medicaid expansion across the fifty states, and a book project titled America’s Hidden Health Care State, which examines the intent behind America’s submerged health care state.
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