February and March is a time of year to acknowledge people who have broken down barriers and stood against injustice. Black History Month recognizes African American contributions both nationally and locally. March celebrates Women’s History Month and recognizes the contribution of American Women. Both February and March is also a time of year to celebrate those who made changes in other areas that include education, business, social service, and the housing industry. It’s a time of year to be bold enough to discuss discrimination, reflect on what has been done to improve racism where we live, and to challenge elected officials to follow through with what needs to be done to eradicate inequality.
This year when I think about Black History and Women’s History, I reflect on America’s first elected African American President who graciously left office as one of the most popular presidents in the United States. I reflect on local leadership who fought for civil rights, and are no longer with us. I reflect on the educators who challenged many black students to excel in school, such as Dr. Dorothy Cornish. Dr. Cornish worked as a teacher and counselor in Peoria School District 150 and then taught at Illinois Central College. She was the first director of ICC’s downtown campus. I give homage to Peoria’s oldest Black Newspaper started by a black female, Elise Allen. Ms. Allen has given voice to African American issues, for over fifty years.
In one of his speeches after being confirmed as the first Black, US Attorney General, Eric Holder called Americans “a nation of cowards, because we failed to openly discuss the issue of race.” In his speech celebrating Black History, Holder stated the America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago.
The housing of 2017 in Peoria’s Southside does not differ much from the housing in 1967. Most African Americans who live in the 61605 area, are disproportionally impacted by poor housing and the lack of economic opportunities. There has not been any revitalization in Peoria’s 61605 for over 44 years. Peoria’s recent urban renewal took place in 1973 which then called for the development of 200 acres, plans for a new civic center and the University of Illinois medical school.
Most recently the City of Peoria hosted two long overdue community conversations on racism and economics in December 2016 and January 2017. The goal was to create a forum to discuss racism and provide supportive action to those working to advance racial equality.
While writing this article, I have to acknowledge the work done by social agencies whose work continuously address racism and economic empowerment every day, particularly those agencies located on the Southside of Peoria.
One of those agencies is METEC. Located in the poorest zip code area and in an area that has the highest unemployment rate in the City of Peoria; METEC remains committed to empowering low income families. Over the past five years, their programs helped meet the economic, housing, and safety needs of some the poorest residents in the City, putting more than forty million ($40,000,000) back in the communities they serve. Their foreclosure intervention program helped more than 600 families stay in their homes. They’ve helped more than 300 families buy a house. METEC’s workforce development program has helped more than 400 people obtain employment.
While Eric Holders label of “coward” no longer applies to Peoria, there is still work to be done on racism. METEC remains committed to economic empowerment and eradicating racism with their programs and services.