by  | Oct 19, 2021 | Voting Rights

From left to right: Anh Nguyen, Data Dissemination Specialist, U.S. Census Bureau; Karuna Ramachandran, Director of Statewide Partnerships, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta; Victoria Huynh, Vice President, Center for Pan Asian Community Services; Glory A. Kilanko, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Women Watch Afrika; Maria Rosario Palacios, Founder, Georgia Familias Unidas

By Khalil Abdullah, Ethnic Media Services 

In Maria del Rosario Palacios’ community, if sidewalks were present, they would enable adults — often with children in tow — to safely traverse the busy highways in their Gainesville, GA neighborhood northeast of Atlanta. Sidewalks would be a gift of physical security many other communities take for granted. Humble concrete squares, enabling residents to easily access grocery stores and services other businesses provide.

The absence of sidewalks, Palacios points out, is a day-to-day travesty, a constant threat to life and limb. “Small businesses there depend on pedestrian traffic. They have pedestrian customers and months do not go by without news reporting that someone who was walking to the grocery store was run over,” Palacios explained. She said the incumbent politicians who could direct the funding necessary to build sidewalks in her community are not dependent on the votes of people who reside there.

Palacios is emphatic that the lack of social services for Gainesville’s poultry workforce should have been addressed decades ago when predominantly Spanish-speaking immigrants first began making their way North to Georgia from Mexico and Central and South America. Those generations became the larger percentage of workers in chicken processing plants that still afford Gainsville bragging rights as “The Poultry Capital of the World” – and, Palacios added, “feeds the country.”

Palacios addressed her observations to a media forum on redistricting organized by the Georgia Immigrant Rights Alliance (GIRA) and Ethnic Media Services in anticipation of Georgia’s upcoming special legislative session on redistricting called by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for Nov. 3. Observers estimate that legislators will take at least two weeks to draw and then vote to approve new maps of the state’s congressional and state legislative districts.

Map drawing is necessary following the release of each decennial census data. Historically, reconfiguring district boundaries is a contentious task because typically, as in Georgia, it is executed by a committee of legislators selected by the dominant political party. The Republican Party in Georgia controls the state legislature and though a Georgia governor can veto the legislature’s approved maps, that would be unlikely. Kemp also is a Republican.

Luke Anh Nguyen, a Data Dissemination Specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau, provided forum attendees with a review of Georgia’s population shifts. The Peach State was America’s fifth highest state in population gains, with its now 10.7 million population boosted by of the growth of ethnic communities. However, in the formulas used to apportion the 435 U.S. House seats mandated by law, Georgia did not gain a new seat. It merely retained its 14-member delegation.

The media forum featured spokespersons from the state’s largest immigrant communities. They are concerned about the Georgia legislature’s lack of transparency in selecting the criteria to determine how the lines for congressional and state districts will be drawn. They worry about whether their communities of interest will retain geographic integrity or be either dissected or enveloped to benefit incumbent legislators from districts with quite different policy priorities and agendas.

To Palacios, the absence of a sidewalk exemplifies why residents need to be able to elect decision-makers who understand a community’s needs –a sentiment that was shared by her co-panelists.

Karuna Ramachandran, the Director of Statewide Partnerships with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, asked the essential, pragmatic question: “How can we assure that our communities are not gerrymandered?” She was referring to the terminology used to describe misshapen districts whose lines, in but one example, are redrawn to split communities in two, assigning each part to a neighboring district. In those new districts, for voting purposes, those residents have been consigned to being a perpetual minority possibly for decades.

Ramachandran explained that the Georgia Immigrant Rights Alliance was inspired by AAAJ’s recognition that immigrant communities share the same quest for representation.  From its launch in 2018, she said GIRA was very concerned about redistricting. She has harsh words for the current Georgia legislature’s refusal to respond to inquiries about the criteria it will use, how the process will be conducted and its failure to promote language access that could assist Georgia’s diverse communities in gaining a better understanding of redistricting and its impact on their lives.

Victoria Huynh, Vice President of the Center for Pan Asian Community Service, Inc., concurred that language access is desperately needed. “We serve immigrants and refugees in over 25 different languages, 70,000 people a year. When we look at redistricting, we see it as a public health issue. We’re looking at transportation issues, immigration issues.”

She described driving along Buford Highway north of Atlanta, past the exceedingly diverse and densely populated International Village, a residential community that organically arose to inhabit the landscape and infrastructure there after the city’s 1966 hosting of the Olympic Games. “You see the multi-lingual signage and you know these communities co-exist and thrive. And you think, are there resources coming into this area to support the businesses; to support the kids and families who attend these schools?”

Huyn described redistricting gone awry, as International Village spans four different districts prompting confusion among its residents of who to call when in need of services or assistance from local government.

She also recalled her 20-minute bus rides to her high school when the closest high school, only five minutes from her home, offered a magnet program she really wanted to attend but was in a different school district.

Glory Kilanko, Founder and CEO of Women Watch Afrika, Inc., also knows about communities being fractured. Unlike Palacios’ community where absent sidewalks are evidence of political neglect, Kilanko remembers “when a bridge was built that divided our community.”

She said her organization interacts with Africans from 23 countries, many of whom work in poultry production plants but “were the first to be laid off when Covid struck.” As with other panelists, she emphasizes the need to increase language access – “there is literally no word for redistricting in the languages used by our communities.”

Most importantly, Kilanko advocates for action and uses the same approach to demanding access to the redistricting process that she used to promote participation in the census. “If we don’t come out to be counted, we will allow ourselves to be referred to as ‘the hard to be counted’ population. Instead, we should be known as the ‘hard to be ignored.’”