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Real Power

As in all cities, issues of race tend to get magnified in Syracuse, where populations and politics are concentrated. One secret to political equality is identifying leaders who not only speak for their constituencies but are given the means of change.

When the 2010 census reports were released, Syracuse government officials were elated to learn that the city’s population had finally stabilized after decades of decline. A closer look at the data reveals the reason: as the number of white residents continued to drop, Syracuse’s black and Asian populations grew significantly — as did the number of Hispanics (treated as a separate category, not as a race, on the census form). Blacks now account for nearly 30 percent of the city population. But this growth in numbers has not translated into increased political and economic clout, says Arthur Paris, associate professor of sociology at Maxwell.

“What is happening is what we’ve seen in other cities as well over the last half century or longer,” says Paris. “The political system looks for folks who can be put into a role of spokespeople for, and ears into, the minority community. But those folks are oftentimes in a tenuous broker position, and their ability to gain advantages for that community is constrained.”

George Kilpatrick ’95 MA (PA), director of community affairs at Syracuse public TV station WCNY, expresses a similar concern about the limited political presence of the city’s African American and other communities of color. He has for years produced programs that aim to bring new voices into the media dialogue about public affairs. The issue in Syracuse, as he sees it, is not so much with lack of representation for minorities but lack of effectiveness. “Is it just window dressing,” asks Kilpatrick, “or are there real ways that these underrepresented voices and their issues can be heard through public policy? That’s what my concern is.”

"Are there real ways that these underrepresented voices and their issues can be seen through public policy?”

On a day-to-day level, one of the obstacles for Syracuse’s minority groups — not just African Americans but Latinos and growing refugee communities from Vietnam and elsewhere — is the lack of access to public officials and knowledge about the workings of government. Bea González ’04 MA (PA), dean of SU’s University College and a former president of Syracuse’s Common Council, describes a recent case where Latino community leaders wrote a resolution to the city council expressing concerns about security cameras in their neighborhood. They happened to mail it to the wrong clerk, however, and the letter was not forwarded and never made it into the public record. “To other people those are just little things,” says González, “but to communities that are trying to find voice those are big things.”

That’s one reason González is excited about the potential of Citizens Academy, a collaboration of SU’s University College, the community group FOCUS Greater Syracuse, and the city and county. Though not exclusively for minorities, Citizens Academy screens applicants by zip code to ensure diversity, and then brings in policy makers for interactive sessions about the structure of local government, public safety, education, and other topics. In its fifth year, the program draws about 180 applications for a group of 30.

“The beauty of it,” says González, “is that you can actually model how to have a civil dialogue with your elected officials or your decision makers.” And that dialogue is a critical first step toward electing — or becoming — a decision maker.

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author, most recently, of The Complete Singer-Songwriter. 
This article appeared in the spring 2011 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2011 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.