Letter: New districts a good start; reform still needed

November 4, 2011
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The recent release of the redistricting maps for the Massachusetts Senate and House gives us pause. As community organizers, we have spent years fighting to strengthen the redistricting process, as we are keenly aware of the ties that bind redistricting and civil rights. We believe the civil rights issue of our time is the broken electoral process, including unfair redistricting practices. Every 10 years, legislative and congressional districts are drawn to reflect updated population numbers. How the redistricting process is carried out not only determines a community’s next elected official, but also will shape decisions at the state and local levels for a decade.

The redistricting process allows for great opportunities to fix past forms of electoral injustice. The injustice has been in the form of civic obstacles for minorities. The hurdles serve to inhibit efforts of civic engagement among people of color, immigrants and low-income individuals. Given the vast implications of the redistricting process, a statewide and multi-racial collaboration of organizations has worked together over the last 10 months to empower communities through education and involvement. The Drawing Democracy Project, led by Access Strategies Fund and supported by other charitable foundations, provided financial and technical support to community-based organizations involved in organizing around redistricting.

Beginning with education, the project invited a multi-faceted coalition of groups to participate and learn how districts are created. The organizations worked together to draw lines and maps through an inclusive, community-led, grassroots, non-partisan and non-incumbent process. This is a first in our state’s history. The end result is a set of maps that we presented to the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Redistricting.

During the community meetings held across the state, we urged lawmakers to draw maps that keep communities whole and give fair and equal voice to African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. With the unveiling of the final Senate and House maps, we look back upon this collaborative effort with pride. We have fostered and witnessed a deepening civic engagement from community organizations concerned about redistricting.

Ten years ago, the redistricting process was deeply flawed and led to a successful lawsuit by communities of interest in Boston to block the Commonwealth’s final maps. Ten years later, Rep. Moran and Sen. Rosenberg have taken steps to ensure the spirit of the redistricting process is realized. They have allowed for a public comment period during the map-drawing process and a more inclusive process. With the unveiling of the final maps, the Senate and House chairmen have also announced an unprecedented two-week public comment period. This is a major step forward. We hope 10 years from now that we are able to make the process even more democratic.

Redistricting cannot be restarted every 10 years, but must be bettered during the interim time period. Many of the stakeholders who participated in the process this year hope to take the next decade to review best practices and propose further reforms to the process. Many states have taken positive steps toward more inclusive practices and, while Massachusetts has certainly progressed in the past 10 years, our Commonwealth must continue to evolve towards a more comprehensive process.

Bruce Bickerstaff, Chairman of the Board, Roxbury Trust Fund

Malia Lazu, Project Director, Drawing Democracy Project