Columbia: integrated on the streets but not in the boardroom

Little diversity in homeowners association leadership

July 05, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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