Banner

Political Inclusion

By Sayu Bhojwani, Founder and President, The New American Leaders Project

 
Sayu Bhojwani
Founder and President, The New American Leaders Project

Making Democracy Work for All: Political Inclusion as a Strategy for Integration

Political inclusion measures the extent to which all members of a society are able to access the institutions of democracy. For immigrants and minorities, this access allows us to be seen, be heard and be counted. It’s critical to distinguish between individual access and group access, specifically as it relates to immigrants and other minority groups. For example, if one individual from these groups, by virtue of their social or economic standing, are able to vote, run for office, or participate in civic leadership, we can’t assume that a society is politically inclusive. A more accurate measure of political inclusion is the ability of any individual – regardless of their socioeconomic background or ethnicity – to access the levers of political power. The difference between one and any defines the scope of work ahead of us for political inclusion.

Analysis
What are the levers of political power that we need to ensure anyone can access? For the purposes of this exercise, let’s look specifically at the ability and opportunity to vote, to be represented in government, and to have voice in policymaking. These forms of inclusion allow us to be counted, be seen and be heard. While voting is often restricted to those citizens with particular legal status, being represented by someone we identify with or being able to voice our concerns to policymakers is possible regardless of legal status.

Voting for All

Partnership for Immigrant Leadership and Action. In California, the state which attracts the most immigrants to the United States, Mobilize Immigrant Vote “successfully supported and connected the efforts of 112 organizations working in 15 diverse ethnic communities, in 17 California counties in order to increase the civic participation of immigrant groups and bring them together around their shared issues and concerns.”

Count us In! was launched in 2011 by the Immigrant Council of Ireland “to raise awareness among naturalized citizens of their right to vote in the 2011 General Election, remind political parties and candidates of the need to engage with naturalized citizens and with the issues pertaining to immigration and integration, and remind politicians and canvassers that the electorate in Ireland was diverse.

Representation for All

Advocacy for the under-represented can raise awareness and organize collective action, but the route to elected office and the corridors of power requires sustained effort and technical know-how. Cities like Dortmund and Nashville recognize that its in their interest to actively recruit and train citizens for public office. In cities like Hamburg, the municipality hosts naturalization campaigns to ensure its promote the benefits of citizenship. The mayor sends every new citizen a personal letter of recognition.

Chicago’s Voting Rights Act of 2011 makes progress toward reflective representation for the city’s changing demographics. The act mandates that district lines for Congressional and state seats are drawn in ways that allow immigrants and people of colour to influence who represents them.

Who represents us matters, as researchers in Berlin have shown by assessing the impact of diversity in city councils in Germany. Their study found that no German city had proportionate representation of immigrants on its council, but recognized steady growth in the number of immigrant council members around the country.

Voices of All

All Parisians, All Citizens. In Paris, France, city government has created a venue for non-citizens to express their concerns about policy. This advisory council, created by Paris Mayor Betrand Delanoë in the early 2000s, allows non-European Union citizens, a platform from which to engage with the city’s municipal leaders.

OXLO, Oslo Extra Large is a response by the municipality of Oslo to be more intentional about inclusion and diversity. In 2005, Oslo implemented “city-wide measures to increase cultural diversity through active city governance, such as addressing city government hiring criteria, emphasizing political participation through active citizenship and supporting increased co-operation among agencies, local government and other service providers.”

In the United States and elsewhere, at a time when the idea of an inclusive society is under threat from federal policy and xenophobic activities, cities have asserted their determination to protect the rights of all residents. Mayors in the United States established Cities for Citizenship, to encourage eligible residents to naturalize. And municipal leaders have established “sanctuary cities”, to serve and protect every resident in spite of exclusionary federal and state policies. Youth and adults affected by the termination of the DACA (Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals) program have seen an outpouring of support from municipal leaders determined to protect them and push Congress to pass legislation that will address the country’s broken immigration system. These expressions of political power signal a shift in the parameters of municipal power and authority.

Cost of Exclusion

Our democracy is stronger when everyone participates. Lower levels of participation and representation weaken our democratic institutions, preserving power in the hands of a few – leaders, voters, and donors. These political elites then shape policy in their interests, rather than in the interests of the majority. When a society is diverse, in ethnicity, in occupational status, in gender and sexual orientation, its leaders need to reflect those diverse perspectives. This representation is not simply “for show.” To cast our votes, to speak our minds, and to hear our experiences reflected in policy contribute to our sense of inclusion, our ability to participate, our access to power. If we don’t feel our participation is welcome or possible, we feel marginalized and silenced. In the short-term, that can contribute to isolation and misunderstanding. In the long-term, it can contribute to racial tension and civil unrest.

Being Reflective and Accountable

The challenge of integrating diverse populations into democracies often designed to serve the wealthy and privileged few might seem daunting. But at its core, political integration is rooted in three values – authenticity, inclusion and accountability. Specifically, policymakers can ensure that these values are embedded into democratic institutions by doing the following:

Evaluating and re-evaluating regularly. With increasing migration and constantly changing demographics, policy and practice that worked a decade ago may not be adequate today. Staying in touch with how a community looks, lives and works requires constant and consistent engagement.

Going beyond diversity and representation to inclusion and equity. Practically, this requires diligent attention to who holds decision-making authority and power. Populating advisory committees with one or two migrants, for example, might check the box on diversity but unless the committee has influence and the members have voting power, we are not advancing political inclusion.

Mechanisms for accountability. How we hold our leaders and our institutions accountable determines how well they serve us. These mechanisms can include voting, but can also include community hearings, town halls, transparency around council meetings. Along with these, particularly for newcomers, we must ensure ways that residents are informed and included.

When decision-making centers these practices above individual ambitions or short-term gains, the results can be far-reaching, creating the inclusive democracies that we all aspire to.

_____________

The Author

Sayu Bhojwani is Founder and President, The New American Leaders Project which she founded in 2010. She served as New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs and is the founder of South Asian Youth Action, a community-based organization in Queens.  Her work to build a more inclusive democracy has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and in The New York Times.  Her TED talk, “Immigrant voices make democracy stronger” has been viewed over 770,000 times.  She is a 2017 Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, a Visiting Scholar at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and was named to the 2017 New Profit Accelerator cohort. Ms. Bhojwani earned a Ph.D in Politics and Education from Columbia University, where her research focused on immigrant political participation. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. @SayuBhojwani

 

Recommendations for Policy Makers

At its core, political integration is rooted in three values – authenticity, inclusion and accountability. Policymakers can ensure that these values are embedded into democratic institutions by doing the following:

  • Evaluating and re-evaluating regularly.  Staying in touch with how a community looks, lives and works requires constant and consistent engagement.
  • Going beyond diversity and representation to inclusion and equity. Practically, this requires diligent attention to who holds decision-making authority and power. Populating advisory committees with one or two migrants, for example, might check the box on diversity but unless the committee has influence and the members have voting power, we are not advancing political inclusion.
  • Mechanisms for accountability. How we hold our leaders and our institutions accountable determines how well they serve us. These mechanisms can include voting, but can also include community hearings, town halls, transparency around council meetings. Along with these, particularly for newcomers, we must ensure ways that residents are informed and included.

Top

 

View all Good Ideas
Maytree