Most elected officials and community leaders agree that mainstream groups—e.g., Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, PTA—have far more clout than immigrant or ethnic-specific groups in local affairs, according to a study just released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). This has serious implications for civic equality because mainstream groups rarely make serious efforts to recruit immigrants for membership and immigrants rarely rise to leadership roles in these groups. As a result, most mainstream organizations not only fail to reflect the diversity of their communities, but also, by default, may contribute to the disengagement and isolation of this growing segment of the state’s population.
Other differences between these organizations also contribute to potential inequities. Mainstream organizations such as neighborhood associations, faith-based groups, and educational groups have more and stronger connections to decisionmakers, regular and varied sources of revenue, and much higher visibility. In contrast, immigrant or ethnic-oriented civic groups are generally younger, lack regular funding sources, and depend for their existence on the continued involvement of just a few individuals.
“The institutional histories and backgrounds of these groups are very different, leading to resource disparities and lopsided influence in local affairs,” says PPIC adjunct fellow Karthick Ramakrishnan, who co-authored the study with Celia Viramontes, a recent UC Berkeley graduate. “This wouldn’t be such a serious problem if mainstream groups were successfully bringing immigrant and ethnic minorities into the fold – but for the most part, that isn’t happening.”
The study finds that religious and multiservice organizations are among the few civic institutions that try to build connections between different racial and ethnic groups or to undertake any meaningful outreach to newcomer populations. Moreover, current and former ethnic members of mainstream groups report that they have limited opportunities for advancement in these groups. This has often caused them to leave and create their own ethnic-specific groups, which tend to be less prominent and more insular. Among the bright spots for immigrant civic participation is their involvement in religious organizations and transnational groups linked to their countries of origin.
The PPIC study, Civic Inequalities: Immigrant Volunteerism and Community Organizations in California, is based on individual-level surveys, focus groups, and case studies with elected officials, public agency staff, journalists, and leaders of community organizations from cities and towns across California.
Call Victoria Pike Bond at 415/291-4412 for further information.
The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.