By Brad Swanson:
Fairfax Democrats looked inward on Wednesday night – and were not too happy with what they saw. About 60 members of the Fairfax Democratic Committee (FCDC) attended a Racial Equity Workshop and most gave their party low grades on a self-evaluation for racism.
Nevertheless, the Dems ended the evening on an upbeat assessment, recognizing that the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it, and committing themselves to achieving a more diverse membership and leadership.
The workshop was facilitated by Tierra Ragland, an organizer at Virginia Civic Engagement Table, an association promoting civic participation and social change, and was held over dinner at Harvest Moon Restaurant in Falls Church.
The major activity of the 2-hour session was a small group discussion at each 8-person table aimed at ranking FCDC’s place in a continuum of anti-racism, from “monocultural” at the low end to “anti-racist multicultural” at the top end.
Most tables reported scores in the lower half of the continuum, but overall the comments covered a fairly broad range. Some participants of color said they were made to feel different, but one spoke out to compliment improvements in the party that she had seen over the years.
The conversation then turned to how to improve the picture. Some commenters felt the party needed to make an effort to recruit a more diverse set of members, and to seek out and mentor people of color for eventual leadership positions. But others worried that this might undermine the party’s ideals of fairness and transparency.
At this point, a young woman took the microphone to point out that the facilitator early in the presentation had made a distinction between “equality” – giving everyone the same tools – and “equity” – giving people the tools they need to succeed. If the Democratic Party stands for equity, she said, it is not enough to merely open its doors and invite people in.
In this context, participants debated whether the party should view its objectives in tight focus – winning elections, at all costs – or more broadly – achieving social equity and justice, even if that means, in certain cases, supporting less electable candidates. One observer argued these are false distinction, as candidates are only “electable” – by definition – in hindsight. The Democrats may find as they diversify their candidates that “electability” is not as narrow a notion as they had thought.
The session, the first in recent memory, drew participants from all party levels, from FCDC Chair Dan Lagana — who publicly thanked Recording Secretary Sean Perryman for inspiring the event — and a number of other Steering Committee members, to activists and interested Democrats without formal positions. Three School Board members attended: Karen Corbett Sanders (Chair, Mt. Vernon), Karen Keys-Gamarra (at-large), and Megan McLaughlin (Braddock).
In conversations after the formal session, many participants said the session had been eye-opening and constructive, but that follow-up would be critical.
Brad Swanson is the editor of The Blue View. He is an international investment manager and previously worked as a diplomat and journalist. He is a member of Hunter Mill District Democratic Committee