The case for more diversity in town leadership

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Soon we will be going to town elections and town meetings to choose leaders for the next few years, and to weigh in on warrants to address town needs. This is a tradition that traces back hundreds of years, to each of our towns’ founding. It is a uniquely New England approach to governance and decisionmaking that has withstood not only the test of time but the tide of change that we have seen on Martha’s Vineyard over the past few decades. For many of us, this is why we live here — to be close to the action and to be directly involved in decisions. Our towns benefit not only from citizens willing to serve in elected office, but also from hundreds of volunteers who raise their hand each year to contribute on a council or a committee because they care about our towns and the issues they face — education, housing, town finances, planning, conservation are just a few of the many ways that town members work to give back. Town halls are abuzz almost every weekday evening with a meeting or more, and are filled with people who care about the matters of the town. It is a remarkable display of democracy up close and in action.

But democracy is also about representation, equal representation. That simply means that towns do best when those representing them look like them. In this context, ‘looks like’ includes: gender, race, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and … diversity of thought. Town positions, be they volunteer or elected, are meant to represent all perspectives not just the leader’s perspective. The only way you get to diversity of representation is by seeking out people willing to serve who bring a different perspective, and who are willing to reach out to all citizens to understand theirs. 

Many in our towns lament that more people with diverse ideas do not seem willing to step up. But what if the issue is not a willingness but a way to step up? How well are we grooming new talent in our towns that does not look like us or think like us? How willing are we to step aside after serving for awhile, to leave space for others to step in? How able are we to train the next crop of leaders to take the helm on matters of importance to our towns? There is proven evidence that when the group of decisionmakers is diverse, that the decision made will not only better serve all but be longer-lasting. Now more than ever, the decisions our towns face will depend on diversity of thought to help solve them. From a population that is aging to an ever-growing need for housing that everyone on the Island can afford (young families, workers, and seniors), these are matters that are best addressed by new thinking. 

Our challenge, then, as six towns on one Island, is to work proactively on striving for diversity, and with each election to improve the mix of those who do not look like us or think like us. Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if we led the way for other communities seeking to do the same thing? Dukes County ranks 50th out of 3,000 counties in the U.S. on USA Today’s Well-Being Index. We stand a better chance preserving and growing this position and our collective way of life when we welcome others to the decisionmaking table. Regardless of your position or perspective, be sure to vote!

 

Bellissimo is a candidate for West Tisbury board of selectmen.