Joyce Dale, a longtime Merced resident, was among a group of seven canvassing door to door in south Merced early Saturday. Her goal was to inform her neighbors that they, too, have voices that need to be heard at City Council meetings.
Their civic participation, she said, is key in ensuring the south side of town is better represented.
During Saturday’s walk, organizers and volunteers with Communities for a New California, a nonprofit that aims to provide public education on policy issues relevant to rural communities, encouraged residents to attend Saturday’s Independent Districting Advisory Committee meeting.
“All our city officials live on the other side of town,” Dale said. “We need representatives from this side, so that when an issue that directly affects our neighborhoods comes up, they will understand the needs.”
All six sitting council members in Merced live north of Bear Creek. And though the city’s population is 49.6 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. census, the mayor and five of the councilmen are white. The seventh member is Hmong.
Currently, the Independent Districting Advisory Committee is collecting map proposals that would split Merced into six districts, one for each member of the council. The mayor will continue to be elected by the city as a whole.
The maps are supposed to follow guidelines agreed upon by the city and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit that last year pushed the council to move to districts.
According to the guidelines, the districts should be population-balanced with three of the six districts drawn south of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks.
Organizers and volunteers shared drawings of the maps with residents as they stopped by homes south of 15th Street. Many residents were unaware that maps for City Council districts were being proposed.
“This isn’t common knowledge,” Dale said. “If they aren’t going to City Council meetings, then they’ve probably never heard of this. That’s why we’re here; to let them know.”
Hector Ramirez, a recent UC Merced graduate and volunteer with Communities for a New California, said one way to engage residents is simply to strike up a conversation about issues they may feel need addressing in their community.
You’ll find that most people are actually passionate about bettering their neighborhood. They don’t participate because they feel their vote (and) voice doesn’t count.
Hector Ramirez, Merced resident and volunteer with Communities for a New California
The volunteers believe that the lack of participation is not a result of apathy, but of the need to be better informed.
Ramirez said he believes there is power in word of mouth. He has seen residents make it to previous district meetings after being approached by organizers. They often bring along a family member or friend.
“It’s reinforcement to what we do,” Ramirez said. “The fact that we’re out here on a Saturday – I think that speaks on how important we think this is, and people see that.”
The group of volunteers made stops at the homes of registered voters. For every home at which they’d stop, they would pass by five or six homes of families not in the voter registration database.
“This is part of the problem – we need to get the number of registered voters up,” Dale said.
Improving civic engagement has also been the goal of the local chapter of the Parent Institute for Quality Education, a national nonprofit that teaches low-income parents how to navigate the school system. As part of the group’s nine-week program, parents are taught how and why they should become engaged.
Lupe Delgado of the institute said better representation in areas such as south Merced, Planada and Beachwood-Franklin has been a topic of discussion for parents participating in the program.
“(Latinos) are the majority here, but yet we don’t have the representation, and the parents realize that’s not OK,” Delgado said. “We encourage them to attend City Council meetings and to keep an eye for potential candidates to represent our neighborhoods.”
Delgado shared that among the parents’ concerns is the language barrier. But interpretation at meetings can be arranged, Delgado said. “That should not be stopping them from going out and participating,” she said. “And I think parents are starting to understand that.”
Want to go?
Another meeting about the council districts is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at Tenaya Middle School, 760 W. Eighth St.