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Where's the diversity among elected officials in Centre County?

Don Hahn was sworn in as the new State College Borough mayor in January.
Don Hahn was sworn in as the new State College Borough mayor in January.

Fifteen portraits of former State College mayors hang on the left side of the hallway leading to Mayor Don Hahn’s office.

“They’ve all been white, until now,” said Hahn, who was elected last November. “And they’ve all been male, until 2009.”

Those two statements hit the core of a problem in State College. An increasingly diverse borough is still represented by mostly white government officials. That problem, plus the lack of female representation, extends to Centre County as a whole, as well.

The reasons may vary — lack of connections, dearth of role models to emulate, uncertainty regarding the process of getting elected — but the result is a lessening of the minority voice in the community.

Which is why Douglas Shontz, the communication specialist of State College Borough, said it's important to work with diverse members of the community. "Diverse thought breeds really great results."

The need for diverse leadership

According to a 2017 report by the United States Census Bureau, 79.2 percent of the population in State College Borough is Caucasian, 10.4 percent of the population is Asian, 4 percent was black or African-American and 4 percent were Hispanic or Latino.

Hahn thinks part of the reason why there is a lack of diversity among elected officials in State College is because of the lack of connections a minority may have.

“The only reason why I am here is because of white female, white male council members who had been supportive of what I had to say and my positions and my reactions,” he said.

In State College, there are seven elected council members. Only the mayor is a person of color.

Hahn said it’s important for minorities who are looking to be in office to have a strong connection among diverse groups in the community and hopes to have a greater increase of diversity in positions of influence.

“I think it is really important for an African-American to be elected onto the school board,” Hahn said. “One cannot deny the inspiration that the election of a racial minority may have regarding those who may be interested in pursuing that office. It’s also a message to the hidden racists that acting on their racism is not acceptable.”

A native of State College, Hahn was not immune to discrimination during his adolescence. Hahn pursued his passion for law as an attorney and a government official even though he did not have any politicians who looked like him growing up.

Hahn said there is a possibility that voters tend to support people who look like themselves.

“I think there is a natural tendency to gravitate toward picking someone who is like you,” Hahn said. “And I think although it is natural, it is not always right. But it is a tendency I think a lot of racial minorities have to deal with and quite frankly also women and the fact that there are so few elected perpetuates that notion.”

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, the director at the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State, said there is a need for diverse leadership.

“You cannot be who you cannot see,” Wadhia said. “Leadership among minorities also spurs future leadership.”

Wadhia said minority representation could spur confidence among minorities who aspire to run for office.

“I would like to think that Don Hahn being in the position that he is in as mayor of State college is an example of how someone might feel more confident, more propelled to run for elected office,” Wadhia said.

Empowering Women

Before Hahn became State College's first Korean American mayor, Elizabeth Goreham was sworn into office in 2009 as the first elected female mayor in State College.

According to a 2017 report by the United State Census Bureau, women make up almost half of the total population in Centre County, but a majority of elected positions in county government are held by men.

After leaving her position as State College mayor, Goreham has become involved with a group called Cultural Empowerment for Women, dedicated to helping women network with one another.

“There’s a lot of women in this community who would like to participate more, they just don’t know where to begin,” Goreham said. “We are diverse and we need to be seen as diverse at every level."

Goreham noted that throughout her eight years in office, she has seen improvements in the amount of female representatives in office.

“We have a lot of women executives, and we have a lot of women in prominent positions. We have two women judges in the board of common pleas,” she said.

Despite seeing improvements in State College, Goreham believes there is still more work to be done in other townships in Centre County.

“The only region with no female elected officials is Harris Township,” Goreham said.

Both Goreham and Wadhia said there needs to be a greater education for the community to learn about the functions of local government and how to get involved.

Madison Starr, a Penn State student and associate director of University Park Undergraduate Association's department of communications, said the lack of diversity is also a major discussion at Penn State.

“Especially with the past election, there’s so many more people of color in the assembly and that was really important to everyone. It’s a real concern,” Starr said.

Starr said students appreciate seeing people of diverse backgrounds in government positions.

“We try and uplift marginalized communities because, sadly enough, the truth of the matter is that they have to work twice as hard for half the credit,” Starr said. “That’s just not that fair, especially when so many of them are exemplary leaders in the community.”

Goreham said part of the problem is that some sections of the communities in the Centre County area don’t come in contact with people who are diverse and perhaps want to keep their lifestyle the same.

In the general region of Centre County, 88 percent of the total population is white. 6.3 percent is Asian, 3 percent is Black or African American and 2.9 percent is Hispanic or Latino, according to another 2017 U.S. Census report.

“But change is inevitable. We are growing, we are becoming more international, we’re becoming more diverse and I think that’s wonderful," Goreham said. "It teaches us so much here."