More than 630 residents in Orange County serve on our towns’ and county’s 71 advisory boards. Advisory board volunteers give their time and knowledge and provide an important service by helping our elected officials and staff make decisions that influence the vibrancy of our community.
According to the town of Carrboro website: “These volunteers perform a vital role in our community by contributing their time, expertise and talent. ... They serve willingly and without compensation. They interpret town codes, they counsel and advise elected officials and they listen to citizen appeals.”
Orange County’s advisory boards “assist the staff of Orange County in achieving a greater understanding of the nature and causes of community issues” and “promote public awareness of contemporary issues Orange County must address to achieve the Orange County Board of Commissioners’ goals and priorities.”
These boards include human service advisory boards, which help allocate over $2 million of town and county funds to a variety of community service organizations, such as the Community Empowerment Fund, the Art Therapy Institute, and Triangle Bikeworks. We also have parks and recreation boards, transportation advisory boards, and even a youth advisory board in Carrboro. Advisory boards are the first line of review for proposals and projects that will come before the county and the municipalities.
Yet, as important as the advisory boards are, they often do not reflect the demographic makeup of our communities. Why are inclusive advisory boards important?
▪ More inclusive boards bring wider perspectives that are more representative of the entirety of our community.
▪ Research shows that serving on such boards builds the social capital of members as they interact with their colleagues, elected officials, and town and county staff. These interactions, along with the knowledge and experience gained through this service, can lead to wider employment prospects that can help to reduce the racial wealth gap.
▪ Advisory board service is often a stepping stone to elected office. All of Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen (6 of 6) and the Orange County commissioners (7 of 7), 78 perent (7 of 9) of the Chapel Hill Town Council, and at least 67 percent (4 of 6) of the Hillsborough Town Board have previous advisory board service.
▪ Research also shows that when girls and children of color see people that look like themselves in positions of power they are more likely to have similar aspirations.
We can see observe the demographic disparities in advisory board membership by reviewing advisory board applications. Town and county staff graciously provided this public information, accurate as of April 2017, which we can compare to census data from the American Community Survey five-year estimates from 2011 to 2015. (Data on income and sexual orientation are currently not collected by any of the jurisdictions, and age is not systematically collected by Chapel Hill or Orange County.)
The average age of Carrboro advisory board members is 44 years, ranging from 12 to 77 years, as there are youth members on the Youth Advisory Board and the Safe Routes to School Implementation Committee. The average age of Hillsborough’s advisory board members is 53 years, ranging from 27 to 80 years. Based on available data, the average age of Chapel Hill’s advisory board members is 52 years, ranging from 17 to 81 years.
Chapel Hill’s board policies state, “at the meeting when board recommendations and applications are submitted to the Council, the Town Clerk shall give the Council a report on the race and gender composition of each board and commission.” A statement on Orange County’s appointment process says, “the Orange County Board of Commissioners shall endeavor to appoint members who represent the ethnic, cultural, demographic, and geographic diversity of the community.”
However, our interest in racial and gender inclusivity is not yet playing out in practice. All four jurisdictions have underrepresentation among Latino residents. Orange County has a 2.2 percent Latino representation compared to 8.3 percent in the population. Carrboro’s boards are at 2.8 percent versus 13.8 percent of the population, Chapel Hill’s are 0.6 percent (1 member) versus 6 percent, and Hillsborough has no Latinomembers compared to 4.2 percent townwide.
Hillsborough’s boards are also underrepresented by black residents: just 5.3 percent (3 members) compared to 36.1 percent of the overall population. The other municipalities have roughly proportionate representation among black residents. Carrboro (3.7 percent versus 10.1 percent) and Chapel Hill (4.8 percent versus 12.8 percent) have underrepresentation among Asian residents.
In terms of gender, Carrboro and Chapel Hill both have a disproportionate number of board members who identify as male (54.9 percent versus 48.1 percent and 54.7 percent versus 46.5 percent, respectively).
Given these disparities and the importance of the service these boards provide in our community, what are some ways we can make these boards more representative?
First, we might want to think about outreach. How do we let all residents know about service and its importance? Can we appeal to local community groups that represent underrepresented populations? Can we think about how, when, and where advisory boards meet to increase accessibility for a more diverse membership? Chapel Hill recently implemented remote meeting participation for many boards. Is that something we should try across the county? We are currently in the filing period for our elected board races, so candidate forum season is on the horizon. It would be good to hear what ideas candidates have for more inclusive advisory boards.
If we aspire to be a truly welcoming community to all sorts of people, it’s important that we make decisions for all sorts of people, which requires input from all sorts of people up front.
Allison De Marco is a resident of Chapel Hill and serves on an Orange County advisory board.