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Redistricting and civic engagement – it worked well

Last month’s 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 ten 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 it will also 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 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 state-wide and multi-racial collaboration of organizations has worked together over the last ten 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, state Rep. Michael Moran and state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg have taken great 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 also announced an unprecedented two-week public comment period. This is a major step forward. We hope ten years from now that we are able to make the process even more democratic.

Redistricting cannot be restarted every ten 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. One potential reform deals with census block data. Many believe this data shouldn’t be included in the process moving forward. We look forward to being a part of this discussion and others regarding reform measures. Many states have taken positive steps toward more inclusive practices and, while Massachusetts has certainly progressed in the past ten years, our Commonwealth must continue to evolve towards a more comprehensive process.

At the heart of democracy, you find people who are engaged in civic matters and who are free to choose laws and leaders. You find shared access to information and the freedom to criticize and debate. You find people who are participating in community growth. We applaud the organizations involved in this process and are grateful that this year’s redistricting achieves transparent and thoughtful district realignments.

Bruce Bickerstaff is chairman of the board of the Roxbury Trust Fund; Malia Lazu is Project Director, Drawing Democracy Project.