The drawing and redrawing of electoral districts – which happens every ten years after the Census – is a hotly contested ritual in American politics. At the center of these disputes is partisan gerrymandering, a process in which elected officials draw electoral districts to increase the likelihood their own party will win more seats in the legislature. The redistricting cycle following the 2010 Census has cast a bright light on such practices. After most states drew districts to one party’s advantage, some 240 legal challenges have been filed against the resulting district maps. Critics of partisan gerrymandering are pushing for more neutral ways to draw electoral districts, while defenders of the current system argue that redistricting is always an inherently political exercise.
Are there ways to ensure that districts fairly represent communities and avoid extreme political contentiousness about the drawing and redrawing electoral districts? My research shows that independent commissions present one viable option for eliminating extreme partisanship and serving the public interest in drawing neutral maps.
Renewed Interest in Districting by the Courts
On one hand, the courts have been willing to step in and strike down maps that dilute the ability of a minority group to elect a representative, or when a map violates the standard of equal population. On the other hand, the courts have been reluctant to overturn maps on partisan grounds. While judges have expressed unease about district maps drawn to favor one party over another, they have been unable to articulate an objective standard for evaluating when these maps create unfair advantages for one party over another.
Recent legal challenges, though, may present the courts with sufficient evidence to evaluate the partisan skew in a given district plan. The Supreme Court recently heard a case from Wisconsin where the legislative map was challenged, in part, because social scientists have developed a new set of indicators that suggested the map unfairly advantaged the Republican party. One such indicator, called “the efficiency gap,” is the ratio of a party’s “wasted votes” to the total number of votes cast – where a “wasted vote” is a ballot cast for a candidate who lost or a surplus ballot cast for a candidate who was already going to win. When the efficiency gap is very large, it indicates that one party wasted a large portion of its votes, often because the districts were unfairly drawn. Evidence of a large efficiency gap was persuasive enough that a lower court declared the Wisconsin map unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also heard a challenge to one congressional district in Maryland on the grounds that Republican voters were deprived of First Amendment rights to free association by a district plan that advantaged the Democratic Party.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently threw out the congressional map there and drew a new map for the 2018 midterm elections. In a novel development in redistricting litigation, the map was rejected solely on the basis that it violated sections of the state constitution, with no reference to the U.S. Constitution. This decision could usher in a new era of state-level judicial review of district plans, realizing Justice Felix Frankfurter’s famous concern about the courts entering the “political thicket” of adjudicating district plans. Perhaps the most tangible risk is that the state courts could be inundated with partisan challenges to redistricting plans.
Why Independent Commissions Make Sense
Rather than depend on the courts, history teaches that independent commissions can help avoid partisan conflicts or favoritism in district plans. Examples abound. Concerns that elected officials might manipulate monetary policy led to the creation of the independent Federal Reserve, and the Interstate Commerce Commission was set up to parry interferences by partisan and railroad interests. Congress handed reapportionment authority to the Census Bureau after politicians failed to reapportion the House after the 1920 Census.
The power to draw districts after each Census could be delegated to an independent redistricting commission. As they exist in Arizona and California, such commissions are completely divorced from the state legislature and therefore able to produce maps without the pressure to further or hinder the electoral fortunes of particular representatives or parties. Such concerns are always front and center when legislatures draw district plans. In contrast, social science research shows that commission-drawn plans set the stage for fairer and more competitive elections, and tend to avoid legal challenges.
How can the states institute independent redistricting commissions? Citizens in Arizona and California created their independent commissions directly, through ballot initiatives passed between 2000 and 2010. Most commissions in the West were created through ballot initiatives. Efforts to reform the redistricting process are currently underway in 18 states, and the possibility of creating independent redistricting commissions should be part of these discussions.
But many states cannot proceed by ballot initiatives or referenda. Creating an independent commission in Pennsylvania, for example, would require two consecutive legislatures to pass an identical bill which would then be submitted to the voters for their approval. Beyond a purely state-by-state approach, Congress could amend the Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967 and mandate that all U.S. House districts be drawn by an independent commission with rules and procedures to safeguard the public interest – such as having unelected civil servants select commission members and stipulating that districts must respect the integrity of cities and counties. New federal legislation could take lessons from pioneering states. The Arizona and California commissions demonstrate the value of independence, but the Arizona commission in particular focuses too much attention on a single nonpartisan commission chair. The California commission, by contrast, has four members of the commission that are neither Democrats nor Republicans and the position of the chair rotates among all members.
What Do You Know About Disability Cultural Competence?
Recently, I had the opportunity to give a webinar on disability cultural competence to social service workers, but was met with many blank stares. As a disabled social worker myself, I often notice that the disability community is not recognized as a cultural group. Disability is also not considered as a social identity in diversity considerations, despite the ways the community feels about it. Frankly, our field has a long way to go when it comes to developing disability cultural competence. Let’s see if we can change that.
Why the We Need to Prioritize the Disability Community
You may be asking yourself, why all the focus on disability? Well, the disability community comprises 26 percent of the adult U.S. population – that’s one in four Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among children under the age of 18, estimates suggest that 4.3 percent of the population is disabled according to the U.S. Census from 2019. This means that social services workers are interacting with the disability community all over! It’s also important to note that disability transcends race, ethnicity, gender and other social identities, as seen in the graphic below (courtesy of Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017). So we need to remember to be intersectional in our practice – these are not siloed communities.
Importance of Disability Identity
I’d like to transition now to talking about the importance of having a disability identity. Some people identify as disabled from a cultural perspective. Some people are not even aware that this is an option and you can open their eyes to the world of disability as a resource for them. In other words, for some, this is a missed opportunity to connect to a supportive network. For others, it’s a choice not to identify as disabled either due to stigma, internalized ableism or other beliefs. The idea is that developing a strong disability identity is super helpful with your long-term well-being. And in order to do this, you have to both connect with the disability community and with disability culture. So what is that?
What is Disability Culture?
In short, disability culture is the “sum total of behaviors, beliefs, ways of living, & material artifacts that are unique to persons affected by disability.” It’s essential for social service workers to be tuned in to disability culture so they can leverage it to connect with their clients. And let’s be clear, disability culture does NOT consist of disability service programs. Where we really see disability culture come alive is on social media sites, such as Twitter and Instagram. You can follow some of the major disability culture hashtags to see the dialogues and debates that are hot in our community right now, such as: #DisabilityTwitter; #DisabilityVisability; #DisabilityAwareness; #IdentityFirst; #DisabilityLife; #Spoonie,#SpoonieLife, and more.
You may notice that the last two hashtags included the word “spoonie.” This derives from “spoon theory,” which is an actual theory based on a metaphor about how much mental and physical energy a person has to accomplish their activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs). The disability community talks about how many “spoons” they have as a unit of measurement of energy – and sometimes refers to themselves as spoonies. Please note that in teaching you this, I am helping you to develop your disability cultural competence.
How Build Disability Cultural Competence
Other ways to build up your disability cultural competence are to check out the Disability Visibility Project, which tells the stories of diverse members of the community in wonderful ways. And there are a range of organizations, such as Sins Invalid, which founded the disability justice movement. You can also read the 10 principles of that movement in this short document. This will help you to tune in to the disability pride movement. We have a pride month and a pride flag too, it happens in July.
When it comes to engaging in disability competent practice, we need to develop knowledge about disability culture and disability history. We can also consider taking the following steps to round out this competence:
First, we need to examine our own attitudes about disability and engage in reflective practice around that. You can consider your own implicit bias about the disability community through Harvard University’s Project Implicit test about ableism, or through social worker Vilissa Thompson’s guide to checking your own ableism.
Second, developing disability cultural competence over time also includes a careful look at the terminology we are using and respecting disabled people’s choice of identity-first language in many cases. You can read more about that here and throughout that site. The Harvard Business Review also has a thoughtful essay on why you need to stop using particular words and phrases. It’s a great resource and helpful read for many.
Third, we also need to think respectfully about disability etiquette and how ideas play out in different parts of the disability community. One should presume competence about us – all of us! We ask that you respect our bodily autonomy, speak to the person and not their companion/interpreter, ask before you help, be sensitive about physical contact/equipment contact, don’t make assumptions about capacity, listen to us, don’t assume you know better and if you are in doubt about what to do, ask! Writer Andrew Purlang sums up his disability etiquette request as follows:
- Don’t be afraid to notice, mention, or ask about a person’s disability when it’s relevant — but don’t go out of your way!
- Offer to help, but make sure to listen to their response, respect their answer, & follow their directions
- Don’t tell a disabled person about how they should think about or talk about their own disability
- Don’t give unsolicited medical, emotional, or practical advice
- Don’t make a disabled person responsible for managing your feelings about their disability, or for your education on disability issues
- If you make a mistake, just say you’re sorry and move on. Don’t try to argue that you were right all along.
Taken together, these steps, learning disability culture, and examining our own attitudes about disability, go a long way towards the development of disability cultural competence. But none of it will do any good if we are not fighting for disability access and disability inclusion, which are central issues for the disability community. Many people think that issues of access were solved by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But the implementation of that law is fraught and embattled, and there is lots of work to be done on the access front. Take a look at these simple guides below. They will go a long way in helping to engage the disability community and making us feel welcome! Above all, remember our movement’s rallying cry, “nothing about us, without us!”
America Has an Anger Problem – Can Better “Mental Nutrition” Fix It?
America is a pretty angry place these days. Formerly respectful spaces like school board meetings have become bitter battlegrounds. Some people are harassing healthcare workers and threatening restaurant staff for enforcing COVID protocols. Others are openly furious with the vaccine-hesitant. Everyone, wherever they stand on the (deeply divided) political playing field, is outraged about something.
Sure, anger is part of the human condition, but have things always been this bad? Elaine Parke thinks not—and she has a plan to get America the anger management tools it needs.
“We’ve stopped listening to one another because we’ve become addicted to our own narrow and sometimes selfish points of view,” says Parke, author of “The Habits of Unity: 12 Months to a Stronger America…one citizen at a time” (Outskirts Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-9772-4276-1, $21.95, www.12habits4allofus.
“It’s way past time for us to take a collective deep breath and treat others with dignity, respect, and civility—and listen to them—whether we agree or not,” she adds. “It’s urgent that we make this shift now.”
Dialing down our ire is easier said than done. We are living in extraordinarily stressful times. But there’s more at play. Parke says we are shaped by the messages we consistently consume—and in today’s connected world, a lot of those messages come from our digital diet.
“Social media isn’t solely to blame for stoking our emotional flames—in fact, it was designed to be a source of information and to bring people together,” Parke clarifies. “But if your newsfeed is making you an angrier person, it’s on you to either log off for a few days or reassess the kind of content you’re engaging with. When we choose to focus on stories that are positive and nourishing, we go a long way toward resetting our emotional equilibrium.”
Parke’s “The Habits of Unity” is her attempt to help people take charge of what she calls their “Mental Nutrition.” Much in the same way that we (hopefully) approach the food we eat, we need to develop the discipline to make more nutritious mental choices every day. Her book’s 365 “one-magic-minute-a-day” motivationals make it easy to hardwire these choices into habit.
With her simple, doable framework for uplifting ourselves, boosting our mental health, and practicing unity, Parke hopes to get everyone focused on the same branded behavior each month. The idea is that the sheer force of all that concentrated positive energy sparks a unity revolution that rises from the ground up and sweeps the nation.
Yet, until that happens, we can leverage the power of “The Habits of Unity” on a personal level by forming one good habit per month:
January: Help Others
February: You Count
March: Resolve Conflicts
April: Take Care of Our Environment
May: Be Grateful
June: Reach Higher
July: Become Involved
August: Know Who You Are
September: Do Your Best
October: Be Patient and Listen
November: Show a Positive Attitude
December: Celebrate Community, Family, and Friends
Those who’ve tried it say the plan is easy to put into practice. It feels good, so you’ll want to keep doing it. And there’s a ripple effect. As you become more positive, centered, and respectful, others will be drawn to you and your relationships will improve.
“As these ripples expand, they will improve the emotional climate in our country and make it easier to seek common ground, instead of lashing out,” says Parke. “But we can’t sit around waiting for others to take action. Each American must recommit to making our country a welcoming, affirming melting pot—instead of a stewing pot.”
Too Many Young People Aren’t Getting the Jab – Can Music Change Their Minds?
When Frank Kilpatrick set out to convince more younger people to get the jab, he knew he’d have to overcome several roadblocks. One, young people tend to feel invincible, and thus somehow unaffected by the COVID-19 virus. Two, they aren’t moved by data that shows the benefits of vaccination. Three, they tend not to watch TV—especially the news—like older generations do. And so he and his team came up with a creative solution: Reach them through music.
“Music is a kind of language for young people,” says Kilpatrick, who has come together with a team of concerned citizens via the non-profit organization Ribbons for Research to figure out what will convince more Americans to get vaccinated. “It plays a huge role in their search for identity. It’s a powerful form of self-expression. It connects them to their tribe. So we figured, why not speak their language?”
He and his team realized the Gen Z (ages 18-24) and Millennial (ages 25-40) cohorts are vaccinated at low rates similar to those of rural Southern populations. To reach them, Kilpatrick’s team developed a focused PSA initiative with the theme “COVID-19 Is Not a Hoax.” The centerpiece of the campaign is a music single and corresponding music video titled “COVID-19 Is Hell.” It features the singer Rayko.
Kilpatrick urges media outlets to view, download, and share the single by clicking here, and asks television and radio stations to place it into high-visibility rotation in their schedules.
“The video is cool and fun and even sexy, yet carries a serious message,” says Kilpatrick. “By bringing a contemporary pop music vibe together with engaging images, we’re getting that message across in a way young people will be receptive to—all we need is the help of media outlets to share it with their audiences.”
The music video is an extension of Ribbons for Research’s initial public service announcement (PSA) campaign titled Shoulda Got the Shot. These video and radio segments feature portrayals and testimonials from real people who have been seriously ill or lost a loved one due to COVID-19.
“The idea behind the Shoulda Got the Shot PSAs and also this newest music video is to try a heartfelt, emotional, non-preachy, politically neutral approach we believe will resonate and move these groups to take action,” says Kilpatrick.
His collaborators on the projects include director Eric Mittleman, producer Linda Kilpatrick, and associate producer Rayko Takahashi.
To understand more about why Kilpatrick and team have decided to devote so much time and so many resources to creating this PSA project, here is a quick mini-interview with him:
Q: Who does the Shoulda Got the Shot campaign target?
A: We’re aiming this campaign at various underserved populations: politically polarized, lower income, minority, and rural audiences. We have a similar social media strategy aimed at the younger “party hearty” populations that feel invincible.
Q: Why is it so urgent?
A: Currently, although the numbers have improved over the past month or so, the U.S. vaccination rate isn’t where it should be. Quite simply, the more holdouts we can convince to get the shot, the more lives we’ll save.
Q: What makes this campaign different?
A: Our Shoulda Got the Shot PSA campaign doesn’t lecture its audience. It isn’t a blatant endorsement by politicians and scientists. It doesn’t tell people what to think. Our approach is based on the most proven type of human persuasion: human connection. These testimonials are raw and emotional and real. People will be more likely to trust these spokespeople in a way that they’d never trust a politician or scientist. These are people who look like them.
I mean, you can feel Martha’s anguish when her voice breaks as she talks about how her daddy died from a hole in his lung caused by COVID-19. When she goes on to encourage others to get vaccinated, it’s clear that it comes from a genuine desire to prevent suffering. These spots are incredibly compelling.
Q: So…why you? What drove you to launch this campaign?
A: First, this is a cause I deeply care about. I feel much the same way about it that I felt about the Stay Alive suicide prevention documentary film I produced 18 months ago. But also, thanks to my work in the healthcare communications field, I have many years of experience in producing these kinds of permission-based approaches that feature an appeal to community agreement. I know from experience this is a powerful strategy.
Q: How can others help?
A: Please…if you work with a TV, cable, or radio station, or have influence with any other media outlet, air these PSAs and/or the “COVID-19 Is Hell” single and video. Share this lifesaving content with your community. Call (424) 262-5570 to get copies of the spots delivered to you, or visit www.
“We really have a lot of hope for this campaign,” adds Kilpatrick. “If we all join together to share these vital messages, we can help improve the numbers in under-vaccinated communities across the U.S. We can save lives—perhaps ultimately even our own.”
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