Can We Talk About the Elephant in the Room?

Can We Talk About the Elephant in the Room?

You know the one, the brown one, the black one, the distinctly not grey-haired, non-male, non-white one. Is it actually an elephant or is it more like that bad smell you cover up with a little bit too much Febreeze and feel-good verbiage in your recruitment material? I should probably make clear that this post is not endorsed by my employer, and that this post is not a grievance because I like my work environment most days, and I wish not to get fired for writing about my experiences as a person-of-color working for a local government. The fact that I have to make this disclosure is probably part of the issue but let’s not pretend like this is the first article you’ve read about representation in the workplace.

A little bit of background to understand my perspective:

I absolutely love my hometown; it’s known for its kickass tri-tip BBQ, strawberries, and wine. I grew up in the City of Santa Maria which is a very racially and economically homogeneous city. It’s a quaint, sort of conservative, “little town” of 120k people who make up the mostly Latinx community. The average annual household income is $50,753, with super “affordable” median home prices of $353,900, where 12.3% of people have a BA degree or higher (4.4% for Latinx). I often tell people I didn’t know I grew up in a farm town until I left the farm town.

I went to Santa Maria High School where the vast majority of kids were brown. They were either Latinx or they were Filipinx. We had a couple of Black students and we also had a couple of White students but they often stuck out like a sore thumb. The only people I knew who had college degrees or advanced degrees were my teachers, most of whom were white. 

I went to school at UC Santa Barbara, in large part to my parents’ value in education and guidance from my older brothers Dean and Alex.  UCSB is an amazing beach school that prides itself for serving one of the largest Latinx communities in the University of California system. After completing an eye-opening education in Poli-Sci, I came out pretty confident that I would work in public service in some capacity or another. Nearing my future funemployemt, and looking at long-term career outlooks, I realized that I would need a professional degree and that led me to CSU Long Beach’s MPA Program. Moving to Long Beach was the first time where I lived in a city and went to a school where I can honestly say there is diversity. I was overjoyed to see people of all shapes, sizes, shades, and ages.  It was refreshing to see so many different types of people with so many different types backgrounds.

During my program, I interned and later worked for the Association of California Cities. I was able to help elected officials, executive management, and key staff develop solutions for Orange County cities. I later transitioned into my current role as an Analyst for the City of Torrance Public Works where I have the privilege to work regionally with organizations and a variety of different stakeholders. As I started attending more meetings and more committees I often thought to myself, “holy crap. I’m the only brown person in here” and when there was another person of color in the room they were usually a woman taking minutes. Seriously.  

So here I am; a young first-generational-everything brown kid who grew up surrounded by people of color, showing up to meetings where most of the key decision makers are gray-haired white dudes.

So, why does this even matter?

A local government cannot effectively provide services to its people if it doesn’t understand their needs. I know I’m not the first person to talk about why representation in the workforce matters. If you haven’t heard or read why it matters, we’re going to have bigger issues. It’s an issue of representation in policy makers and representative bureaucracy.

Per Wikipedia: Representative Bureaucracy is a theory that “broad social groups should have spokesmen and officeholders in administrative as well as political positions”.

Further Reading:

Demographic Trends and Representative Bureaucracy: Impact on Public Administration (ASPA Article)

Representative bureaucracy: exploring the potential for active representation in local government by Mark D. Bradbury and J. Edward Kellough (PDF). 

MOREEVIDENCEBEHINDPAYWALLS.

Real life example?

I love Santa Maria! I hope this was clear in the “about me section” above. Here’s a quick picture of how Santa Maria and my new home of Long Beach compare.

 

If it’s hard to read, 71.7% of people in Santa Maria are Hispanic, 21% White Non-Hispanic, and 0.7% Black. Long beach is a little more diverse with 42.1% Hispanic and 28.7% White Non-Hispanic.  If you want a crash-course on “White Non-Hispanic” and Latinx identify in the US Census, check out Latino USA’s episode on the matter.



I absolutely do not want to imply that all cities should only be led by people who look like the population. There are ways to ensure you are sensitive to the needs of an unrepresentative population where such a workforce simply isn’t realistic. I DO NOT want to criticize the leadership of Santa Maria based on their race, but you have to admit it does not “look good” to have a majority White Council when dealing with racially sensitive material; like bringing an immigration detention center to your city. Here’s what can happen when a community disapproves of a City’s position. 




Santa Maria is growing rapidly, so of course there’s going to be development everywhere. This center has brought high-paying jobs to the Central Coast of California but…perhaps bringing an ICE facility where the majority of your population is made up of a Latinx community could have been handled differently. I don’t know the specifics of the project and won’t pretend to know, but this example literally hit close to home.

So, what do we do?

Well you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know there’s a problem. [I’m gonna go ahead and pretend like I’m the first person to have ever said that]

Which is why am super proud to have contributed to ELGL’s kickstarter campaign. I swear this whole post is not a huge plug for the kickstarter campaign, although I was inspired and you should definitely check it out and you should absolutely support the campaign.

 

We need to get comfortable talking about race and gender-identity in government. I distinctly remember making my HR Professor visibly uncomfortable with my critique of the analysis presented in our textbook. I thought I brought up great points about how HR tends to inadequately deal with sensitive issues and that it should been an essential part of the program’s curriculum. I mainly disagreed with our textbook’s analysis of why women weren’t in executive positions in Public Service and NGOs. For the record, I still think it was horsecrap, inaccurate.

I’ve had multiple conversations where race and gender are crucial in project planning but had people visibly uncomfortable with those topics. I cringe when someone whispers Black or thinks it’s divisive to take different identities into consideration. Push to have these discussions in your project planning. 

Do more as an organization. Don’t just have conversations about identity or improve your recruitment process. Provide your staff with the tools to use their distinctiveness to better serve your community. I attended the Portland ELGL Pop-Up in September and listened to a real government employee use Latinx in completely correct non-sarcastic manner.

Some key takeaways from the presentation were to make equity practices policy and being able to refer to those when things got tense.

Organizations need to ask who is not at the table. Kari and Jen showed us the 5 points in equity work: Power, People, Policy, Practice, and Participation.

Shout out to Kari Herinckx and Jennifer Lleras Van Der Haeghen for some real talk.

As a person of color? Be visible and be present. Growing up, I didn’t know a person could work in Local Government and I recently had to explain to my parents what my job is; I still don’t know! #WhatisanAnalyst? So now I make myself visible. I volunteer with a Santa Maria non-profit org, Active Alumni Academia, who encourage high school alumni to be active by promoting the importance of higher education and forming the necessary relationships in an individual’s future. I’m hoping they see something they can be. In the workplace, I posit questions about identity in what we do and try to have that develop into implementable actions.

Are you resolving this?

Is your organization doing something extraordinary? Have you faced workplace tensions because of race or gender? How did you resolve it? Am I on to something here or am I totally off base? Let me know your thoughts, @joedoespolitics! 

 

  • parrish1908

    Thank you!!!! I’m glad someone said it!