Greater Greater Washington

Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too

New residents of the District are sometimes discouraged from taking part in local politics. However, it's in everyone's interest for more people to get involved, even if they're only here for a short time.


Photo from DC Students Speak.

I've had the pleasure of living in DC over the past four years as a student at Georgetown, and I enjoy being involved in the civic life of this great city. Nevertheless, in my work organizing college students through DC Students Speak, I've found that new residents are often marginalized as carpetbaggers who do not understand the issues facing the city.

At a DC Council candidate forum hosted by GGW in 2011, many candidates boasted about being "native Washingtonians," making them more qualified than others for higher office. I can't tell you how many times local political figures told me that college students don't have a right to be involved because we are relatively transient and have not lived in the District long enough.

These arguments bolster the credentials of long-term residents and question the legitimacy of newcomers' opinions. That's a problem considering how many people move to the District each year.

Between April 2010 and July 2012, DC added over 30,000 residents. Last year, 63% of all households who moved somewhere in the District involved people coming here from somewhere else.

After decades of population loss, the District is adding new residents again. Today, it has about 630,000 people. It's foreseeable that it could go back to its 1950's-era peak of 800,000 residents as more people move here. It's essential that these new Washingtonians are encouraged to get involved in local politics.

The city benefits when relatively transient residents are involved in local politics. As a student organizer, I found time and time again that politicians ignored students' concerns. They didn't know what students wanted because my peers weren't engaged, so they couldn't help them. Moreover, residents from other places can make DC even more dynamic by helping to infuse the city with new and cutting-edge ideas.

Some residents don't have plans to stay here for a long time, like students or young professionals. We shouldn't hold it against them; rather, we should also encourage them to get involved while they're in town. I only got to live here for four years, but during that time I took part in my community through everything from DC Students Speak to tutoring in Petworth.

The only way that DC can truly become a great city is through engaging all members of the community, so they're interested and willing to care about where they live and give back to them in return. In the end, it's in the best interests of all District of Columbia residents to have a more involved citizenry.

We need to move beyond the tired rhetoric of who is or is not a "real Washingtonian." The way to build an even more dynamic District of Columbia by embracing everyone and encouraging them to join our community. After all, if they feel welcome, they might stick around.

Scott Stirrett is co-founder and former president of DC Students Speak, a citywide organization that aims to get more students involved in civic affairs. Scott is a senior at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, studying international politics with a concentration in foreign policy processes. 

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Hear hear!

by Jasper on May 23, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

Honestly, I stopped caring what some "long time residents" or "local politicians" thought about my right to participate a long time ago. As citizens we have a right to live wherever we damn well please in this country.

by Alan B. on May 23, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

Truth, it also helps to recognize that while Washington is special, the fundamentals that make it special aren't unique. One doesn't need to have been born and raised in DC to understand that DC should be focusing on moving people rather than cars when it comes to transportation for example. Things that make a city special aren't so intangible as they seem.

by drumz on May 23, 2013 11:44 am • linkreport

Here's a deal fro short-term Washingtonians 'who want a voice.' How about registering your cars in DC? Yes, I know you like to take advantage of student reciprocity to claim lower insurance rates whereover you're home is (or perpetually use a "guest parking pass" to park for free on DC streets). But if you want to be all in, then be all in. If DC is going to be your legal residence for voting purposes, then register your vehicle and pay your fair share of DC fees, etc.

by Alf on May 23, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

If people don't respect your opinions, it's in part because they think you will just move in a few years--so in a very real sense, your opinion objectively matters less when it comes to policy questions with long-term implications. I would also suggest really engaging and working with the people who have lived here a long time, instead of just assuming you know better.

More importantly, this issue is really not other peoples' problem--it is your problem to solve. If you want political power in the city, don't complain about people not respecting you. Build the power you're seeking through an organization that outlasts its individual transitory members.

by George on May 23, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

If people don't respect your opinions, it's in part because they think you will just move in a few years--so in a very real sense, your opinion objectively matters less when it comes to policy questions with long-term implications.

Why would anyone knowingly support a policy with bad long term implications just because they'll be somewhere else?

I mean, what if I plan on staying in DC for the rest of my life but circumstances decide I have to move. Do I then just change my mind about all the things I think the city should do?

by drumz on May 23, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

I should clarify that I haven't ever gotten a lot of pushback from locals. It may be that college students get an unfair reaction in general more out of a sense of perhaps paternalism than xenophobia. I do think that whenever engaging in the community we should listen to everyone, especially those that have been around for a while. I also think we should be encouraging younger people to participate as much as possible. In general, we should try to all listen to one another even if we end up disagreeing, just listening can go a long way.

by Alan B. on May 23, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

For economic, and yes, racial reasons, this city's culture defines itself along the lines of carpetbagger v. native. Some of the resentment of outsiders comes from the implicit knowledge that they'll move back home some day, or indeed, that they even have those sorts of options in their lives.

It's easy to picture the (hypothetical) tension between the 4th generation federal worker from Petworth to the senior at Georgetown who's thinking about renting next door when he graduates. The politics follow suit.

This place is much nicer than it was 20 years ago. Many people with a choice will now choose to stay for good. As time goes on, and more of those hypothetical seniors from Georgetown stick around and have kids, the feelings will grow more acute.

For natives and newcomers, there's this growing need here to prove that you're not an interloper. Even for natives, sporting a DC flag tattoo or drinking DC Brau doesn't cut it. Only time and investment in community will. Even then, even if you were born here, the tension remains. That's life in the big city. You just have to own it and call it home.

by EJ on May 23, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

The opinion of those who have lived in the District for decades or longer should have no greater or lesser weight than those who got here last week. The point is that people, regardless of time served, should bring open minds and good ideas when the talk about what happens in the city.

by Randall M. on May 23, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

Not just students or transients but newcomers who have been here a while and even bought homes don't seem to register and vote for a long while.

You can go all around wards 4 and 5 and see new young people living in houses they've fixed up but then look at the special election's results in those wards.

And tenants take even longer to get registered and vote locally, if they ever bother to.

If someone doesn't claim to be a resident, why should they be considered one?

by Tom Coumaris on May 23, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

If someone doesn't claim to be a resident, why should they be considered one?

Others do get involved (like our author) and then get smacked down for doing so.

People have different priorities when they first move to a place. Obviously we shouldn't recognize that and instead look for opportunities to castigate newcomers for not living up to whatever standard we decide on.

by drumz on May 23, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

Just because they don't vote doesn't mean they're registered elsewhere. Pehaps, for whatever reason, they don't want to take part in the electoral process. Perhaps they're suffering from voter fatigue (if you live in Ward 5, how many elections have they had in the last 3 years?). Maybe they're Republican or Communist or Martian Party USA and they don't feel like any of the candidates come close to reflecting their views.

Maybe we shouldn't automatically blame low voter turn out on those evil newcomers. You can't tell me every single "native Washingtonian" and "long-time resident" votes in every single election. I live on a street full of native Washingtonians (some of them like to remind me of that on a regular basis). Very few of them vote.

by Birdie on May 23, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

New residents should be given as much voice and rights as possible. Long term residents already have an advantage in that they (should) have more and better connections, and should have gotten more done, and be higher up the political ladder. Its not like the new resident is going to be mayor.

by SJE on May 23, 2013 12:21 pm • linkreport

Why would anyone knowingly support a policy with bad long term implications just because they'll be somewhere else?

I don't think the issue is so much one of intentionally supporting bad policies, it's more an issue of not intentionally supporting good policies. Or failing to dig deeper to determine whether a policy is actually bad because doing nothing is easier.

College students absolutely should engage with the process. Why not? Just as long as you come prepared with good information, accept opposition to your views (particularly more informed opposition), and make an earnest effort to work within the system (which your organization seems to be doing).

I think your knowledge and willingness to engage will speak volumes to long-time residents who are open to listening. But you need to be open to the prospect that not everyone thinks like you, not everyone wants the same things you want, and life experience is quite valuable.

by Scoot on May 23, 2013 12:22 pm • linkreport

But you need to be open to the prospect that not everyone thinks like you, not everyone wants the same things you want,

Many native washingtonians could stand to understand that a lot as well. Especially if their first response when challenged is "well you haven't been here long enough".

by drumz on May 23, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

"But you need to be open to the prospect that not everyone thinks like you, not everyone wants the same things you want, and life experience is quite valuable.'

Will the "native" washingtonians respect the life experience of a 50 something white guy who's just moved from the suburbs and grew up in another metro area? Or will they consider life experience less valuable than that of a 25YO african american who grew up in DC?

by EmptyNester on May 23, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

See also immigration laws: "I deserve to live and work here and you don't, because, uh, me and my family have been here longer." No logical basis for it whatsoever, yet accepted by basically everybody.

by renegade09 on May 23, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

I've always thought this city did a pretty good job of catering to the transient population. What sort of policies would the transients push for (aside from extended happy hours, kick ball leagues everywhere, and a ban on closed toe shoes)?

by Rick on May 23, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

If people don't respect your opinions, it's in part because they think you will just move in a few years--so in a very real sense, your opinion objectively matters less when it comes to policy questions with long-term implications.

This is why I find outrageous that our national policies are set by old white dudes in their 70s and 80s - they won't be around long enough to see the consequences of what they've wrought, because they'll be dead soon (well, not soon enough).

by AlbuterolGonzales on May 23, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

@drumz

Many native washingtonians could stand to understand that a lot as well. Especially if their first response when challenged is "well you haven't been here long enough".

I agree. But this article is about college students, so that's the audience I targeted.

@ EmptyNester

Will the "native" washingtonians respect the life experience of a 50 something white guy who's just moved from the suburbs and grew up in another metro area? Or will they consider life experience less valuable than that of a 25YO african american who grew up in DC?

It depends, obviously. Were you actually looking for a clear cut answer on something so indeterminable, or just drawing a hypothetical?

by Scoot on May 23, 2013 1:09 pm • linkreport

@renegade09: See also immigration laws: "I deserve to live and work here and you don't, because, uh, me and my family have been here longer." No logical basis for it whatsoever, yet accepted by basically everybody.

Uh oh, challenging the concept of Westphalian sovereignty?! That's not gonna fly with the jingoists or the reactionaries or the 19th centuryists...

by AlbuterolGonzales on May 23, 2013 1:10 pm • linkreport

But this article is about college students, so that's the audience I targeted.

That's the thing, they can follow all of your advice but it doesn't matter much if the validity of an argument doesn't rely on reason but how long you've lived in DC.

by drumz on May 23, 2013 1:11 pm • linkreport

@ drumz

That's the thing, they can follow all of your advice but it doesn't matter much if the validity of an argument doesn't rely on reason but how long you've lived in DC.

I'm not certain that I'm following you, but I specifically said that knowledge of an issue was of paramount importance, not just how long one has lived here.

Though I do think that there is something to be said for people who may have a more nuanced understanding of an issue as gained through exposure to lots of different events, situations and people and acquisition of certain types of knowledge that others may not have. I just said that their experience should carry some weight - it should be acknowledged, attempted to be understood, etc - not that it should be the sole determining factor in a decision by any means.

Just as transient residents should not be cast off for their age, "long-time residents" should not be cast off either.

by Scoot on May 23, 2013 1:26 pm • linkreport

Scott,

I'm on your side here, I really am (fellow SFSer), but when even relatively high-profile initiatives like DC Students Speak fizzle out after a couple of months - http://dcstudentsspeak.org has been turned off, presumably for failure to renew - it really does speak to the lack of follow-through or investment on the part of almost all students with respect to the District.

I understand that there are certain logistical constraints, like the car insurance issue (very few GU undergrads have cars at school, but many have them back home and don't want to be kicked off of their parents' insurance), but apathy is by far the biggest issue. So long as widespread apathy is the norm, students will not be taken seriously as a constituency. Some individuals may be able to make headway, like the student ANC commissioners, but the overriding perception will remain.

by Dizzy on May 23, 2013 1:31 pm • linkreport

Scoot,

I certainly wouldn't want someone who doesn't understand the issue, or is incapable of listening to reasonable arguments to insert themselves into a debate either.However, that's not what's happening. What has happened is when people do come up with with what they feel is reasonable arguments and positions they are immediately shot down because they're "transient" or obviously don't care about city because they haven't been here long enough. That's the problem. You can't even get to what you're suggesting because often people won't allow it.

It's a conflation that disagreeing with a long time resident means that I must not care about their wants/needs. I think in most cases you'll find its the opposite.

tl;dr no one should be cast off, but it's happening and the way to fix it is to not allow the destructive meme. We're not at the point where people can just listen to each other.

by drumz on May 23, 2013 1:34 pm • linkreport

So long as widespread apathy is the norm, students will not be taken seriously as a constituency.

Widespread apathy seems to be the norm all across the city, regardless of age, race, political status, etc. I agree that it is a problem.

Also, I'm not really sure on the status of the DC Students Speak website but their Facebook and Twitter accounts still seem to be rather active. Unless you were looking to confirm a bias, I don't think you could say that one website domain expiration speaks to the needs, desires and ambitions of like 60,000-odd college students who live here.

by Scoot on May 23, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

@Scoot

Fair point that widespread apathy is not limited to students. But it is particularly pronounced among them, as the vast majority do not consider themselves to be DC residents and are not invested in it to any appreciable extent. Compare this to the very different case of relative newcomers who have moved here and plan to stay for at least some length of time, only to be told that their input is not valued in spite of their investment due to their non-native or LTR status.

As someone who came here for college and grad school and has now stayed, if I have a bias, it would be in the other direction. My defense of students is usually pretty automatic. My experience, however, has taught me that real student engagement with the city and its development remains extremely limited, the commendable efforts of DCSS not-withstanding, and I don't see any evidence of that changing. Particularly when even the most engaged can't keep their website, which is every organization's main point of access to the world, operational.

For what it's worth, @DCStudentsSpeak has 2 tweets this month, 6 in April, 10 in March, 8 in February... that's certainly 'active,' but only just barely. The main Facebook group page consists almost entirely of posted articles from WaPo and DCist and the like. The school-specific pages are various levels of inert (AU's hasn't had any activity since last September, the Georgetown one hasn't had a new post since October 2011, etc.).

by Dizzy on May 23, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

Scoot

College students absolutely should engage with the process. Why not? Just as long as you come prepared with good information, accept opposition to your views (particularly more informed opposition), and make an earnest effort to work within the system...

Why do you apply this to college students, and not others? Ideally, everyone should be engaged and informed, but who is to say what is informed? I have seen long-time residents support a lot of bone-headed policies, not accept or respect opposing views, and generally act badly. Do they get disenfranchised? Of course not.

by SJE on May 23, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

"Were you actually looking for a clear cut answer on something so indeterminable, or just drawing a hypothetical?"

I'm expressing my skepticism, that the issue between "natives" and newcomers is really about age. As far as I can tell from what I read, the desire of a 50YO for bike lanes and so forth will not be respected any more than that of a 20 YO, because this really isn't about grey hair.

by EmptyNester on May 23, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

Why do you apply this to college students, and not others?

I don't blame you for not reading all the comments, but this is the 3rd time I've said that it applies to everyone. I just focused it on college students because, after all, this blog article is about short-term residents with a particular focus on college students.

by Scoot on May 23, 2013 2:18 pm • linkreport

"Though I do think that there is something to be said for people who may have a more nuanced understanding of an issue as gained through exposure to lots of different events, situations and people and acquisition of certain types of knowledge that others may not have."

so maybe even a 50 YO who has lived in several different cities, who has degrees in areas of relevance to urban issues, etc should get even MORE weight than someone who has lived in DC all their life? Somehow I don't think that will fly.

I look forward to being able to test this empirically.

by EmptyNester on May 23, 2013 2:19 pm • linkreport

Someone who just moved here, but will stay for 20 years, has more at stake in the city's future than someone born and raised here, but will move away in 5 years. Planning is about the future, not about the past.

And yet I have had complete strangers, e.g., multiple drivers who've tried to run me off the road, insult me based on what they perceive as my "newcomer" status, which somehow makes me less entitled even to safely proceed in public space.

I've always wanted to just show up at some random public hearing in some random city my family has roots in (SF or NYC, for instance) and loudly proclaim that even though I'm just a rootless tourist, my generations-long family ties mean that I know more about what's best for their city than any of the locals do.

by Payton on May 23, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

There are lots of different ways to be active though. We had a thriving Habitat chapter when I was in college, for example. Many of my fellow students did then and continue to volunteer with various organizations in the city. Never voted in DC until 2008 since I hated to give up my home state vote while DC has limited voting rights. Re: use of websites probably not a big issue, I'm guessing they do most of their organizing on campus/via email lists.

by Alan B. on May 23, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

As far as I can tell from what I read, the desire of a 50YO for bike lanes and so forth will not be respected any more than that of a 20 YO, because this really isn't about grey hair.

I think, like most things, it generally comes down to an issue of different lifestyle priorities. But in my opinion, if you go to an ANC meeting and see a 50 year old articulate his desire for bike lanes, then you're probably more likely to get other 50-year-olds on board. That's just psychology. Those people are likely to agree with, or at least listen to, someone in their own generation because they perceive that person might be looking out for interests of others like them.

by Scoot on May 23, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

Are there specific examples of ideas from "newcomers" that have been shot down due to the length of their time in the region? If a resident is registered to vote and choses to use their vote, it doesn't matter how long they have been a resident.

by selxic on May 23, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

The common phrase is 'stuff white people like' not 'stuff young people like'.

I think the focus on youth in general (college students may be a different issue) is a diversion.

by EmptyNester on May 23, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

If someone wants a voice which I fully support; however they should register their car in DC if they have one, change their permanent address to one that is in DC and get a DC divers or non drivers license. If you have done none of those than you don't deserve a voice.

by kk on May 23, 2013 6:26 pm • linkreport

Of course people shouldn't disrespect others.

BUT think about it: young(er) white people live in mostly white parts of DC, have relatively little interaction with "long-time residents", then move when they have children so that their little darlings aren't in school with poor DC kids of color.

It happens over and over. Why should anyone think that young people have anything but their own interests in mind?

by mch on May 23, 2013 6:49 pm • linkreport

@ Scoot:Widespread apathy seems to be the norm all across the city, regardless of age, race, political status, etc. I agree that it is a problem.

Indeed. At the last election, less than 10% of the electorate showed up. And that while budget independence - a supposedly important issue for Washingtonians - was on the ballot.

So, students seem to fit right in the fold of Washingtonians with their apathy.

by Jasper on May 23, 2013 7:49 pm • linkreport

If you live across the Key Bridge in Rosslyn, we would welcome your participation. We welcome and. encourage ALL our residents to participate in sharing ideas and working to make our community better.

by Paul Derby on May 24, 2013 6:28 am • linkreport

mch: you raise a good point. I believe that getting people involved in the process early on is a better way to develop community. If the older residents exclude the younger white kids, its less surprising that they see themselves as separate and act accordingly when they have kids.

by SJE on May 24, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

I don't think newcomers are dismissed as much as they often don't understand the nuances of local power and long standing effective coalitions of some established constituencies. There's a reason why DC elects uniquely unimpressive politicians at most levels of governments. It's not that they are smarter, better qualified, or better suited than many less tenured Washingtonians. It's certainly changing. For every David Grosso there's a Vincent Orange or Anita Bond.

by anon_1 on May 28, 2013 10:17 am • linkreport

I know the feeling. When I first came to DC in the summer of 2008 as a student intern, I met with Del. Holmes and had the distinct impression she was only meeting with me through obligation and could have cared less about talking to me once she found out I was a new (hopeful) resident. Lucky for her, I wasn't discouraged and played an important role in civic life here, especially during 2009-2010 to help pass marriage equality in the District.

by Matt S. on May 28, 2013 3:24 pm • linkreport

Is the website really down? There was absolutely no one to carry the torch?

by cmc on Jun 5, 2013 8:23 am • linkreport

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