A community workshop, in response to the 24/7 Wall Street report which listed Peoria as the number one “Worst City for Black Americans”, was held on December 6, 2016 at the Gateway Building. The event was organized by the City of Peoria. Organizers had planned for around 200 people to attend, but drew a crowd of 317. The crowd was diverse with a 50-50 racial make-up of Black and White people. A few parents brought their children and some attendees were from communities other than Peoria.
The session was opened with a welcome from Mayor Jim Ardis. The Mayor assured the crowd this would not be a one and done meeting; that subsequent meetings would be scheduled. Councilwoman Denise Moore stated that District 1 had more African-American people than Districts 3, 4, and 5 combined. She also emphasized this was not an African-American issue but a City of Peoria issue that needed to be resolved. Councilwoman Moore left shortly after making her brief comments due to a bad case of laryngitis and food poisoning.
City Manager Patrick Urich facilitated the session. He opened by saying the causes of racial and economic inequities are complex and there were no easy answers. He challenged the group to dialogue around how to address the issue and to write down possible solutions. These ideas would be documented and published, and at a later meeting, drilled down to create workable solutions.
The process used to dialogue and brainstorm was called “World Café Process”. The attendees were given three questions to discuss to try to come up with solutions to advance racial equity. After twenty minutes, you were asked to move to a different table and dialogue with a different group for each of the three questions.
Question 1: What program strategies or initiatives can the Community support to achieve racial equity and improve economic opportunities?
Question 2: What program strategies or initiatives can Institutions undertake to achieve racial equity and improve economic opportunities?
Question 3: What program strategies or initiatives can Individuals undertake to achieve racial equity and improve economic opportunities?
After the three rounds, the groups were asked to identify common themes. Participants were then asked to come up and share their observations.
I applaud the Mayor, City Manager and Councilwoman Moore for convening this session. However, I felt that it was a chaotic evening. The noise level made it difficult to hear the people at your table. It was clear the city staff was not given any real direction and was pretty much thrown into the role of table facilitator. The questions were too generic and a more in-depth conversation needed to take place around any real and sustainable solution.
I’m not asking for a meeting just to air grievances, but I believe an honest conversation around those complex and systemic causes of racial and economic disparity is needed. Recognizing implicit bias is critical to understanding decades of inequity heaped on people of color.
We’ve had a thousand and one programs, and if programs could fix the cultural divide that we have not only in Peoria, but all around the country, we would all be singing “Kum Ba Yah”.
Peorians are attempting to address the issue of racial and economic inequity on the heels of one of our most racially charged election cycles. We also have a state government that has been completely dysfunctional for the past two years. These dynamics will also impact this community’s will to invest in this under-served population.
An intentional outreach to the community that the 24/7 Wall Street report identified is needed and that community needs to be at the table. As Councilwoman Moore stated, District 1 has more African-American residents than three of the other districts combined. They must be part of any conversations and any solutions concerning creating a more equitable existence.
This is not an easy fix, but if this community is serious about changing our national image and the lives of the people who are most impacted, get them to the table.