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Q&A: Melodi Green tackles role of overseeing Peoria's diversity efforts

Melodi Green.jpg
City of Peoria
Melodi Green is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the City of Peoria.

Melodi Green says she's eager for the community to see results from Peoria's commitment to improve diversity and inclusion throughout the city.

Green started in her role as the city's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the beginning of December, filling a position that had been vacant since Dr. Farris Muhammad resigned in 2020.

A lifelong Peorian, Green returns to City Hall – where she formerly worked in the legal department – after serving as the chief of the juvenile division for the Peoria County State’s Attorney. Her work experience also includes a stint in the consumer fraud bureau at the Illinois Attorney General's office.

In this interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Green says she has always been invested in issues of inequality and racial justice.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Joe Deacon: What interested you in taking on the role as the city's Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer?

Melodi Green: When I started off wanting to go to law school – which was something that I always wanted to do before I even really knew what that entailed – I knew that I was invested in and passionate about issues affecting the underserved, low income (individuals), black and brown people in general, and just overall issues of inequality. It just so happened that the city created this position in 2018, and I was actually interested then at that time.

Of course, we ended up hiring Dr. Farris Muhammad for that position. I worked closely with him in a lot of the capacities in which he dealt with things involving diversity and inclusion. So, I knew that I wanted to do it; I was trying to find a way into the field. So I eventually figured out that I needed to master my skills in diversity and inclusion – you can't just be passionate about something, you need to kind of know what you're talking about behind it. So I just decided I wanted to get a certificate in diversity and inclusion, (and) it sort of opened up the field for me a little bit better than, I think, just operating off of my prior passions and prior community involvement had done.

What are the major challenges or hurdles to improving diversity and equity in the city?

Green: I think our challenges are no different than our nationwide challenges, really. I mean, obviously, employment in impoverished communities, education, adequate resourcing. People need to feel like they are part of the community; they need to feel protected. Our policing system needs to embrace all of us, not just some of us.

Housing is a big issue for a portion of our community that has systemically been excluded from every area. Those are the things that I think need to be addressed, and like I’ve said, it's not rocket science. Everyone knows this; we just have to be willing to jump in and do what it takes to remedy what has damaged large portions of our community.

How do you plan to improve diversity in the city's workforce and hiring practices?

Green: You know, I think the city and the county are doing a good job of recognizing our issues and problems. I know we've recently formed the Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity with the city and county. I think that it’s going to definitely take a team effort from everybody: the educational system, the criminal justice system, city leaders, and private stakeholders who have the power to actually effectuate some change. We did not get here by inaction; we got here by wrongful action. So we have to remedy that, in my opinion. I don't – by any means, I'm not naive to think it'll be easy. I think if diversity could have been achieved already – and inclusion and equity – then I wouldn't be needed.

But what I do know is that we are all at the table here now. Mayor (Rita) Ali and the other leaders of this city are dedicated to not only increasing diversity, but actually increasing equity, which in my opinion is more important than diversity – because you can bring a diverse person to the table, but if you just leave them there, if you give them no resources, if you make them feel like they're not in the in group, then what was the point?

You've been on the job a little more than a month. What have you been able to accomplish so far? What has the job been like in your early experience?

Green: I don't know if you've ever looked at the job description, but it is a lengthy one. A lot of people don't know, because it seems like this is just an outward-facing position where there's a lot of community duties, working with different organizations, and that is a major part of the job. But there are other aspects to the job.

There are citizen complaints that I'm responsible for handling. For example, our municipal code Chapter 17 deals with discrimination in the form of housing and employment, and I've already had citizens come to me with complaints against employers. It is my job to investigate those complaints and determine whether I have jurisdiction to proceed with a case.

One major thing that I've accomplished is submitting the EEO-4 (Equal Employment Opportunity) report. That is a federally mandated report that has to be completed biannually, and it tracks our metrics for diversity: gender, race, salary band, and things like that have to be determined for the entire city of Peoria employee base. So that was a major thing that I had to get done and get submitted almost immediately after I started. So those are two portions of my job.

Also, attempting to bring PeoriaCorps back up to par. We lost our director several months ago, prior to my start. So we're attempting to work on hiring a new director for PeoriaCorps and sort of bring in a new cohort to get that program up and running. I think that program is vital to the low-income community and people who may have had mistakes in their past or been the victim of societal pressures in different ways. That program will aim to help a lot of those people as well.

So those are some of the things that I've been working on so far, in addition to the RJE – the Racial Justice and Equity Commission; that will be something major, like I said before, that I'm coming into. There are several committees working hard on racial justice and equity issues, and I'll be joining them to sort of plan whatever help that I can on behalf of the city.

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WCBU
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Zoom
Melodi Green discusses her role as the City of Peoria's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer during a Zoom interview.

What kind of resources do you have or tools in your employment with the city that will allow you to fulfill the goals of this position?

Green: I think I'm still assessing that. You know, this is a department of one person at this time, so I am learning how to function that way. I'm used to being an attorney with other attorneys or an assistant; I've been in the supervisory capacity as an attorney, where I have attorneys that I'm assisting and guiding that way. So this position is a little different that way. It's sort of one person responsible for a plethora of things.

But I have had the utmost support from City Manager (Patrick) Urich, HR Director (Mary Ann) Stalcup, Chrissie Peterson in the legal department. Honestly, coming back to the city, everybody has been welcoming and willing to offer whatever services they can. Part of my duty is also recording EEO certifications for contractors within the city, and (purchasing manager) Justin Danyus – who has not been with the city very long himself, and actually works in the finance department – has literally taught me from the ground up what I need to do to achieve that portion of my job. So that's just one example of how open-armed City Hall employees have been.

So I'm confident that whatever I need will be provided. It's a work in progress. You know, the position went vacant for quite a long time; Dr. Muhammad is gone, so I am picking up from where he left off. But I'm confident that we'll figure it out, and every resource that is available to the city will be provided to me.

What do you hope to do differently from what Dr. Muhammad was able to do, or what do you hope to follow in his footsteps and continue that he was able to do in this role as a diversity and inclusion officer?

Green: I can't say in totality what Dr. Muhammad did or did not do. Like I said, I know this job has several facets involved with it, and his qualifications are a little different than mine; he was a Ph.D. and carries a different experience as a black man from Detroit. So I have the utmost respect for him and the experiences that he brought to the job.

I thought he was a brilliant speaker. He spoke at a lot of organizational events throughout the community, and that is one thing that I would like to build while I'm here. I think that was something positive that he did and I’d like to build on that. But I also want to bring a data driven approach to some of our things that we're working on. I'm not sure how much data driven work Dr. Muhammad did in the context of this job, but I can see already that the more data we build, the stronger our presentation to the community will be.

You know, I don't have any negative things to say about the work that he did. I know what a hard job it is. I know that he was a department of one person as well, and he was actually the first person to come in and do that job for our city in that way. So hats off to him, and hopefully I can you know, pick up and fill his shoes and go a little bit further.

You mentioned that Dr. Muhammad was from Detroit. Do you think that being a Peorian is actually an advantage for you, that you have a better understanding for the community and what it needs in the way of diversity and inclusion?

Green: I think that being from the community gives me a better understanding of this community. But I can say, like I said before, a lot of these issues are not unique to Peoria. I'm sure that it will be easier for me to navigate some spaces within this community because I've grown up here. It’s not that big of a community; I know a lot of people and have lived this life with a lot of the people who we are dealing with in our community, whether that (has) been through going to school, or working wherever I've worked, or encountering people in different facets by living here.

So I'm sure that's an advantage, in some ways; he would have had to come here and navigate the entire city from scratch, and then be looked at as sort of a plant or foreigner from somewhere else. So I'm sure that was difficult for him in some ways, and maybe it was a positive and in some other ways, because when you're from the community, you carry the things that you've lived. So there's some things in my mind that maybe I will always have the perception of in my mind, and he may not have felt that way.

So what is the ultimate goal then of this role, and what would be your measure of success?

Green: I can't say there's one ultimate goal. But I will say a measure of success for me will be being able to see some of the progress that we've made. So for example, with the RJE, when we establish our dashboard and the community members can log onto the dashboard and find links to resources and see data that we've entered. You know, when we can increase diversity within police and fire (departments) and be able to upload those results of our recruitment – HR does a great job with recruitment and I know they're working hard on that.

So when we can actually put out data and information to allow our community to see: “OK, we're doing better. We're trying. We're not there yet, but people are actually in positions to make change and they're actually trying to do that,” – that will be a measure of success for me.

I don't want to be in this position just to be in this position. I want the community to be able to see the care that I have. I don't know at all and I don't think there's anyone who does, but it's most important for me that our community see that we are actually invested in change, trying to make that change. We care how they feel, and we're willing to keep pressing forward to get to where we need to be.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.