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Inclusive Politics – Mobilizing Under-represented Communities

Boston & Washington DC: February 24th – March 6th, 2009

Inclusive Politics Group

 

The Inclusive Politics program brought together fourteen participants from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland for a ten-day study visit to the United States. The program allowed participants to examine ways in which democratic participation can be expanded among politically marginalized groups. The program also focused on strategies for creating a more culturally and ethnically responsive political discourse, in order to encourage greater political inclusion and participation. Consisting of academic seminars, lectures and site visits to pertinent organizations and offices, the program allowed participants to engage with each other and their U.S. counterparts. In their meetings with local, state and national political leaders, the participants had the opportunity to exchange best-practices strategies, and to create professional networks and contacts.

The Inclusive Politics group comprised representatives from both jurisdictions; election officials; policy makers and civil servants. The necessity of expanding the political process to more effectively and fully engage minority populations is an important issue shared by the United States, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. By working to increase voter and citizen participation in the democratic process, the Inclusive Politics participants and their colleagues in Ireland and Northern Ireland are helping to encourage cross-border participation and the establishment of a strong civil society.

The first week of the program took place in Boston, Massachusetts. At a seminar presented by Professor Marc Landy of Boston College entitled An Introduction to the Complexities of American Government and Its Various Levels, the group received a broad overview of the American political system that also provided context for later meetings and site visits. Massachusetts State Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, long an advocate for underrepresented groups, met with the participants to discuss practical strategies for increasing political involvement, and providing representation for minority communities, topics that are also relevant to politics in Ireland and Northern Ireland. While at the State House, the group also met with Massachusetts State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz. A relatively young politician, the State Senator provided insight into the minority experience in the American political and electoral systems. She also discussed strategies for addressing constituent concerns in her ethnically diverse district.

At a site visit to MassVOTE, a non-partisan voter rights organization, the program participants met with MassVOTE Executive Director Avi Green. With Mr. Green, the participants discussed ways in which to encourage political parties to participate in non-partisan voter registration efforts, and also strategies for increasing voter engagement. A visit to the Boston Election Department introduced the participants to issues within municipal politics and election management in the United States. At the Election Department, the group met with the Chair of the Board of Election Commissioners, Ms. Gerry Cuddyer, who detailed her department’s work to reach out to young voters and to increase accessibility to polling stations. Later in the week, the group attended a seminar entitled Identity Politics, facilitated by Boston College Professor of Political Science and Non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution Peter Skerry. Professor Skerry’s presentation highlighted issues of social policy, minority politics and immigration.

Site visits to three local immigrant centers allowed the participants to observe the efforts of grassroots organizations as they represent and engage newly arrived immigrants in the political process. A meeting with Lydia Lowe, Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association, illustrated her organization’s work on behalf of the Chinese and Chinese-American communities in the Boston area. Sister Lena Deevy, Executive Director of the Irish Immigration Center, met with the group to discuss that organization’s efforts to reach out to Irish and non-Irish immigrants in Boston. At Roca, an organization which serves disenfranchised and disengaged young people, the group met with Executive Director Molly Baldwin, who outlined the organization’s strategies for reaching out to inner-city youth as they cope with the challenges of living in disadvantaged urban areas.

The second half of the program took place in Washington, D.C., where the group observed national-level politics and met with political leaders, grassroots organizations and policy think tanks. At a specially convened panel at the U.S. Department of State, the group was hosted by  Brent Breemer of the Educational and Cultural Affairs Citizen Exchange Office; Jonathan Berger of the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy; Lea Perez, Director, Office of Press and Public Diplomacy European Bureau; Zia Syed, Ireland Desk Officer; Mark Powell, Deputy Director, Office of Western European Affairs, and Dean Pittman, Advisor on European Issues, Office of Policy Planning. Here, the participants were afforded the rare opportunity to meet with numerous government officials to discuss American foreign policy, especially as it relates to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

At a conference with Massachusetts Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, participants discussed both the challenges facing female politicians, and the Congresswoman’s own strategies for engaging the voters of her district. A subsequent visit to the National Organization for Women (NOW) further highlighted gender issues in politics, while also discussing the roles of advocacy organizations and the media in American politics.

A meeting with Mychal Massie, Chairman of the Advisory Board for Project 21 introduced the participants to that organization’s position on the challenges facing the African-American community. A lively discussion on topics of minority participation in the political process followed.

Race relations and minority political engagement were also the focus of a specially convened panel hosted by The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies led by Mike Wegner, Consultant for the Joint Center, and Felicia Eaves, Special Projects Coordinator for the Joint Center’s Health Policy Institute. Discussion topics at the panel ranged from the role of think tanks in formulating policy, to health policy issues and outcomes.

Peter Sprigg, Vice President for Policy at the Family Research Center, discussed that organization’s advocacy of marriage and family issues during a site visit to the Center’s offices. At the Center for American Progress, the group met with staff members, who outlined their organization’s efforts to engage different groups and communities in the process of creating progressive policy platforms. The final meeting of the program was with aides to Senator John Kerry, with whom the group discussed foreign policy issues. The meeting also provided the participants with a rare, behind the scenes look at a Senatorial office and the workings of the federal system.