Diminishing Returns at HALA Focus Groups

When the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON) first put out the call for citizens to apply as neighborhood representatives serving on one of four new community focus groups that would advise the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development on the mayor’s proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), residents of mostly white North End neighborhoods—many of them vocal opponents of the plan—applied en masse. With just two weeks before the application deadline, fully half of the applicants came from only three North Seattle neighborhoods.

DON staffers, sensing that without more geographically diverse neighborhood representation, the focus groups would be dominated by white, north-end homeowners, put out a second call. DON solicited applications from other parts of the city, including West and Southeast Seattle, and got them—eventually, after I published a story on the demographic disparity and DON ramped up its outreach to community organizations, 661 applications poured in from across the city.

Of that initial group, 181 applicants, many of them renters, people of color, community activists, and members of other groups that have traditionally been excluded from city planning processes, were chosen to serve on the four HALA focus groups that have been meeting monthly since last April. The focus groups are organized based not on geography, but by type of neighborhood—low-density urban villages, medium-density urban villages, hub urban villages, and urban villages expansion areas. According to DON Director Kathy Nyland, the idea was to bring together “folks who are going to be experiencing like changes, though not necessarily in like parts of the city”. At the meetings, the groups typically have received a presentation on some aspect of the HALA plan, followed by opportunities to ask questions, provide input, and engage in small-group discussions. The goal is to use feedback from the focus groups to help shape the zoning legislation that is the heart of HALA.

Attendance logs, obtained from OPCD through a records request, show that 137 focus group members showed up for that first meeting in April—a not-bad 76 percent attendance rate. Since then, though, attendance has curved downward sharply: from 60 percent in May to just 41 percent in September. The numbers for October aren’t available yet, but based on anecdotal reports from group members and my observations at the medium-density focus group I attended near the end of the month, with only 15 of 40 original members present, October attendance was probably lower still.

As important as the sheer numbers is who is no longer showing up. Although the city hasn’t taken any demographic surveys, anecdotal accounts from participants and city staffers, as well as a survey of monthly attendance sheets, indicate that many of the no-shows seem to be people of color, immigrants, and residents of South Seattle  neighborhoods—the exact folks DON had hoped would help bring some new perspectives to the planning process. The one clear exception to this rule is eight focus group members who were recruited by Puget Sound Sage, which provided them with ongoing technical support and follow-up meetings on the fundamentals of zoning and land use law.

Laura Bernstein, a University District community activist who resigned from her focus group in September, says she got discouraged when she saw her group being dominated by the “observers” who were supposed to watch quietly and not participate. (Observers are members of the public who watch the meetings and receive a block of time to comment at the end; their names are recorded and included in official meeting attendance records). She says, “there were a lot of really angry outbursts and a lot of whispering form the observers. So you’re trying to get OPCD to answer your question and there’s someone whispering behind you. It was very disruptive and intimidating.” Bernstein’s resignation letter concluded: “What was the point of getting such a diverse group of people if the people with power weren’t going to do more to foster an inclusive environment to retain them at the table[?] This is what fake equity looks like.”

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Observers at an October focus group meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]

The medium-density focus group meeting I attended in late October ostensibly included multiple representatives from the Central Area and North Rainier neighborhoods, two areas that are generally more diverse than, say, Phinney Ridge. Nonetheless, for the first half-hour, there was just one person of color, David Osaki from Aurora-Licton Springs, in the meeting room in the basement of city hall.When Rokea Jones, from the Central District, arrived after finishing a meeting of the Seattle Women’s Commission upstairs, she noticed immediately that the wall-size map of her neighborhood had no “dots” (green stickers representing areas or spots participants wanted the full group to discuss further) in her neighborhood. Jones slapped one down on 23rd Ave. S and waited to speak.

Waited, that is, for longtime Fremont neighborhood activist Toby Thaler–a homeowner steeped for decades in the jargon and minutia of land-use decisions—to finish delivering a lengthy jeremiad about how the city “has abandoned neighborhood planning.” Standing up and jabbing his finger down at the seated audience, Thaler denounced the whole focus group process, suggested that the city chose people for the focus groups based on “some other criteria” than aptitude to serve, and lamented how far neighborhood planning had fallen since the 1980s, allowing “horrendous…ugly crap” in once-protected single-family neighborhoods.

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Toby Thaler passionately voices his opinion about the focus group process during an October meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]

When Jones finally got a word in edgewise (thanks in large part to aggressive hand-waving by OPCD senior planner Geoff Wendlandt, who struggled to get the attention of facilitator Susan Hayman, a consultant for EnviroIssues hired by the city), she talked about the need to prevent displacement in the Central Area. One way to do that, Jones, suggested, was by increasing the amount developers have to pay into an affordable housing fund before they can to build in gentrifying areas. “There’s a vast amount of displacement with this neighborhood,” Jones said. “I understand that there’s developers and a great deal of concern about them losing money, but frankly, I don’t give a shit about them losing money.” It was the first time the issue of displacement had come up all night.

Read more at the South Seattle Emerald.

Crosscut-KCTS Merger: A “Good Day For Local Journalism”?

Seattle’s shrinking local media will be stretched even thinner in the new year, after several local media firms announced consolidations, layoffs, and contractions that will leave fewer reporters to cover the growing city. Crosscut, whose editors and news reporters are all white men, says the move will improve its “diversity of voices,” but neither entity has plans to add any full-time reporting staff.

Last week, after KUOW announced that it was absorbing KPLU and the Stranger revealed that Seattle Weekly plans to lay off most of its editorial staff, Crosscut, the eight-year-old local news site, announced it would be absorbed by KCTS, the local PBS affiliate. Although technically a merger, the move means Crosscut will be “under the umbrella” of the larger TV station, as the official announcement put it, and will dissolve its governing board of directors and give up its independent nonprofit status. Contributions to Crosscut will still go to Crosscut, but the joint venture, to be called Cascade Public Media, will be headed by KCTS CEO Robert Dunlop and be accountable to KCTS’ board.

Crosscut and KCTS have taken pains to sell the merger as a mutual win, saying it will give Crosscut’s journalists access to KCTS’ resources and “expertise” and allow them to do more in-depth journalism and video production. In announcing the move, Crosscut trotted out a parade of former editors and publishers, including founder David Brewster, who issued the following curiously worded statement: “Synergy, news across multiple platforms, a broader funding base, shared traditions of media in the public interest…. What’s not to love?” Brewster continued: “That Crosscut is teaming up with KCTS, long a prime media asset in the Northwest, makes a huge amount of sense for both organizations. It bodes well for a stronger, stabler future for local journalism.”

Does it? Crosscut editor Greg Hanscom, who just took the reins earlier this year, acknowledges that Crosscut will “definitely be the junior of the two” partners, but says the new joint venture will give Crosscut access to more digital and video resources and, importantly, money. “The thing the merger does is, suddenly we have all these resources at our disposal for building this business model that we’ve started,” Hanscom says.

Crosscut has a tumultuous financial history, and the merger reignited questions about whether the organization (which former Weekly publisher David Brewster founded as a for-profit company in 2007 before restructuring it as a nonprofit one year later when ad revenues fell short of expectations) was financially viable. Although both KCTS and Crosscut declined to answer questions about Crosscut’s solvency, Hanscom says the joint venture allows Crosscut to turn into a “professional media organization that pays real salaries and offers real benefits and pays freelance writers what they’re worth. To do that, we’re going to need about twice the money that we currently have.” KCTS certainly has the money–in 2014, the station had nearly half a million dollars in profits–but its commitment to local journalism is far less clear.

Both KCTS and Crosscut have emphasized that the merger will improve local reporting and require “no layoffs”; in fact, Hanscom says, Crosscut will now be able to double its freelance budget (historically, many of Crosscut’s writers have been unpaid) and bring one social media producer to full-time status. In its own statement about the merger, KCTS said “local journalism and content are getting a much needed boost” from the absorption of Crosscut into the established public television company. “A Good Day for Local Journalism,” the announcement proclaimed.

However, that sunny spin ignores the fact that KCTS already laid off almost all of its editorial production staff back in May, in a bloodletting that Joel Connelly called the “Thursday Night Massacre.” The layoffs were part of a shift at KCTS toward national PBS programming like PBS NewsHour and Masterpiece Classic, supplemented by reports from freelance writers and photographers. One victim of the cuts was KCTS’ short-lived weekly public affairs program, “In Close,” on which KUOW producer Deborah Wang and a panel of local pundits discussed the news of the week.

I sent KCTS communications director Hilda Cullen, who preferred to communicate by email, a list of seven questions about the merger. Cullen provided brief answers to two of them, including one about the role of freelance reporters and production staff at the station, and referred the rest to Hanscom. In her responses, Cullen confirmed that “KCTS 9 contracts with freelance multi-media journalists to create content for KCTS 9 and KCTS9.org,” and said KCTS does have “personnel on staff who create original content.”

However, she would not provide a list of current staff, saying only, “we don’t publish our staff list,” and did not respond to a request for further information about why a public TV station keeps its staff list secret.

Hanscom was much more expansive. He told me most of the conversations Crosscut has had with KCTS over the last two months have been “about ‘Can Crosscut still be Crosscut even if we join forces?'” Answering his own rhetorical question, Hanscom says, “I will not claim it’s free from risks,”  but “I feel really good, honestly, that KCTS and Crosscut are going to be able to do their own things. I’ve got a lot of assurances from Rob Dunlop that we will remain editorially independent.”

One final issue I wanted to ask both Hanscom and Cullen about was diversity. Although Cullen did not respond to my question, “Will any efforts be made to improve the gender or racial diversity of editorial staffing at either Crosscut or KCTS?,” Hanscom (who, like all the full-time editorial staff at Crosscut, is a white man) did. Hanscom was reportedly hired, in part, to bring more diverse voices to Crosscut, and he said he hopes to do that by bringing on a broader cast of freelancers and, potentially, reporters (although neither Crosscut nor KCTS has any plans to add full-time reporters to the staff of the new joint venture), and by partnering with other publications with more diverse staffs, such as the South Seattle Emerald and the International Examiner.

“There’s no denying that the old white dude factor is a little glaring around here,” Hanscom says.  “What I can say there is that we already have really shifted our attention to diversifying the voices that are in Crosscut. If you were to pick back through the last four months with a fine-tooth comb you would find more women and people of color like Samantha Larson, Ana Sophia Knauf, and Reagan Jackson.” They’re also doing a year-long series about race, Hanscom says, featuring voices like Raymond Fenton, a former Crosscut intern who heads up the Black Student Union at Lewis and Clark University. As for gender diversity, Hanscom says, “We’ve been limited on that front because our freelance budget has been limited and our staff is mostly male, but I think that if you look at the little freelance money that we have had to dole out, much of that has gone to women.” With that freelance budget set to quadruple, he adds, readers should expect to see more diverse voices represented on the site.

I’ll reserve judgment on that claim until the new regime has been in place a few months, but I will note that “greater diversity” is the kind of feel-good goal media companies often adopt then abandon when it proves more difficult than issuing an aspirational mission statement. For now, it’s worth noting that of 24 stories currently on Crosscut’s politics page, 23 are written by white men.

 

 

 

 

“Diversity of Ideas” Is Not Enough

Last week, after grumbling my way through a Seattle Times “Livewire” panel that took on the region’s transportation problems through the frame of “gridlock” (a framework that, among many other problems, erases the non-driver perspective) I posted on Facebook about what I saw as another glaring omission on the panel: The presence of anyone who was not a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class man. Under the caption, “Hairline diversity, at least,” I posted the following photo:

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Onstage, from left to right, are: Seattle Times editorial board member Thanh Tan, a young woman of color; Human Transit author Jarrett Walker; INRIX president Bryan Mistele; Washington State Transportation Center director Mark Hallenbeck; and Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly. Here’s a better image of the foursome, from the Times’ event website:

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A few minutes later, I followed up with a couple of paragraphs about how difficult it can be to be a female writer who writes about traditionally “male” subjects—politics, land use, and transportation—when the networks that promote writers and thinkers and doers in those fields is so overwhelmingly dominated by men. As any woman who writes about “hard” issues undoubtedly knows, the bro-dominated world of blogs and think tanks and panels and radio appearances can be a neverending feedback loop—you write something and I’ll push it out to my readers and they’ll push it out to their Facebook friends and one of them will invite you to their event and you’ll meet another guy who wants to publish you and so on and on, ad masculinum.

There’s even a tumblr dedicated to the phenomenon I witnessed the other night: “Congrats, You Have an All-Male Panel!” In it, readers are invited to “Document all-male panels, seminars, events, and various other things featuring all male experts.” Each all-male panel or event gets a “Hoffsome” seal of approval. For example, this all-male panel focused on “empowering women”:

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Closer to home, a panel of men discussed “the role of women in technology: the male perspective” last week, because it’s high time men were given a voice in this important issue, as opposed to–and I am not making this up, it’s right there in the panel description–holding the “conversation about advancing women in technology … in isolation.”

Anyway, given that the all-male panel is such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it’s now a meme , I wasn’t too surprised when my Facebook feed filled up with sympathetic “likes” and comments such as “What is this, a forum on what it means to be a rich white man?” I was a little taken aback, however, when two Seattle Times higher-ups—editorial board member Tan and editor Kathy Best—jumped into the comments to defend their decision  to pick only well-off, white, middle-aged men to discuss the issue of transportation, an issue that arguably hits women, people of color, and low-income people closer to home than a demographic that has the greatest access to convenient transport.

Their defense will sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s ever slapped their head in an all-white-male space and muttered, “How could they not have NOTICED that?”: They look for a diversity of ideas, rather than, you know, diversity diversity, when choosing which people will represent different points of view. You’ve probably heard this one before, albeit in a different context: Of course we’d love to hire [women/black people/low-income people from non-Ivy schools] but we have to go with the most qualified people!

My colleagues tried very, very hard to get experts of color and gender diversity on this panel. I, too, wish we had been successful,” Best wrote. “We will keep pushing for diverse transportation sources. But diverse viewpoints are just as important. And we will continue to seek those out, as well.” And Tan wrote: “This conversation was not just about diversity of panel’s makeup, but also about diversity of ideas.”

Obviously, I’m not arguing that only monochrome ideas should be represented. But a monochrome panel has implications that are more significant than just appearances. In addition to the feedback loop described above (I love Mark Hallenbeck, but I’ve seen him quoted about eleventy million times since I started covering transportation in Seattle back in 2001), there’s the fact that diverse experiences often lead directly to those “diverse viewpoints” Best and Tan and all the people who plan these all-white events say they’re looking for.

Let me give you just one example. Imagine if last week’s “Gridlocked” panel had included an expert who also happened to be a woman of color, with children, who frequently uses transit (or used it in the past). That person would almost by definition understand more about the safety needs of female transit riders, particularly at night; the realities of trying to run multiple errands on a bus system that isn’t built for easy transfers; what it means to be not just annoyed by heavy traffic, but to lose pay because of it; and the challenges of traffic for those who use the roads for caregiving and family work like driving kids to school and soccer practice, as opposed to those who merely drive in to downtown in the morning and back out again at night.

I completely agree with Tan and Best that finding people who combine diversity of ideas with actual diversity is harder than just calling the usual white, male pundits who have been making the rounds for decades. It’s easiest to do what’s familiar. It’s hard to find and amplify new voices. But the thing is, sometimes hard things are worth doing even if they’re hard. And the more that incumbent power brokers like the Seattle Times take the trouble to find and amplify the voices of women, people of color, low-income people, and other groups we don’t ordinarily see onstage discussing major issues, the more a new feedback loop will start to materialize, in which those voices amplify each other and it becomes a little easier, and a little easier, to identify them and invite them to the table.

Importantly, this doesn’t just apply to panels and theoretical discussions. It also applies in other male-dominated spaces—from which bloggers’ posts get shared widely to who gets to run for office to the makeup of a city council member’s staff. We’ve got to start thinking of diversity as a goal in itself, rather than assuming that homogeneity is just the order of the universe.

This is why it’s called affirmative action—it has to be affirmative (a conscious decision to elevate someone who doesn’t fit your default idea of “pundit”) and it has to be action. Maybe you don’t get Scott Kubly—maybe you go for someone one or two rungs lower, who can represent SDOT’s views just as accurately and compellingly as Kubly but who doesn’t have the shiny title and the reputation for reliability that comes with a decade of pontificating in front of audiences. Maybe instead of an expensive, high-profile transportation futurist, you find someone who’s writing on the same issues, and at the same level, as White Guy No. 17 on your pundit list but who hasn’t won the awards and accolades and book deal yet. Maybe you ask around to see if there is anyone other than Mark Hallenbeck at the UW who also studies transportation policy. And then, maybe, you get a more diverse panel and more diverse ideas.