How well does your community board represent the district? Not very.
Community boards, which translate neighborhood needs to City Hall and city agencies, play a vital role in the functioning of New York City. But in Brooklyn, many boards don’t accurately reflect the districts they serve, according to an analysis by the Brooklyn Eagle and Measure of America of a new report on community board membership.
Borough presidents are newly required to provide an annual report on the demographic composition of their community boards’ memberships. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams published his first report in October, after reporting from the Eagle revealed that all five borough presidents had missed the initial July 1 deadline.
The mandated report was added nearly 10 months ago to the City Charter, following the passage of a 2018 ballot proposal overwhelmingly supported by voters. It compiles the age, gender and ethnicity of board members as indicated on board applications.
Including that data on an application is at an applicant’s discretion, and any analysis is impacted by differing rates of disclosure.
Still, the data in Adams’ report reveals a lack of Latinx and Asian people serving on Brooklyn’s community boards, as well as a shortage of young representatives and women.
What is a community board?
Community boards are comprised of 50 non-salaried members apiece — half of which are nominated by City Council members, and the rest of which are selected through a general application process. Each member is then approved and appointed by the borough president.
They weigh in on matters like land use proposals, street co-namings and traffic changes, among others. Though their recommendations are purely advisory, the boards can act as organizing forces in their neighborhoods. Community board opposition has, at times, proven effective in squashing development plans and rezonings, bike lane installations and liquor licences.
Brooklyn has the largest community board system of any borough: 18 boards, with 900 potential positions. (Adams’ report also points to which boards have empty seats and upcoming vacancies. Many do not have all 50 seats filled.)
Board members must reside, work or have some other stake in the community, like a child enrolled in a local school. The group is overseen by a district manager, who establishes an office, hires staff and works with city agencies to get support and resources for the district.
“Community boards serve a crucial function in our city as local civic bodies,” said Sarah Sayeed, executive director of the New York City Civic Engagement Commission, a group established by the 2018 Charter Revision to provide assistance to community boards, among other duties. “They can be a doorway for diverse New Yorkers to have a voice on issues that impact them in their neighborhoods,” Sayeed said.
An analysis of Adams’ report conducted by the Eagle in collaboration with Measure of America, however, shows that membership on Brooklyn community boards doesn’t always reflect the demographics of the communities they’re meant to represent.
In focus: race and ethnicity
A comparison of the ethnic and racial makeup of community boards (as shown in the report) and the ethnic and racial makeup of neighborhoods (as shown through DATA2GO.NYC, Measure of America’s online mapping tool) shows that some community segments are underrepresented.
According to the analysis, Latinx people are underrepresented on all but two Brooklyn community boards: Community Board 17 (East Flatbush) and Community Board 18 (Canarsie, Bergen Beach, Mill Basin, Flatlands and Marine Park).
Latinx people are most underrepresented in Community Board 4 (Bushwick) and Community Board 16 (Ocean Hill and Brownsville).
Breaking down the numbers: Bushwick’s CB4
CB4 is home to the highest percentage of people who identified themselves as Latinx — 57 percent — of all the borough’s community districts, yet only about 33 percent of its community board members identified themselves as Latinx (14 out of 42 members).
Asian people are underrepresented on all but three boards: Community Board 5 (East New York, Cypress, Spring Creek, Starrett City, Gateway and Highland Park), Community Board 6 (Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Gowanus and Cobble Hill) and Community Board 14 (Flatbush, Midwood and parts of Kensington).
Asian people are the most underrepresented in Community Board 10 (Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Fort Hamilton) and Community Board 11 (Bath Beach, Bensonhurst, Gravesend and Mapleton).
Breaking down the numbers: Bensonhurst’s CB11
CB11, data shows, has the highest percentage of Asian people in Brooklyn, at nearly 40 percent. Only about 20 percent of its community board members are Asian (8 out of 39 members).
Black people are underrepresented on 12 of Brooklyn’s 18 boards. According to the analysis, black people are the most underrepresented in Community Board 14 (Flatbush, Midwood, Kensington) and Community Board 18 (Canarsie, Bergen Beach, Mill Basin, Flatlands, Marine Park).
Breaking down the numbers: Canarsie’s CB18
According to citywide data, CB18 has a majority black district at about 62 percent, though its community board membership is only about 49 percent black (22 out of 45 members).
Ethnicity and race play integral roles in the appointments of board members, Borough President Adams told the Eagle.
“When appointing members of the community to the various community boards around Brooklyn, we take numerous factors into consideration to reflect the communities themselves, which includes ethnicity,” he said.
Sayeed, of the Civic Engagement Commission, said it’s not as easy as just appointing more diverse people.
“Making community boards reflect the diversity of their communities is a two-way street, and we all need to work together to achieve this shared goal,” she said.
“Community board leaders who regularly consider how to engage the communities they serve and update their engagement plans are likely to be more successful in reflecting the diversity of their neighborhoods,” she said.
“Similarly, appointing authorities, including borough presidents and councilmembers, will need to regularly consider board composition and monitor how vacancies are filled to ensure greater representation.”
In focus: age
In general, members of community boards are older than the districts they represent. According to the 2010 Census, the borough’s median age is about 35 years old — but community board membership is in the 45 to 64 age group. Community Board 5 in East New York is the only exception.
Alex Pellitteri, an 18-year-old serving on Community Board 11, said his decision to get involved was inspired by his work on a local City Council race.
“I wanted to get involved because youth voices are often not represented in local government, even though much of what they do directly affects us,” he said. Before sitting on CB11, Pellitteri was a member of Community Board 10 when he was 17. (The minimum age to serve on community boards has been 16 since 2015.)
“If we want more young people to get involved, we have to do a better job of demonstrating that political struggles directly affect their lives,” he said.
Councilmember Rafael Espinal, who was elected to the State Assembly at the age of 27, believes that one of the reasons community boards tend to lack younger representation is due to a now-overturned policy: unlimited term limits. Before this year, board members could serve indefinitely. In November 2018, however, voters favored a ballot proposal capping members’ tenures at four consecutive two-year terms. The new policy went into effect in April 2019.
“I hope moving forward with term limits that we start seeing a shift in this demographics and seeing young people wanting to get involved,” said Espinal, who represents Community Boards 4 and 5. “And term limits will make space for that.”
In focus: gender
Eleven of Brooklyn’s 18 community boards skew male, according to Adams’ report, even though a little more than half of Brooklyn’s population is made up of women.
The difference is most jarring in southern Brooklyn’s Community Board 15 (Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, Gerritsen Beach) and Community Board 11 (Bath Beach, Bensonhurst, Gravesend and Mapleton), where men make up 77 percent and 74 percent of the board, respectively.
Marnee Elias-Pavia, district manager of CB11, told the Eagle she was surprised by this imbalance. She said she’d never really “taken inventory” of the board. “Our first and second vice chairs are both female so, I gotta tell you, that figure surprised me,” she said.
Elias-Pavia said that looking forward, she’d love to see more women apply for a position on CB11. “It would be great to really represent that diversity on the full board,” she said.
Of the seven majority-female boards, Community Board 16 (Ocean Hill and Brownsville) had the highest percentage of women, at 74 percent of its roster. Community Board 3 (Bedford-Stuyvesant) also has a majority-female board, with 63 percent.
Henry Butler, district manager of CB3, told the Eagle he thinks women in his community are more inclined to apply for a community board position than men.
“In Community Board 3, women tend to be the head of households so they are the ones with a stake in the community,” he said.
Elias-Pavia, though, questioned whether or not the same circumstance was holding women back from community board positions in her neighborhood.
“I’m wondering the population of women in this district who are starting families and maybe just had children,” she said. “I’d have to really dig into the numbers, but maybe it’s just a time factor.”
How do we fix it?
Adams believes that the first step in diversifying Brooklyn community boards is education.
“The appointment process requires choosing among candidates who apply and who meet basic minimum qualifications, which is really where we should focus our efforts — increasing the amount of folks who apply and educating the public about the process and opportunity to get involved in local government,” he said.
Councilmember Antonio Reynoso — whose district encompasses two boards with racial and gender disparities — still hopes to take it one step further. He introduced legislation in the spring of 2018 to require applications for community boards to contain additional information on demographics in order to figure out who is applying for the local civic group.
“These measures will offer us a more detailed picture of who is applying for board membership and how they reflect the community at large, helping ensure that the voices of all residents are part of important conversations,” Reynoso said.
In the meantime, the Civic Engagement Commission will take involvement one step further starting next year, by providing resources like language access and technical assistance at community board meetings, Sayeed said.
Longer term, Sayeed said, the commission is looking to educate New Yorkers about different ways to engage locally — from precinct councils to parent teacher associations — as well as to create a new online portal that will connect residents to an array of civic engagement options.
“[The commission] definitely wants to see more New Yorkers attend community board meetings,” she said. “We think that’s an important stepping stone to become integrated into board membership and leadership roles.”
Renee King with Measure of America contributed research using data from DATA2GO.NYC.
Correction (5:25 p.m.): A line has been added to this article to make clear that community board demographic data is voluntarily provided by members when they apply, and not a requirement. Thus, any analysis could be affected by response rates within individual community boards.
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