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Managing Community Diversity by Jun H. Choi, Mayor, Edison Township

New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the union and a bellwether of America’s changing demographic makeup. According to the US Census, as of July 1, 2007, minorities make up at least 40 percent of the population in more than one in six of the nation’s 3,141 counties. And among Americans under 20 years of age, minorities now account for 43 percent of the population. These figures confirm the sweeping demographic changes taking place in America’s cities and suburbs.

Sometime in the next 40 years or so, America will become a “majority-minority” nation. As any US historian will tell you, the United States has never been a homogeneous, mono-ethnic nation and we are simply renewing our country with the next generation of Americans. There are plenty of cases of discrimination in our nation’s history that any decent-minded person today must abhor. On balance, however, assimilation has been successful—it has made our nation stronger, more creative and more tolerant. It has provided strong ties to nations around the world that give us a competitive economic advantage in an increasingly interconnected world.

The rate of new immigrants arriving in New Jersey is one of the highest ever. And as municipal leaders, we must learn how to manage the growing diversity in our communities.

As mayor of one of New Jersey’s largest and most diverse municipalities, I have faced the challenges of shifting demographics and I hope that sharing some of my experiences will be useful to other government officials.

As municipal leaders, we have a responsibility to serve all our residents and to look out for the safety and welfare of an increasingly diverse constituency. Our ability to bring together diverse coalitions and delicately navigate the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural makeup of our communities is critically important. A diverse community presents challenges, but it also presents unique opportunities that bring energy, dynamism and hope to a community.

Here are three important lessons to consider:

We Are Essentially the Same. How we express ourselves may be different across cultures, however, people of all backgrounds basically want the same things. We want a better life for ourselves and our families. We want to be treated with respect and fairness. We want safe streets, good schools, lower property taxes, clean neighborhoods and we want to receive effective and efficient government services.

When there is discord in a community or an incident arises that can be interpreted as racially-motivated, please keep this lesson in mind. In most cases, it is NOT a racially-motivated issue, but rather a misunderstanding fueled perhaps by misinformation and stereotyping. When we focus on finding solutions and common ground across diverse constituencies, we learn that we are really coming from the same place.

Personal Relationships Are the Foundation for Building a Community. The personal touch makes all the difference. Before an incident arises, build relationships with key community leaders and bring people of different backgrounds together. You won’t be disappointed.

In Edison, we have worked hard to create these opportunities. For example, we established several new programs that are popular and fun—a weekend Farmer’s Market, a Summer Music Concert Series, and expanded festivals such as the Fall Family Spectacular—a family-oriented street fair. We hosted Town Hall meetings in every corner of our community to discuss neighborhood issues. These were engaging ways to bring people together who may not normally have an opportunity to meet.

We also introduced our police leadership and senior government officials to community leaders to build stronger personal relationships. It is important to let groups know that they have a government that understands their unique needs and cares enough to extend their hands. It is especially important to introduce key officials to those groups that feel particularly victimized due to historical conflicts or current tensions.

Develop an open communication network so there is a free-flow of information between community leaders and your administration. I send out a monthly email update entitled “From the Mayors’ Desk”—it’s a simple, low-cost way of keeping my constituents updated on happenings around town.

I often receive updates from various community leaders or a simple hello after these emails are sent.

As with any relationship, openness, flexibility and understanding are essential to establishing trust. As municipal leaders, we cannot resolve all our constituents’ concerns, but they should know that we are doing our best.

Full Information and Patience Are Critical. One of my most challenging incidents as mayor came during my first year in office. During a hot summer day in 2006, Edison police received reports of a growing crowd of spectators watching an illegal fireworks show near an apartment complex. The report indicated the crowd was becoming unruly and posed a nuisance to the neighbors. As police responded to the scene, an Asian-Indian resident was arrested by a white Edison police officer for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. A vocal community activist responded by claiming police brutality and demanded the firing of the police officer.

I asked for calm in our community but it was clear that this incident was the spark that lit years of animosity and distrust between some in a minority community who felt victimized by unfair treatment and some officers in a police department that had a reputation for a lack of professionalism.

The incident quickly grew into a major media event and wild accusations were hurled in the press before the facts became available. I continued to ask for calm in our community and requested a thorough investigation of the incident. Asian-Indian activists rallied for justice and the immediate termination of the officer in question. Others in our community rallied against the Asian-Indian activists and defended the police officers. At one point, the president of our local police union led a protest asking for my resignation because I requested an investigation into the incident.

The situation grew more volatile when it was discovered that the arrested Indian resident was an illegal alien and accusations quickly surfaced that police officers conspired to punish the arrested subject by calling on federal immigration agents.

One could have drawn conclusions about the incident based on stereotypes and emotionally charged statements reported in the media. There was tremendous political pressure to overreact but it worked to remain cool, wait patiently for facts to emerge, and not presumed anything about anyone.

The Edison Police Department may have had a less than perfect track record and issues of accountability, but in this particular case there was no wrong doing on behalf of the police officer. The illegal alien resident was deported to his home country in compliance with federal law. And since then, major structural reform took place within the police department. Edison’s first civilian Police Director was appointed and a new command structure is in place. The new police leadership met with the Indian-American leaders who were involved in the incident and a new spirit of cooperation and trust emerged.

Ironically, the original incident occurred on the Fourth of July—America’s birthday.

We are proud of Edison—as one of the most diverse communities in the state both ethnically and socioeconomically with more than 75 languages spoken in our homes—we have been able to live together relatively peacefully and harmoniously for a community of our size.

We are proud that Edison is consistently ranked one of the best places to live in America. For the second consecutive edition, Money Magazine listed Edison as one of America’s best places to live. To achieve this, it takes effort and constant focus on bringing people of different backgrounds together.

The changing demographic of America is inevitable. We hope through constant effort and equipped with the best practices available, we can find ways to not only live peacefully, but to enjoy each others’ company and fulfill the promise of America that, indeed, all men and women are created equal.

 

 

 

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