Very few people think about privilege, power and position in their daily lives. Doing so can be difficult and painful, requiring self-reflection, at the least, and a change of behavior for the most sincere. The dynamics of power play out in all aspects of our lives, including our neighborhoods. I think a lot about how the International District is “represented.” Because of its deep diversity, how do we ensure that its “voice,” or range of voices, gets heard?
We know that one’s social position often determines access to information, decision-makers and resources. An easy approach is for those with privilege and power to speak for others, or be treated as though they represent the entire community. Another simplistic approach is to get a friendly member of a marginalized community to participate in a tokenized way. This happens with me as a Chicano-Cahuilla member of the community. Inviting a dark-skinned person from the neighborhood to meetings is often used to show “community participation.” But using an individual as a proxy for an entire community meets very minimal requirements for participation.
Most people who get involved in improving their neighborhoods feel threatened when you start asking about their position in our social hierarchy. Anger or guilt are often the primary responses. “Community” approaches often stick to the “this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it” perspective and keep leaving the same people out of conversations and positions.
Including those in different positions of privilege, power and position is not easy. The best approach is to encourage and enable those who are normally left out of community conversations and decisions so they can have meaningful participation. The Littleglobe arts engagement process is a step in that direction—seldom have I seen such a diverse group of residents (from so many ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic and other backgrounds) meet and work together week after week, month after month. This isn’t easy to do, but it’s worth the effort.
Enrique Cardiel and his family live in the ID and are actively involved in a wide range of efforts toward community change.