Making diversity work in Montgomery County

With broad racial mix, it's a proving ground

May 10, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

TAKOMA PARK -- Visit Montgomery County and see the world.

Once synonymous with everything considered perfect in rich, white suburbia, Montgomery has become a proving ground for diversity.

The state's most populous jurisdiction -- with 830,000 people -- now is home to almost half the Hispanic and Asian residents in Maryland. Between 1980 and 1990, 40 percent of Montgomery's population growth was foreign-born, and its nonwhite population has doubled to 38 percent in the past two decades.

Nowhere is the change more evident than in Takoma Park, population 18,600 and home to people from more than 100 cultures. A full 10 percent of the city's residents gained permanent U.S. residency status in the period from 1992-1996.

"You can't think of a country that isn't represented," says city planner Suzanne Ludlow. "It is a challenge."

Among the difficulties that creates, Ludlow said, is that immigrants may not join community associations or come to public hearings as much as others, making it more difficult for the county to determine their interests and needs.

For Montgomery County, greater diversity means ensuring that its Y2K preparedness guide for residents is printed in seven languages other than English, including Cambodian, Vietnamese and Farsi. It means giving county employees a stipend for fluency in a second language.

And the dramatic demographic change has forced those in power to alter how they think.

"This is not as it was back in the Beaver's days," says county official Ginny Gong, an Asian-American, referring to the depiction of white suburbia in the early 1960s television comedy "Leave it to Beaver."

"It's nice to be in Montgomery County where the numbers are not minimal," Gong says. "There's a significant amount of clout in that."

Politicians are adapting.

Last fall, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan appeared in a campaign commercial on cable television, urging Hispanics -- in Spanish -- to use the power of the vote. Other county leaders subscribe to a daily e-mail service operated by the editor and publisher of El Montgomery, the twice-monthly newspaper with a circulation of 20,000.

Gong, a member of the Governor's Advisory Committee on Asian Pacific American Affairs, and other activists in the minority communities acknowledge that getting the demographics to work in their favor is difficult.

"We come from 20-something countries, so you are dealing with a diverse community within a diverse community," says El Montgomery editor Elizabeth Ortega-Lohmeyer, who emigrated from Peru in 1990. "We don't all speak as one."

The struggle to be understood is a two-way street for the minority communities and the government that represents them.

The communities -- especially immigrants -- deal with language barriers, cultural differences and in many cases an inherent fear of government.

"We need to train Latinos to lead. In our countries, we take what they give us and we don't ask for more," Ortega-Lohmeyer explains. "Here, you ask for more if you want more."

Gong agrees: "Speaking up is a cultural thing. The feeling among many Asians is, `If I've got a good job and my life is OK, I'm happy.' "

Governing a melting pot requires diplomacy and sensitivity, say those who have experienced both successes and failures.

For example, within a 48-hour period last week, Duncan basked in the warm glow of praise from Hispanic leaders, who lauded his sensitivity in reaching out to rape victims, and felt the burn of criticism from black civil rights activists, who called him insensitive for failing to fire allegedly racist police officers.

"Duncan is a good man with a good heart, but his inner circle looks just like him: white, white, white," says Ortega-Lohmeyer.

Duncan says he understands these frustrations, because government hasn't done all it can.

He notes that his proposed budget calls for $1.7 million for cultural outreach that includes several liaisons to the Hispanic community.

But Ludlow says that without strong community input, government "is put on the spot."

She points to the recent work of a graduate student who was studying what Chinese business owners in the Takoma Park area want from government to help bolster economic development.

Although the woman spoke Chinese and visited the owners at their businesses, she got little cooperation.

"Often it was a completely foreign concept that government would want to help them," Ludlow says. "It kind of left us hanging because we still didn't know how to serve them."

Nguyen Minh Chau, a member of the Garrett Park Town Council and a work-force consultant, says a large part of the problem is that immigrants starting a business don't have the traditional network that exists for white Americans.

"When I started out, I really needed godmothers and godfathers to tell me how to do it," she says. "Things mainstream people take for granted have to be learned by my community. If you are not a spider, you don't know how to get around the web."

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