New America Media, Khalil Abdullah

Minority communities are growing in the Northern Sacramento Valley, but redistricting is barely on their radar, and a powerful GOP congressman looks safe.

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans ethnic media convened June 21 to discuss the need to increase their coverage of the redistricting process now underway in the Big Easy. The symposium included guest speakers from The Advancement Project, a national nonprofit that provides legal and strategic counseling to community organizations;One Voice Louisiana, which seeks to develop more empowered communities in that state as well as Mississippi; and other advocates with distinct concerns and recommendations for how to make the redistricting process more inclusive for communities of color.

“Those who seek to thwart the voting rights and electoral power of ethnic or minority communities have refined their tactics and strategies over the years,” said Donita Judge, a project director and attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project. So long as the powers that be propose redistricting plans that make communities no worse off than they already are, the maps can be in compliance with the letter of the law — the 1965 Voting Rights Act — if not its intent. Judge called this approach a sophisticated form of retrogression that impedes fair representation of diverse neighborhoods and communities.

Part of the discussion centered on a new redistricting proposal, drawn with the assistance of the Advancement Project, that would add two new single-member City Council districts, for a total of seven. Currently, New Orleans has five wards, each represented by its own councilmember, with an additional two councilmembers elected at-large. Thus, while the total number of council seats would stay the same, the two existing at-large seats would be eliminated.

The City Charter requires the council to redraw the district boundaries by early August. Several other alternative maps have also been proposed.

However, in order to implement a new seven-member council structure, the charter would have to be amended. Norris Henderson, a New Orleans’ native and founder and executive director of VOTE (Voice of the Ex-Offender), noted that the city’s charter was enacted in 1954, during the Jim Crow era. “My grandparents didn’t have no say in this,” Henderson said of the charter.

Henderson also explained prison-based gerrymandering — how Louisiana’s incarceration rate, the highest per capita in the world, distorts accurate political representation. For purposes of the Census, Louisiana counts its inmates, the majority of whom are African American, in towns and parishes where they are incarcerated, rather than in their hometowns. When political maps are drawn, these “prison communities” — which tend to be rural and less ethnically diverse — reap the benefits of their inflated population counts, gaining increased political representation in Congress and the state legislature and increased state and federal funds.

Panelist Rosana Cruz, of Vote NOLA, expressed concern that the city’s emerging immigrant and Latino communities will remain politically marginalized after the 2011 redistricting process. But she argued that the critical issue is to find ways to heighten civic engagement, of which voting is only one measure. “We really need to look at ways in which we frame the conversation,” Cruz said.

Even with a flawed redistricting process, city residents “deserve representation whether we voted for you or not,” said Cruz, adding that even undocumented workers pay taxes. She argued that expanding community empowerment is at the heart of a more inclusive city; otherwise, she said, New Orleans would remain a city “divided by neighborhood, and then divided by race.”

Ashley Shelton, president of One Voice Louisiana, described her frustration with a redistricting process that seemed intentionally designed to discourage community participation. While the state legislature was redrawing congressional maps, she said, community input was scheduled at the end of sessions, when time was limited; special sessions were called on short notice; and microphones for public comment sometimes didn’t work.

Henderson noted that the officials who conduct redistricting hearings are frequently condescending to people who come to participate. “Just be grateful you’re in the room,” is how he described the attitude of those in power. “The real issue is community involvement… it’s supposed to be about ‘We the People,'” Henderson said of the redistricting process.

Ethnic media at the briefing agreed that they needed to do more to communicate the importance of redistricting to their audiences. Nicole Shepherd, of NOLA.TV, stressed the importance of repeating key stories and concepts, adding that this approach also would provide opportunities for ethnic media collaboration. “One of the things that we can do is talk about the same issues over and over again,” she said, adding that, as a result, other media would be inclined to broaden their coverage as well.

Other recommendations included outreach to the Press Club of New Orleans, whose members include “mainstream” media, and more frequent communication among ethnic media.

The briefing was organized in conjunction with NOLA Beez, an ethnic media hub created by New America Media to share and expand local news coverage. Attendees included representatives from El Tiempo New Orleans, Jambalaya News, Louisiana Data News Weekly, Louisiana Weekly, New Orleans Agenda, and NOLA.TV, as well as students and representatives from Xavier University. Funding was provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation.