Matthew Starr, Community Development Fellow, shares his experience serving with the Cumberland County Community Development Office.
I did not concretely understand how inequitable democracy could be until I started helping Kristin Styles research Cumberland County’s consolidated community development plan. The County’s consolidated plan is meant to describe what type of housing and economic development projects County residents and non-profit and municipal professionals think the County should fund with money from the federal government. Before the County receives money to distribute to local non-profits and municipalities, it is required to hold a series of public forums describing exactly who the County plans to ask for advice on how to distribute the government’s money, why it plans to ask those people in particular for advice, and how anyone listening can provide input on the County’s grant making process.
If you never knew such meetings existed, let alone that you were welcome to participate, you’re not alone; about forty people show up to each forum we hold (out of the ~335,000 residents in Cumberland County). Of those forty people, about thirty-three are professionals who work with the County’s Community Development Office in some capacity to provide the housing and economic development services the forum is meant to discuss. Amongst the remaining seven attendees, seemingly few qualify as the “low-to-moderate income” residents the projects are required to benefit. That means of the ~75,000 people the programs we fund are meant to serve, about 2 individuals had an opportunity to ensure the County knows what type of programs would address their needs. When combined with the 41 responses we got from low-to-moderate income residents on our public input survey, the County ended up with a total targeted input rate of about 5 people reached per 10,000 people our programs are meant to serve.
That number ended up low despite our efforts to reach out to as many community members as possible. In my role as a Resilience Corps Member, I reached out to someone at almost every housing support service, small business support organization, workforce training facilitator, homelessness support service, food pantry, and community center in the County, as well as the clerk of every town/city in the County, saying that we were looking to listen to local low-income community members describe their housing/economic development needs in whatever manner would be convenient for them. The most common response I received was that that they would be happy to pass my message along to anyone they work with/for---though I shouldn’t expect much uptake. They explained to me that their clients are almost always preoccupied with surviving, meaning it was unlikely I’d find them with enough available bandwidth to identify how they became vulnerable to systemic issues in the first place. In that same vein, 41 out of the 43 people at our public input forum were either paid to be there for their job, independently well-off, or retired---and thus had the disposable time and energy necessary to attend. To be clear---I think it’s inspiring that taxpayers have the opportunity to shape every single decision-making process they fund. Unfortunately, if the low-income people who the County’s community development programs are designed to serve don’t have the time, energy, or in the midst of a pandemic, broadband access requisite to steer our planning process, then the democratic principles that required us to open our planning to the public in the first place might be practically diminished.
About two months ago, I figured out that even if public officials find a way to ensure vulnerable populations can clearly participate in public decision making, the process of turning an understanding of those folks’ problems into a plan that most people will support is unspeakably complex. As of even this past December (a month into my Resilience Corps term), I assumed the only problems that persist in the world are those powerful people are reluctant to aggressively address. That idea lasted all of about three conversations into my outreach process for the County’s consolidated plan.
One of my first interviewees was someone who is deeply involved in facilitating efforts to scale affordable housing development across Greater Portland. As of the morning of said conversation, I had yet to have a conversation that explained why I got a chuckle every time I asked “woah; is the shortage of affordable housing in the County really that bad?” After 15 minutes of fleshing out wild guesses, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which their answer didn’t prominently include greedy housing developers. While one future interviewee would mention housing developers as tertiary (but not central) antagonists in the regional shortage of affordable housing, my current interviewee’s string of responses avoided mentioning greedy developers altogether. Instead, they described the housing shortage as the product of extraordinarily high costs of construction (due to shortages in labor/materials) and oddly inefficient local zoning/permitting processes (that also happen to be inconsistent across localities); both challenges, my interviewee was careful to note, were likely rooted in an unknowable number of historical/economic/political shocks (some identifiable, many not). When I later asked my interviewee to describe any efforts they knew that exist to help address the County’s housing shortage, they described a collection of individuals bifurcated into two parties: a network of housing professionals who, as they try to develop affordable housing units, have maintained a dialogue with local low- income folks as to what their most pressing housing support needs are, and a group of policy experts advocating for legislative bodies of all sizes to adopt evidence-backed housing solutions (such as zoning reform, rental assistance expansion, or general assistance expansion).
I walked away from that interview astounded that so much well-intentioned, experienced brainpower could be stymied by a context of social complexity so muddied that even the most experienced public professional had trouble parsing it apart. To distill that soup of complexity down into a short explanation: economics, politics, critical identity theories, anthropology, history, and social psychology are all difficult to understand in a vacuum. To apply all six at the same time in a dynamic social environment is to understanding any single one what managing a baseball team is to a sabermetrician: a whole different ballgame.
To make a long story short, after reflecting on who was (and wasn’t) able to participate in some of the public input events the County has held over the past few months, I figured those with disposable time and energy are disproportionately able to influence public processes. Given public processes are in large part what shape the living conditions that prevent people from participating in public processes in the first place, then the only way to make democracy truly democratic (sans dramatic systemic change) is if the people lucky enough to be able to participate in public policy use their voices to make sure everyone currently excluded from politics has the capacity and capability to steer government towards empowering marginalized groups moving forward. It follows that if you have the time and training to understand (and perhaps even write a whole blog post about) how complicated it might be to turn that pro-democracy sentiment into actual democracy, then you’re one of the people who needs to be using that time/education to help a political organization figure that complexity out. In that vein, I’m now almost sure the justness of every professional step I take beyond the Resilience Corps will likely hinge on how well I support those trying to morph the government into a force for social equity.
About Matthew Starr
Matt grew up in New York City. He graduated from Bates College in 2020 with Bachelor's degrees in Economics and Psychology. While at Bates, he also completed a concentration in Community Engagement and a semester in which he studied at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. He sees his work in the Resilience Corps as an opportunity to apply what he learned at Bates about quantitative and qualitative research, critical creative thinking and community engagement to helping GPCOG improve the lives of Mainers. Outside of work, he loves to read, travel and spend time with close friends.