Issues including housing disparity, the digital divide and training for high-wage jobs are among the topics a new Peoria city-county initiative hopes to address, according to City Council member Rita Ali.
The two government bodies are in the process of establishing the Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity, with Ali among the community leaders spearheading the effort.
“We’ve seen the data; we know that there are gaps and there are inequities when you compare African-Americans with others within our city,” said Ali, who announced her candidacy for mayor earlier this week.
Ali, vice president of diversity at Illinois Central College, said other areas of structural racism that need attention include health and human services, mobility and transportation, and the criminal justice system.
“We want to actually put a collective impact model in place so that we can begin to study the problem, identify where there’s barriers, gaps and inequities, and then begin to address these,” said Ali, adding the goal will be “to remove barriers, to remove discriminatory practices to create pro-equity policies, systems and practices within the city and the county government.”
Ali hopes the commission can build on discussions that emerged following an often-cited 24/7 Wall Street report from 2016 that identified Peoria as the worst city in the country for Black residents.
“People came together – hundreds of people actually, of all different races and ages – to discuss these problems and then begin to identify potential solutions,” she said. “They shared from their heart, they were getting to know one another and trying to put together some action plans.
“But over time, it just fizzled. It fizzled, because there was no real structure in place for the work to get done. So, we’re going to recapture those thoughts and ideas, those recommendations in this process. I want people that participated in that process to know that their work was not in vain.”
Ali insists the commission’s actions will be driven by data, which she said has not happened in the past.
“That data will help to identify the problem. For example, we know that African-Americans have less credentials for high-wage, high-demand jobs in our area – those areas are health care, manufacturing, information technology, transportation,” said Ali.
“So, it's important that we identify the needs, and then put a system in place to get them trained and credentialed for existing jobs in our area. There are jobs in our area that need people, but we don't have people with the right skills. So, there's kind of a mismatch going on there. So that's one example.”
The City Council heard a first reading of an ordinance establishing the commission at its regular meeting on Aug. 25. Ali expects both bodies will vote to establish the commission next month and the first meeting could be as soon as early November. Up to 20 members will serve on the commission, with room for more participants on various sub-committees.
“There's a lot of interest in our community; people want to be engaged in this process,” she said. “I believe that we're going to get well over 200 applicants just serve on the commission and subcommittees, and there's room for about 160 people.”
Ali stressed that inclusion is going to be an important factor when selecting participants.
“The commission is going to be co-chaired with diversity,” she said. “It's going to be diverse in terms of race and ethnicity and gender – all those elements. But it's also going to be co-chaired by people of different races.
“Each of the committees will be the same; the chairs will be trained as facilitators for leading discussions related to racial justice and equity because it's a sensitive topic. They're also going to receive training on implicit bias and racial justice by professional educators in this area. People need a foundation in order to do the work, they need a lens for equity, so we’re going to create that.”
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