A Tale of Two Wards

I first moved into the Oakland First ward eight and a half years ago. My first impression was that it was pretty white for a ward that is supposed to be in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, but also it’s Mormon, so that’s going to lean white anyway.

Quickly, I learned that Oakland has 2 geographically-based English-speaking family wards: the First ward and the Ninth Ward, and it’s the Ninth Ward that contains most of the racial diversity because it contains the city center. I once mentioned (at a ward book group, maybe?) that the First ward likes to say it’s so diverse being in Oakland, but it’s still pretty rich and pretty white. Someone was quick to defend that it’s better than it used to be- apparently (and I don’t know the old ward boundaries) the boundaries used to be much more divided. And that may be true. But as of last week, it isn’t anymore.

We are one of the many families that have been affected by new boundary changes. We’re assigned to the 9th ward now, which is fine by me- I’m personally hoping there will be fewer hills to bike to get to ward members’ homes. But what is not fine by me is the very striking new boundaries. They look almost exactly like the old redlining maps of Oakland.

New ward boundaries:

Redlining map, by Josh Begley:

You can also compare it to the current Trulia map of median listing prices of homes in Oakland, screenshot taken November 1, 2018

Median House Listing Prices taken from Trulia on November 1, 2018 for Oakland, CA

Redlining was the practice of bankers and loan institutions to not give loans to people of certain demographics, most commonly black people in US cities during the Jim Crow Era and continued afterward. There were whole swaths of Oakland where black people could not get loans. And this caused segregation in the city and continues to cause school segregation and other systemic issues today. Which parts of the city have nice parks? Which are policed more? Which have more regular street sweeping? Where to people move to go to the “good” schools?

And it affects what our wards look like. But it doesn’t have to.

It’s not uncommon for the Church to split wards along major highways. When I was a kid, the small town I was in went through a ward division in my late elementary school years where the main thoroughfare split our city into the 2nd and 3rd wards. Then a few years later when I was a teenager the wards were recombined. This was personally hard for me because it split and then recombined at crucial growing-up years and affected which friends I had and who I connected with and any cliquish behavior among the Young Women in the ward(s). But that is so minor compared to the systemic racism we have in larger cities.

Sure, roads are easy ways to split roads. But roads are not neutral or natural ways for dividing people. In fact, the decision of how, where, and why to build roads, especially highways, in cities is a part of the larger city planning system: a system with hugely racist past and continues to deal with race. For further reading I recommend this Washington Post article, How Railroads, Highways, and Other Man-Made Lines Racially Divide American Cities.

You have to actively fight the way roads and trains divide neighborhoods. Not too far from my house, the Ashby BART station was built underground because of the activist work of Mable Howard, who did not want the train to divide the neighborhood. Sometimes it takes an act of nature to tear down freeways like the Loma Prieta Earthquake did to the Cypress Freeway which divided West Oakland. When that fell, instead of rebuilding the freeway, they turned that space into a long green park and pedestrian/bike path called Mandela Parkway.

One person reached out to me this week and mentioned that people always have mixed feelings about ward boundary changes. Sure, I’m going to miss some people and it’s going to be hard to learn all new people, but I’m not upset about going to a new ward. A change is probably good for me. But I am absolutely seething that, when given the chance to make wards more culturally, racially, and economically diverse, the Church chooses to make our wards more segregated than they already are. It’s like they took the redlining of the 20th century and said, “Yep, that’s what God wants.”

If you are interested in other redlining maps, perhaps for your own city, check this out.

TopHat

TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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19 Responses

  1. Jana says:

    Thank you for this post, Heather. I think its super important to remember that boundaries have histories.

  2. SC says:

    I have witnessed “Mormon gerrymandering” everywhere that I have lived, so I say THANK YOU for calling attention to this practice. We need much, much more awareness of it in the church, as well as solutions and equality

  3. Em says:

    My last ward was severely gerrymandered and it was a sort of an open joke that it was the “reject ward.” The ward was a meandering squiggle that stretched almost all the way across a sprawling city and was no wider than one or two blocks in many places. It primarily picked up the few pockets of lower income housing complexes. The surrounding wards were dominated by large, wealthy multi-generational families that had been in the area for decades. But honestly, I preferred the “reject ward.” It wasn’t always convenient due to the ridiculously distance between the two ends of the ward and the constantly changing membership, but members took care of each other and mostly accepted each other. I think many of us would have been lost and ignored in the larger, more homogenous wards where we didn’t quite fit in.

    But yes, I agree that wards are better when they are diverse, and I think it’s probably too easy to (even subconsciously) draw ward boundaries along social and racial fault lines.

  4. Patricia Johnson says:

    Our ward boundaries were changed to add a strip along the freeway up into a depressed area of the city we are next to. It has been an interesting adjustment. Some people are more willing than others. Some people refuse, even in pairs during the day, to go to that part of our ward.

  5. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    I suppose the old gents could have pulled out a topographical map and gone strictly with elevation. I maybe woefully out of date, but my understanding is the prime criterion is the right number of high priests.

    • m says:

      There are many many configurations you can carve through any given geographic territory to get the right number of high priests. For example, they could have just drawn a straight line N to S and moved it from W to E until they hit critical mass. They didn’t. What they DID is carve out a nice tidy kidney and leave a long crescent around it. Not going to be very easy for the people at either extreme of that crescent. There are better ways to do this and some historical information and a consideration of the implications of gerrymandering and redlining is really important.

    • m says:

      And it’s important to note that local leaders draw the boundaries and submit them for approval. There might be some tweaks and questions, but local people, who know the issues and may have their own agendas, are the ones primarily responsible for the lines. It’s not unheard of for a bishop to advocate to keep a weird jog or pocket included in order to keep some particular family. It’s not a neutral process.

  6. Chiaroscuro says:

    thank you for bringing attention to this important issue

  7. Michelle says:

    Born in the Oakland 1st Ward, grandfather was the Bishop of Oakland 1st, raised in the Oakland Stake, parents served in Oakland 9th Ward bishopric and never wanted to leave. The members in this area are better than some at inclusion but there is an huge divide economically, racially, and educationally between the two wards and the boundaries seem to reinforce that.

  8. Kathryn says:

    In this situation I don’t think that there was a racial or socio-economic bias. The reassigned members north of Highway 24 are people with some means and the young Emeryville crowd are perceived as contributing “up and comers.” It’s a real loss to the 1st Ward to have all of you gone. The boundary issue has been a problem in Oakland for a very long time. My understanding is that other models for the Oakland Wards have been adopted in the past and ultimately abandoned. I hope this one takes. But I’m also sad about the diminished vibrancy of the Oakland 1st Ward.

  9. Nat Whilk says:

    Stake presidents decide on ward boundaries and then submit them to Salt Lake for approval. From a purely pragmatic perspective, I don’t think it makes a stake president’s life easier to have wards that are widely unbalanced with respect to activity. That is, I think a stake president’s stress level is inversely proportional to the activity level of his weakest ward. We have done some pretty serious gerrymandering in my stake, but it has always been with an eye to strengthening the weakest ward.

  10. Katie says:

    Different but similar–Portland wards would be an interesting case study. I lived there a few years ago, and instead of making a single ward out of all of the people who lived in the actual Portland city limits, the city (at least East of the river) was divided into 3 different chunks that were assigned to more suburban wards. I got the feeling that the stake president wanted to split up the less active, more liberal Portland members into suburban wards. It was unfortunate, as it would have made more sense geographically, and probably culturally, to have Portland meet as a ward. After we moved, the boundaries were changed again.

  11. heather y says:

    The Gerrymandering is all about the Priesthood. They have to have a minimum of active men in every ward to fill leadership roles. Not enough active Priesthood holders means no ward because only men can hold important callings. No woman could count tithing money, sign temple recommends or bless the sacrament.
    What would a ward be without men?
    Nothing, because it wouldn’t exist.

  12. megelaineconley says:

    I ran into Warren from the 9th ward at Farmer Joe’s on Sunday. He expressed so much excitement about the influx of people into his ward and also expressed a hope that the 9th and the 1st ward develop stronger bonds. I told him I had mixed feelings about the new boundaries, that I wished it had been done a little differently. That there’d been a way to bring both wards together or shake the whole thing up top to bottom. He didn’t agree with me and gave me some interesting insights from his lived experience. I can’t do anything about the boundaries, but after talking to him I do feel newly energized to bring the two wards together in more meaningful ways. I’ve also got to say the 1st ward felt positively empty and surprisingly ahem geriatric on Sunday. With home prices in Emeryville and above the 24 still close to the $1million range (and homes in the new 1st ward boundaries WELL over that. sad face emoji), I imagine that anybody under 50 with any hope of moving to this area will settle in the Oakland 9th ward. Of course, gentrification brings with it more problems and increasingly limited diversity. Anyways, I imagine the 9th ward is going to be where I hope to have my kids in the youth programs (I felt this way even before the boundary change) and we’re taking that into consideration as we try to figure out if we can afford to stay in this part of the world. Margaret is glad to still have your Margaret in Primary.

  13. jettie says:

    I saw something similar in Chatham, Virginia–all the members there must drive 20 miles away to the Danville, Virginia ward, even though there is a small branch just 6 miles away (it is in the same school district as Chatham; Danville is not) to which Chatham’s members used to belong that desperately needs the members more than the big city of Danville does. The clincher: Chatham is a very wealthy town whose populace mostly works for two very posh private schools where southern gentlemen/women send their children to board, while the branch next door is in a very poor factory town with lots of minorities. I can see how asking members to drive twenty miles away to the large city rather than six miles down the road may have been an example of this kind of Mormon gerrymandering, especially because this is the south we are talking about.

  14. Aj says:

    As someone who grew up in the Oakland first ward for 27 years and “NOT WHITE” I never once felt like those members treated me different based on my race. Yes the boundaries were in good communities and I was blessed for that. But what I remember most is how everyone combined from primary all the way through till Young Women’s and young men’s. From those experiences regardless of what others may think some of my close friends were from the 9th ward. They were sweethearts. NEVER ONCE DID I JUDGE THEM, LOOKED DOWN ON THEM, OR BASED MY FRIENDSHIPS ON THEIR RACE, EXCONOMIC BACKGROUND, or anything else. I saw so many of our ward members get called to serve and go head over heels to help those youth give opportunity to them and support that they unfortunately weren’t given at home. I have dropped them off at their homes and seen where they lived but loved them even more cause unlike what society would label them as they overcame that. Why? Cause they were striving everyday to become better people. They were turning towards God, tried their best to come to church activities, tried their best to take advantage of the support they were given at Church. Nothing made me prouder than being associated with people who like me weren’t perfect and respected me yet NEVER treated me different cause I didn’t treat them different. I’m so happy to hear you’re optimism about joining the 9th ward cause only optimism can change things!!! If you don’t like how one ward seems “white” than strive not to be one of those “white people” cause you are white. Treat them as if they were family cause the more we lead by example instead of labels for each ward the less this labeling stuff will become an issue. I have faith you and others were inspired to help out this ward based on God’s ability to see how who you are as a person can help the 9th ward grow to become even better— not based on old “white man” rules to segregate based on race and economic status. If you still think it’s based on some agenda why not pray and ask God yourself if that was his intention.

    • TopHat says:

      Right now it is just the primary that is combined. They separated the YW/YM a few years ago.

      I don’t believe there was an overarching agenda. But I know that unless you are being actively anti-racist, then the default is going to be racist because that’s how society is. If they went into planning the ward boundaries with the agenda of actively thinking about racial demographics and evening those out, then the boundaries would have been different. But they didn’t, so they ended up with boundaries that happen to follow the racist past of Oakland.

      Also, it’s great you loved the first ward. I loved it while I was there, too! The 9th ward is also great and I look forward to years with them.

  15. SC says:

    A wise women once said to me, “if you are one of those people who claims that there were no popular kids in your high school and everybody was just nice to everybody, then shut up because you were a popular person and have no clue what the rest of us suffered.” This is the best summation of privilege I have ever heard. Privileged people don’t see oppression because they don’t experience it. Those who are gerrymandered into the privileged wards can get huffy and accuse other Mormons of pulling the “race card,” but it is important to check that privilege and listen with open hearts to those who have experienced oppression at church because of these divisions. I saw enough to fill a book, but I was a newcomer from a more privileged ward—the locals in my new branch were so accustomed to the treatment they received that to them it was just an ordinary day in LDS life. This broke my heart almost an much as all the racism and oppression and inequality

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