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Peoria City/County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity co-chairs explain next steps to addressing disparities

Mary Peterson (left) and Tim Bertschy (right) are the co-chairs of the Peoria City/County Commission on Racial Justice and Equity.
Collin Schopp
Mary Peterson (left) and Tim Bertschy (right) are the co-chairs of the Peoria City/County Commission on Racial Justice and Equity.

The Peoria City/County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity released a thirty page report outlining racial inequities present across Greater Peoria. Commission Co-Chairs Tim Bertschy and Mary Peterson say it was important for them to start with this data as a baseline, before moving on to find ways to address the issues.

“There are other communities involved in the same type of work, King County, in Seattle is perhaps the most significant,” said Bertschy. “But there are a lot of other communities too, as we talk to these communities, all of them said to us, your process needs to be data driven.”

The Commission and report are both broken into eight subcommittees: a steering committee, child and youth development, economic development and jobs, environment and climate, health and human services, housing, information and technology, justice system and transportation and mobility.

Peterson says committee members, chosen by application, come from a wide range of age, race, gender and residential area. The commission started with a total of 160 members, and still maintains over 100.

“Some of the most glaring things that came out of this report is there is a 15 year difference in terms of life expectancy for African Americans and whites,” said Peterson. “So, the age being 79 for white, and 64, for Black.”

Bertschy adds other standout statistics found by the commission. Kindergarten readiness for white students in Peoria School District 150 is 35%, compared to 17% for Black students. English proficiency in third graders is 26% for white students and 3.6% for Black students. Comparisons in math proficiency at an eighth grade level are similarly unbalanced.

“So what we're seeing in education then is growing disparities as students get older,” said Bertschy. “It's the same thing of course in house values and I think most of your listeners are very familiar with the gross disparities that exist in respect to annual income.”

The report outlines a difference of more than $30,000 between the median household income for white and Black households.

“When you show them the numbers, then they're more apt to believe it versus someone who's actually personally experienced something, sharing their story,” said Peterson. “But when you mirror the two together, it’s powerful.”

Peterson and Bertschy say they expected some pushback to the results of the report, but it’s been less than anticipated.

“There have been people that have raised this issue, but, you know, saying that you're using data incorrectly or that you're using data for this or that reason, or that it doesn't apply,” said Bertschy. “But I have to say…surprisingly, the people that I've spoken to then have addressed me about this, have all been convinced.”

The report is just phase one of a four phase plan the commission plans to enact over the next few years. The next phase is a strategic planning process, with phase three to develop implementation plans and a final phase to monitor, modify and improve the work being done.

Peterson says the immediate next step is to take the quantitative data and begin comparing it to qualitative data gathered from the community.

“To ask the question: ‘is this factual? Is this your experience?,’” said Peterson. “And what are your recommendations as to how we close the gap, remove the barriers. We're going to do that through having forums, town hall meetings and surveys.”

She says town halls and forums are expected to start in June and more information will be available soon. This will include communities across Peoria County.

Bertschy also says reaching out to other communities undergoing a similar process will be vital to the second phase. There’s a lot of work to do, but both Bertschy and Peterson agree: after creating the commission, Peoria’s city and county government have been openly supportive.

“We sent this report to those bodies before it was printed, for them to review and to make any adjustments or changes that they felt were needed,” said Peterson. “And we did not get any. They let it stand as it was written, as long as it was factual. And so that speaks volumes.”

You can read the full contents of the report here.

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