Public Works: More Diversity in City Government
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Public Works: More Diversity in City Government

Lexington, Mass., is being recognized for increasing multiculturalism in civic leadership. Here's why Toronto could and should be doing the same.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

On February 18, Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation honoured Lexington, Massachusetts, with a spot on its 2015 Bright Ideas in Government list. The town’s bright idea? Trying to make the demographics of local government more reflective of the population.

Like much of the Greater Boston Area, Lexington has been experiencing an immigration boom. About 22 per cent of the town’s population has Asian roots—especially Chinese, Indian, and Korean. Lexington’s Asian communities have grown quickly—only 11 per cent of the town had Asian heritage in 2000—but they are thriving. Around 70 per cent of Lexington adults with Asian ancestry are American citizens, and more than 60 per cent have graduate degrees—compared to fewer than 50 per cent of the rest of Lexington’s adults.

Yet, as of 2013, only about three per cent of the town’s 530 elected officials and Town committee members were of Asian descent.

Back in 2010, the dismal level of minority representation in local government led the Town to appoint a subcommittee on “demographic change” to look into barriers against Asian-American participation and recommend ways to fix the problem.

Released in December 2013, the reporter, “Civic Participation by Asian Residents of Lexington,” [PDF] attributed the low number of Asian-Americans in government to an array of difficulties, including cultural norms, ignorance of how local government works with the public, and the fact that much of Lexington’s Asian population is composed of young working parents with little time for government affairs.

The report also offered several pages of recommendations, including special celebrations of diversity, organized talks on the immigrant experience, strengthened relationships between the Town and Asian-American cultural associations, and ideas on how to better integrate Asian communities “into the fabric of the Town.”

Since the report came out, there has been an increase in the number of Asian-American candidates running for office, appointed to Town committees, and signing up for Lexington’s Citizens’ Academy, an annual program that educates residents on the role of municipal government and how they can get involved.

The process of diversifying Lexington’s government is ongoing. Town Manager Carl Valente says next year’s budget will recommend that a local university be retained to examine how other American cities have addressed lack of diversity in their own governments.

Toronto has its own serious problems with ethnic diversity in governance. Only six of our 44 city councillors are visible minorities. That’s 14 per cent—shockingly disproportionate considering that roughly half of Toronto’s population comprises visible minorities. Worse still, those six visible-minority councillors are the same six who were elected in 2010. Though Toronto gets more diverse all the time, its representative body has maintained the same makeup.

The City has an online immigration portal that includes a (very rudimentary) primer on government in Canada and public participation, but that hardly seems like a strong effort at public engagement.

People outside of government, however, are working to make Toronto’s leadership appropriately multicultural. Since 2008, the Maytree charitable foundation has been running School4Civics, a training program inspiring leaders from diverse communities across the GTA. Maytree has also been involved in the push to allow permanent residents to vote in municipal elections. The move, designed in part to give Toronto’s minority populations a louder voice, would be a great start. But this self-proclaimed bastion of multiculturalism has quite a way to go before its government looks as diverse as its people.