Ward “Gerrymandering”

December 8, 2003 | 10 comments
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The confluence of Kaimi’s post and a well-written article by Jeffrey Toobin in the latest New Yorker, as well as a recent discussion with a local church member, have led me to wonder: What principles should the Church apply when gerrymandering ward boundaries?

First, some background: Two months ago, we relocated from Brooklyn, New York, to Oakland, California. We bought an apartment near downtown Oakland because we liked the neighborhood, its proximity to San Francisco (where I work) and because it was a (comparatively) decent deal.

When our first Sunday rolled around, I looked up on the internet where the closest church was. It turns out we are in an Oakland branch that meets at the gorgeous Oakland Temple site. I noticed that although there are many wealthy members of the Church in Oakland (well, in the Piedmont section of Oakland), the branch consists mainly of lower income people and a disproportionate amount of ethnic minorities.

Over lunch with one of the more wealthy local members, he told me that there was severe middle class white flight when the Oakland public schools were integrated in the sixties (school districts were redrawn so that each included some of the hills (wealthy) and some of the flatland (poor)). As a result, the Oakland church demographic is now very polarized — there are the wealthy in Piedmont (where they have their own non-integrated school system) and those that could not afford to move out.

To make a long story short, I was told that in response to this situation the Church decided to carve up Oakland in the opposite way as the school system did. That is, Piedmont and the surrounding, wealthy neighborhoods make up one ward, and everyone else is in the branch. According to my lunch companion, this was done so that the poorer members “could have more leadership opportunities.”

Which brings me to my question. In political redistricting, whichever party has control of the state legislature can draw the boundaries basically however they wish (within the confines of the one person/one vote principle). The only real restriction is that they cannot be drawn based predominantly on race. Now, I don’t know who draws ward boundaries, but I suspect it is a combination of stake and regional authorities with guidance from general authorities. What principles guide these decisions? What principles should guide them?

Obviously there are often very natural borders, and in these cases leaders can just cut at the joints. But these decisions may often involve real choices, choices that will create a ward which will be the only contact with the Church institution for many families. Kaimi’s post makes clear the impact that ward demographics can have on a family. Does it make sense to have a du jure “poor ward” and a “rich ward” in the same city where it could be divided up more evenly? Is it a boon to the less established members to be able to run their own ward without domination by more established members? Or is it hurtful to them because there is a lack of stability and resources?

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10 Responses to Ward “Gerrymandering”

  1. Gordon on December 8, 2003 at 12:29 am

    Great posts, Greg and Kaimi.

    When we lived in Delaware, the Wilmington-area wards were geographically elongated. We were told that the purpose of these gerrymandered wards was to ensure that every ward had a mix people from different economic classes. We loved our Delaware ward (as we have most of our wards), but the distinction between rich and poor was strongly felt by some members. Sometimes I wondered if it might not be wise to restructure the wards to achieve more homogeneity, but mostly I was glad for the mix.

    We are firmly embedded in the middle class, but as a corporate lawyer and law professor, I tend to have many contacts with very rich people. One thing that I value about church is the opportunity to encounter people that I otherwise would not meet. My childhood was very blue collar, and I am happy not to have left that world completely.

    All of that said, I have lived in a couple of wards that were dysfunctional. In response to Kaimi’s question, I would give this advice: do what is best for your family. That is your primary responsibility. In some instances, that may be to stay in the dysfunctional ward. I have met families who have been the backbone of wards like that, and they have my greatest respect.

  2. Heather on December 8, 2003 at 12:32 am

    Nathan’s wife here, coming to you from Little Rock, Arkansas. If you want to talk about issues about school integration and white flight, have we got a story for you! But this blog is about religious white flight, right? Nate has called my attention to the current discussion, so I thought I’d throw in another example of issues that come up in boundary lines.

    When we moved in, we were delighted to discover that there was a Mormon chapel minutes from our home. Imagine our surprise when we were told that we had to go to a building a good 20 minute car ride away. We finally figured out why this was so. Orginally, there were two Little Rock wards, one meeting in our neighborhood ward, one meeting in a place called Otter Creek. They were both struggling, both small, and the members were frustrated with the lack of leadership, the inactivity, the same issues that come up in every struggling ward. So they finally combined the two wards into just one Little Rock ward, and chose to have that ward meet in the Otter Creek building. Hence the bizarre ward boundaries. One member said it was “So nice” to have the people from the other ward, because it meant that they finally had a pool of potential leadership, and I have to say, this ward is truly one of the most organized and together wards I have ever been in. But the shifting of the boundaries has now created an interesting dynamic. Because the boundaries are so big, we have both wealthy members and not so wealthy members. However, the dividing line in the ward is not so much wealth, or even race. It is education. There are some very educated people in our ward, and there are thems that are not so much. And we know some members of the church that should be in our ward, but choose not to be because they feel everyone is too ignorant, and devalue education. One woman told me that she didn’t like some people in the ward because they looked down on her family because neither she nor her husband went to college. One member of the Elder’s Quorom told Nathan that the family he home teaches will like him because “You’re white collar educated, not blue collar like us.” So do we choose wards that are made up of just Harvard educated lawyers? I could think of some problems with that, but the Sunday school classes might be more interesting!

  3. Ben on December 8, 2003 at 12:45 am

    In my ward here on the south side of Chicago, we’re split right down the educational lines- it just so happens that those educational differences fall on racial lines as well. We have a large ward of mostly 20-something white (west coast) law, business and PhD students at the University, and then about 40 locals. Most new members tend to be uneducated. It’s a strange split, and students react differently to it, but I think it’s good to have such a mix because it forces us to look at our problems as members and as US citizens. Orson Scott Card deliberatley moved hs family out of Utah so that his kids would grow up in wards geographically large enough to encompass people of different socio-economic backgrounds.

  4. brayden on December 8, 2003 at 1:51 am

    In my stake in Tucson, Arizona the ward boundaries were redrawn a year ago to prevent the existence of a “rich ward” versus “poor ward” demographic situation. Unfortunately, now that we are more demographically heterogeneous, middle-class newcomers to Tucson often purposefully avoid settling in our stake because of the leadership burden it creates.

  5. Matt Evans on December 8, 2003 at 2:05 am

    My experience with ward gerrymandering has left me convinced that there’s no better way to highlight Mormons’ failure to become “one people”.

    In about 1997, a couple of stakes in Salt Lake were divided to create the Little Cottonwood Stake. As is typical everywhere, the boundary line between the new stakes traced major streets or backyard fences between subdivisions. One of the boundaries was through the backyards dividing the Rodeo Lane subdivision, with home values averaging about $250K, and the New Haven subdivision, with home values from $350-600K.

    The homes on the New Haven side of the boundary went into the stake that included the hyper-exclusive Cottonwoods section of Salt Lake. The homes west of the boundary went into the new Little Cottonwood Stake, which was comprised of homes with an average value of about $200 (the Rodeo Lane homes are above average for the stake).

    What seemed inexplicable, however, after looking at the boundary map, were the two dead-end circles from the subdivision on the Rodeo Lane side of the boundary that had ended up in the eastern stake.

    What was truly depressing, though not surprising to those who have learned by sad experience the natures and dispositions of almost all men, was to learn that the two circles that had been gerrymandered from the poorer to the wealthier stake were home to two of the three members of the stake presidency in charge of drawing the new boundaries.

  6. Kaimi on December 8, 2003 at 12:07 pm

    It appears that Heather Oman (aka “Nate’s wife”) has at last succumbed to the infectuous disease of blogging (or at the very least, blog commenting). Welcome to the dark side of the force, Heather! :)

  7. cooper on December 8, 2003 at 12:36 pm

    We just went through the same kind of boundary change. Albeit in reverse. We had four wards that were divided in the same vein (rich vs poor) 25 years ago. 3 years ago the stake presidency reviewed tithing roles and MP holders in each ward. Two of the wards were lacking in very pronounced ways. One ward had 400 members and 7% MP holders. Definately a burden. So they set out to make it right. 4 wards became three and all is right with the world. Well, maybe not all the way right – in the process the Stake president moved into one of the poorer wards – glad to be here! Then after the boundary change he ended up in the perceived “wealthy” ward of the division. He specifically stated he had nothing to do with boundary changes and left it to MP holders in the stake that would not be affected by the change. It is the “wealthier” of the new three but I really believe they made a better division change than it was before. The problem with the stk pres was that he had a grown child living in one of the affected wards. Said child stated that he had been in on several discussions and knew exactly how all the changes were going to be made, he knew the new bishops and felt all was well. Then he would state, “oh by the way this is off the record you know, I would be in big trouble for sharing this…” In fact what he told several of us was exactly what took place. This goes back to that confidentiality discussion we had in an earlier thread. Some guys just don’t understand the meaning of the word.

  8. Adam Greenwood on December 8, 2003 at 5:05 pm

    The ward here in South Bend takes in most of the very depressed city along with the wealthier suburbs. I like it, and so do most of the members. It gives us more opportunities to do things that matter to people.

  9. Cassie Wermuth on December 8, 2003 at 5:16 pm

    ” We loved our Delaware ward (as we have most of our wards), but the distinction between rich and poor was strongly felt by some members. Sometimes I wondered if it might not be wise to restructure the wards to achieve more homogeneity, but mostly I was glad for the mix.”

    This statement stuck out to me…and made me wonder if we as people are not too quick sometimes to say “I’d rather be with others like me….people who are different make me uncomfortable” I think that it is true that “rich” and “poor”, so to speak, is a definate issue among us….but does the Lord really want us to divide? Or rather would He like us to band together and have the “rich” help the “poor” and the “poor” help the “rich”? They both have different and equally valuable things to offer. (This holds true for all of those who fall on different levels of the rich to poor scale)

  10. clark on December 8, 2003 at 8:25 pm

    While the Lord wants us whole, we must remember that he has to work with people who have all sorts of individual weaknesses. The reality is that often different groups don’t have much in common. It’s nice to say we ought to be one. But in practice you may just not enjoy being iwth others that much. Trying to make activities which enable the ward “to be one” can be extremely hard. I’ve talked to lots of people and when a divide between two fairly different social groups takes place, it is *very* hard to achieve ward unity.

    Its nice to blame various things on it. But I think that ultimately the reality is that different people have different interests. For instance to me the best ward I’ve ever been in was the Los Alamos ward. Probably because the vast majority of people were physicists, chemists and engineers and were very outdoor minded. I’ve more or less hated by Utah wards because there are rarely that many technically minded people and the activities bore me to tears.

    Is the problem some sort of class system or something else?

    I also remember that some people felt excluded in Los Alamos because they didn’t fit into the mold that the majority of us did. We went out of our way to include them, but things didn’t end up happening that way.

    I’m not sure what the solution to this is. When you throw into the mix groups that perhaps don’t have as many active males with strong families in the stereotypical Mormon tradition, that makes things that much more complex.

    I can certainly sympathize with those who feel like they are serving so much that when they have needs that they are never met. Without going into the details I certainly felt that way. I remember when I turned 31 and got the boot from the singles ward. (Which didn’t really fit me much anymore) Yet there was no place to go that did fit me. It’s the same situation.