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Howard County Times
Howard County

Columbia: integrated on the streets but not in the boardroom

Racial diversity was one of developer James W. Rouse's founding principles for Columbia, the 43-year-old planned community in Howard County where people of every ethnicity and income level were to live side-by-side in suburban comfort.

But while members of many different cultural backgrounds have made their home in Columbia's meandering villages, there is little racial diversity among those who govern the unincorporated town.

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The 10-person board of directors of the giant Columbia Association, which collects and spends $60 million a year for pools, gymnasiums, tennis courts and landscaping, is all white.

Of the 10 individual boards that oversee local spending and enforce rules in each of Columbia's villages, five are all white. Three boards have just one member who is a person of color.

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In all, seven of the 65 people elected to determine civic and financial affairs in Columbia are nonwhite. That's 11 percent, in a community of nearly 100,000 people where 35 percent of residents are minorities, according to census figures.

"It's a concern," said Sherman Howell, vice president of the African-American Coalition of Howard County, who served on a village board in 1975. "You should have a diverse leadership. … It's vital."

Why minorities don't play a larger role in local governance is a mystery to some. Participation in Columbia politics can be time-consuming, and some feel that town leadership should do more to attract people of color. Still, officials say, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved.

"I've asked that question myself over the years," Pearl Atkinson Stewart said about the low representation rate. She's black, and served two decades on the Columbia Association board until stepping down in May, when she won a seat on the board of the Owen Brown village, where she lives.

"I don't think a lot of African-Americans feel it's worth campaigning," she said. "I just can't figure it out."

Designed to have no mayor or city council, Columbia is run by the CA, which levies property tax-like fees and memberships and uses the money to improve and maintain an extensive inventory of swimming pools, indoor and outdoor athletic facilities and open space that make the community attractive to families.

The positions on the village and association boards are volunteer posts, involving long night meetings. Few residents seek the time-consuming positions, and they are often available to almost anyone who wants them. Contested elections are rare, and sometimes, people are appointed to the posts because not enough candidates have stepped forward.

This year in the River Hill village, a high school sophomore of Indian descent was appointed to an open seat.

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Try asking

Lester K. Spence, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist who writes on racial issues and politics, said people of color might not mix enough with those interested in serving.

"The biggest predictor of political behavior is being asked," Spence said. "So networks of African-Americans and other nonwhites may not be connected to the networks that would shunt interested individuals into the various associations. And the recruiters … may not work in nonwhite circles."

Ronald Walters, professor emeritus with the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Institute, said some blacks hesitate to volunteer — even in racially mixed communities — because of long-held perceptions that whites control society's structure. Only the most outgoing blacks step forward, he said.

"That means that it often takes an aggressive effort by the organizations to recruit and prove they are open to fair and diverse participation," he said. There appears no organized effort to recruit minorities onto Columbia Association boards, though individual people do sporadically volunteer.

Frederick Eiland, who is black, got his seat on the Oakland Mills Village board a year ago merely by inquiring about a vacancy, he said.

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"When [voting] ballots came to my house, I noticed there were seven candidates but eight slots," the 54-year retiree said. "I did notice there weren't any people of color on the Oakland Mills board."

"Most people in the community don't know what the board does. They have no concept," he said. "All these boards do need diversity, but people need to step up and do it."

Because Rouse incorporated his vision of an "open community" welcoming people of all races and income levels, Columbia was a magnet from the start for people who shared those values, and particularly for African-Americans seeking to escape Baltimore and Washington's highly segregated neighborhoods.

What Rouse called "the Next America" featured apartments and townhouses dispersed among all the early villages — part of an overt effort, officials said, to avoid racially concentrated areas.

Many in Columbia leadership now, decades later, said they were surprised by the relative scarcity of minority representatives.

"Wow, I had no idea," said Ann DeLacy, who is president of the Howard County Education Association and is also one of two minority members of the Harper's Choice Village Board. "From an organizational level [in the teachers union] I'm always looking to have diversity."

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"It's a disappointment [because] we stand for diversity in this community. We embrace it," said association chairwoman Cynthia Coyle, who is white. She was at a loss to explain the situation, she said. "That's a responsibility of the people of color — people need to come forward."

DeLacy has learned, she said, that "as an organizer all you have to do is go out and recruit people."

But some older residents just aren't ready to volunteer, and serving on a board can be a hard sell, some said.

"Most of the old-time people of color are just tired. They're doing other things," said retiree Michael C.A. McPherson, an African-American longtime Columbia resident who is chairman of the Democratic Party in the county.

"The young people don't see the value," he said. "There's no outreach to explain to people why it's important."

Stepping up

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Calvin Ball, the only black on the five-member Howard County Council, served three terms on the Oakland Mills Village Board and also was the paid community revitalization organizer there before running for public office. He said store vacancies in the village center, the neighborhood's commercial hub, jolted him to action at age 25.

"The main reason I got on [the board] was that we had just lost our grocery store and we had a vacant lot where a gas station was." He didn't consider running for county public office until later, when other residents approached him, he said.

Nina Basu, a 29-year old attorney and county native with ethnic Indian roots, is one of two minority members of the Long Reach Village Board. "I kind of wandered in off the street when a neighbor asked me" to be involved, she said.

She said she works full-time, has a young child and still volunteers, though she said some people prefer to serve on county boards and commissions which deal with national issues like mental health and women's rights rather than backyard administrative topics. The CA board has built a reputation for bickering, though relations have been calmer recently .

Howard District Judge Pamila Brown said she brought a spirit of community involvement to her Columbia home from her former Northwood neighborhood in Baltimore. An African-American, Brown served on the Hickory Ridge Village Board before becoming a judge, and said she valued the experience.

"You sort of have to put yourself out there. I just really went on my own," she said. "I loved it. I loved it."

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Owen Brown village officials point out that one new black member is likely to be appointed in August to their village board, which is expanding from five to seven members.

That person is Wayne Eldridge, 46, a computer analyst,. Brown finished third in the April elections to fill two vacant village board positions but was invited to join an expanded board as an appointee.

"Diversity brings a lot more ideas," said Eldridge, adding that he ran for office after noticing that there were few minorities in positions of authority. And, he said, it "certainly raises awareness."



Racial and ethnic diversity on Columbia's boards

•Columbia Association: 10 members, all white

•Harper's Choice village board: 7 members, 5 whites and 2 minorities

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•River Hill village board: 5 members, 4 whites and 1 minority

•Town Center village board: 5 members, all white

•Long Reach village board: 5 members, 3 whites and 2 minorities

•Hickory Ridge village board: 5 members, all white

•Dorsey's Search village board: 5 members, all white

•Wilde Lake village board: 5 members, all white

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•King's Contrivance village board: 5 members, all white

•Owen Brown village board: 5 members, 4 whites and 1 minority (because of expansion to 7, with 1 additional minority representative)

•Oakland Mills village board: 8 members, 7 white and 1 minority.


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