Increasing the racial diversity of local elected leaders in the Bay Area will require a range of policy changes and grassroots organizational support in the coming years, according to a panel of community activists and political candidates who met Thursday to discuss newly published data on the topic.

The data, released in late August by the Bay Area Equity Atlas, shows the proportion of people of color holding local elected positions increased from 26 percent in 2018 to about 34 percent after the 2020 election cycle.

But while white people now make up about 40 percent of the population, they account for 66 percent of the region’s mayors, city councilmembers, district attorneys and county supervisors.

“We’ve seen that the Bay Area has gotten more diverse, not a surprise there, but there’s definitely a discrepancy between who’s living here in the Bay and who’s in elected office,” said Bay Rising’s executive director Kimi Lee, one of the report’s authors.

This is because people of color, particularly low-income people of color, still face systemically racist barriers to full participation in the region’s political life, panelists said.

One the most significant of these hurdles is the rising financial cost of running local campaigns, which are increasingly targeted by wealthy donors, often from out of town, looking to influence local elections, according to the report.

Outside influence

Clarissa Doutherd, an African American woman who lost her 2018 bid for a seat on the Oakland Unified School District board, said she was able to raise $50,000 from small donors.

But that amount “paled in comparison” to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that poured in for her opponent from groups advocating “privatizing or privately managed schools,” she said.

“It was inequitable, it was racist and it was (from) other people outside Oakland,” Doutherd said.

“We’ve seen that the Bay Area has gotten more diverse, not a surprise there, but there’s definitely a discrepancy between who’s living here in the Bay and who’s in elected office.”

Kimi Lee, Bay Rising

Current OUSD Board President Shanthi Gonzales said the influx of large political donations means that people from outside of Oakland are able to have more input into who sits on the school board than people who live there.

“Publicly financed campaigns would be a real game changer for getting people of color to run,” Gonzales said.

Both women also said that allowing candidates to include childcare costs as a campaign expense, which was recently allowed in California, helps encourage women of color to seek local political office. However, the fact that local elected positions are often either unpaid or provide only a small stipend presents a major barrier.

“Whether we are running for office or in office, I do understand the specific strains and stressors due to racism, due to gender injustice and also income inequality,” Doutherd said.

A pathway to political power

Urban Habitat Executive Director Ellen Wu, whose organization offers training for budding political leaders, said developing and maintaining support for candidates of color is a critical component in the fight for equitable representation.

Many novice politicians start out as advocates for a particular political cause or community but still need training in order to become effective campaigners and elected officials, Wu said.

“One of the things that Urban Habitat has tried to do with our candidates is to create a pathway, to move them along and support them in that trajectory that they’re in,” Wu said.

Urban Habitat is currently accepting applications for its Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute, which trains people to take seats on appointed boards working on transportation, housing and land-use policy at the local level.

The application for the BCLI can be found online.