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Andre Allen sets a course as Peoria County's new chief officer of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Andre Allen is the first ever Chief Officer of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Peoria County.
Collin Schopp
Andre Allen is the first chief officer of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Peoria County.

Andre Allen took office in the newly created position of Peoria County chief officer of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion last October. Since then, he’s been hard at work hiring staff, collaborating with other county offices, surveying employees and drafting a strategic plan.

I spoke with Allen to get an update on the job of creating a strategy for a new position.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Last time we spoke it was near the beginning of your time as the chief DEI officer. You said you were developing a strategic plan in your first 90 days; how'd that development go? And what have you been working on so far?

Allen: We are working on our DEI plan right now, I'm set to present a draft of that to the executive committee of the county board this month. So this is right on time, I'm excited about the plan. It has some great components. I don’t want to let the cat out the bag too soon because I have to run it past the county board and get their approval, ultimately, for implementation. But to kind of give you some themes, you know, we'll be looking at minority procurement for both minority and women-owned businesses, you know, recruitment and retention of diverse employees, professional training and opportunities, both internally and externally. And then looking at how we engage with our external stakeholders within the county of Peoria. So we've got some fine line items of how we plan on accomplishing that. So, I'm excited once that's dropped in, hopefully approved by them, and they will be able to move forward with implementation.

And what does your office look like now? Have you hired any additional staff in this undertaking?

Allen: Yes, yes, I have. I'm very fortunate, and I really appreciate our county board and our administrator, Scott Sorrel, really, you know, providing that support, you know, because one person can't do this important work. So, I've hired a Human Resource Diversity, Equity and Inclusion generalist. Her name is Brittany Graves, she comes to us from the Secretary of State's office, she was a hearing officer. So she was there for 10 years. So, she brings a lot of great experience. She knows how to work with diverse individuals, because, you know, when you work at the Secretary of State's office, specifically the DMV, you get all walks of life coming in there. And so she brings a great wealth of experience. She's from Peoria and comes from a great family. So, I'm very excited to have her part of the team. And she's helping with the plan. So one of her huge focuses is the recruitment and retention of diverse employees. And so she's looking at, you know, where do we go out to engage, you know, with those populations to let them know about employment opportunities within the county of Peoria. She's working on versing herself with basic understanding of what those positions do. So she can answer some basic level questions when she goes to career fairs and community engagement opportunities, things of that nature. She's also looking into, you know, different opportunities to, you know, grow our workforce, and things of that nature. And she also will be providing support to the Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity.. So we're excited to have her in that space. But she's a sponge, she likes to stay busy. And I'm excited for that, too. Because it's very tough to be both the administrator and the facilitator. So, now I can kind of fall back into more of the administrative role, which is great. And I'm glad to have really part of my staff.

When we talked last, you talked about how a lot of municipalities created positions in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests and the inequities that we saw during COVID, that made all these things very stark and front of mind for us. You said that, you know, people are committed to trying to have these difficult conversations now, and that those events sort of sparked that. Do you still feel that commitment from people when you're talking to them?

Allen: I do, I do. There are more people who are committed to create an inclusive space within the county of Peoria, than are not. And I'm in a lot of different spaces and places, and I'm fortunate to be able to witness that. So that gives me hope and optimism for the work that we do. Because people are saying, 'You know what? My most precious asset is my child. And when my child goes to school, I want them to feel like they belong, whether they have a certain disability, whether they have a certain learning style, whether they have a certain physical limitation, whether they're a certain race, whether a certain gender identification, I want my child to feel like they belong.' And so I'm very optimistic about the work just based off the conversations that I have. And then also just seeing some of the resources that have been allocated within this space.

And do you have an example of resources that you're seeing kind of put into this that reassures you there is a dedication to facing these issues?

Allen: Well, I think it's this red folder right in front of me, which is the Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity annual report, and you talk about 160 people giving up their time, talent, and expertise to this work, you had, you know, eight sub committees, nine including steering, and really putting a lot of effort and resources into it. The city and the county both have allocated funds for ARPA dollars to create internship opportunities. And actually, both those interns are Bradley University students, which is great as well, too. So that's a good example of the resources allocated to this work.

Speaking of that report, the findings inside of it paint a pretty bleak picture particularly for Black Peorians. What did you think of the findings in the report? 

Allen: Well, first off, I have to definitely give a shout-out to our co-chairs of the commission, Miss Mary (Peterson) and Tim (Bertschy). And again, the 160 members who gave up so much time, effort and expertise into this report. And then also to shout out our County Administrator Scott Sorrell, and our city manager, Pat Urich, for allocating staff resources to really get this report off the ground. When I went through the report, it was very sobering. You know, but I think it was necessary, you know, because, not saying that the stories or the narratives aren't important, but a lot of times we want to make data-informed decisions. And so, we have the data now, we have that baseline and so now as a county, as a city, we can decide, okay, what areas are we able to get some quick wins, what areas are more long term? I mean, because when you talk about some of the issues that are listed within the report, you talk about inequities in education and income and transportation and health and all these different things. These are multi-generational matters to me. So it's gonna take time. And we know that it took decades upon decades to get us here. So we can't expect, you know, to really see a lot of impact within a year or three years. So how do we try to highlight some some small wins, and then also maintaining a long term vision, and incorporating equity in the things that we do on a day to day in order to keep working towards that goal of making Peoria a great place where people can live, work and play, regardless of what you look like, regardless of what zip code you're from. You feel proud and you feel that you belong here in the city of Peoria and the county.

Organizations like Peoria Proud and county employees have raised some concerns about the exclusion of gender- affirming care from the county's self-funded health care plan. Would any change to this plan involve your office? And what's your message to employees who feel there's not health care equity present there?

Allen: So I have been contacted by a representative from Peoria Proud and they invited me to their event this evening (Monday, Apr. 3, 2023), and I will be attending. We are looking into this matter, I appreciate them bringing it to our attention. And right now we're just taking the proper channels to address their concerns within this space to see what opportunities are available. Our goal is, at the County of Peoria, we want everyone to feel that they're included, and so appreciate their advocacy and look forward to working with them.

What should people be looking out for from your office?

Allen: You know, right now, I mean, once we launch our plan, we're going to be looking to get into some action. So, we're excited. I mean, we've got a big project coming up with the city-county health department. So part of my office is looking into our procurement processes. So I really want to ensure that we're doing our due diligence to make sure that we have the contractors and subcontractors, the different vendors that are minority-owned, women-owned businesses that can participate in that huge generational project. I mean, that's a multi-million dollar project, and right in the heart of the city. So that's going to be a game changer. I'm excited to see what we do within the recruitment space. We know right now, all organizations are having the challenge of recruiting talent, if you will, talent attraction has been a huge theme. And so I'm excited to see what we can do in that space. You know, ultimately, our long term goal is that the county of Peoria as a government reflects the county of Peoria's demographics. But we know that won't happen overnight for a variety of reasons. But we know that we can work towards that. And we're going to make every effort to continue to do it. I've recently been recruited to do a lot of professional development training, from a lot of external partners, which has been exciting. So I go to Illini Bluffs on Friday. This month, I go to Farmington High School. I go to Quest High School at the end of the month as well, too. So it's just an example that organizations really feel that this work is important. And when I got on board, one of the things that I wanted us to do is to be a sought-after resource, you know, because as a governmental employee, our positions are funded by your tax dollars. And so I want it to be a resource to the taxpayers of Peoria, to different organizations and things of that nature. So I'm glad that my office is being sought after to help, you know, encourage them and help lead them on this journey, wherever they are. I think that's very important, when you talk about the work of DEI, is recognizing that everyone is on a different starting block, if you will, and we've got to be patient with people. And we've got to create understanding, and we just also need to have that willingness to understand.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.