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Racial Justice Commission town hall packs Peoria Neighborhood House

RHE Commission co-chairs Tim Bertschy and Mary Peterson speak before a packed Friendship House auditorium crowd.
Tim Alexander
RHE Commission co-chairs Tim Bertschy and Mary Peterson speak before a packed Friendship House auditorium crowd.

More than 50 members of the public came to Peoria’s Neighborhood House Tuesday to share stories and concerns regarding social justice and equity in the city and county.

Chaired by the Peoria City-County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity (RJE), the meeting focused on the committee’s eight areas of interest: child and youth development, economic development and jobs, environment and climate, health and human services, quality housing, information technology, justice, and transportation and mobility.

RJE Commission Steering Committee co-chairs Mary Peterson and Tim Bertschy began the meeting with a summary of the commission’s findings that were first published in its first annual report published earlier this year. The report revealed “systematic” disparities in social and economic equity between the county’s predominant white population and people of color.

“As a steering committee we looked at certain categories, and one of the things we found was that there is a 15-year difference in the life expectancy of African Americans compared to white Americans. These numbers are actually from here in the city of Peoria,” said Peterson.

“That number, which represents a life span difference of around 20%, is shocking, horrible and unacceptable,” added Bertschy.

Among the eight areas of the commission’s focus, Bertschy focused on health care and the racial disparity in traffic stops and crime convictions between Peoria’s white and Black communities. “We could literally spend the next hour and a half focusing solely on this issue. In our report we’ve identified juvenile detention statistics which show that Black youths constitute 79% of (incarcerations) compared to 16% white and others at 5%,” Bertschy said.

“Traffic stops here are 61% for Blacks, though Peoria County is 73% white and 20% Black. There is a foundational problem here that exists, a systemic problem that exists here,” he added.

After discussing the RJE Commission’s 2022 Report, Bertschy and Peterson sought feedback from those in attendance in order to help form future strategic plans and partnerships to advance racial justice and equity within the city and county.

“We know that it’s systemic; it’s actually built into the system,” said Peterson, addressing the packed Friendship House auditorium. “We need to begin talking about how we can change that system. We want to know whether your stories support our findings as we move forward.”

Topics raised by the public included the quality of education in the area, particularly within District 150. Conflict and crisis resolution tools for teachers, class sizes, increasing student grade point average proficiency and attacking the root causes of educational disparities were among topics of concern for some in attendance.

One person voiced concern about transportation issues faced by the Black community that she said are worsened by a less-than-flexible public transportation system, particularly in the 61602, 61603 and 61605 zip codes, where the most “zero-vehicle” households are located.

Barriers to employment in Peoria’s poorer communities include transportation, but lack of child care options are another, according to another woman who attended. One man said a lack of mentorship assistance in rejoining the labor force following a felony conviction and prison sentence resulted in a huge barrier to him finding employment.

“There is a lot of disparity in getting the jobs, but a lot of people need help in learning how to get employment. It can be a huge barrier in obtaining jobs,” said the man, who like many in attendance, chose not to publicly identify himself.

One local Black employer lamented the high level of illiteracy in Peoria’s communities and public schools. “We need to get real about allocating funds that allow kids to read to a level to understand economics and math,” said the man.

Housing disparities, including the percentage of Black home ownership, also was discussed — 66.8% of Black families in Peoria County rent their homes, compared with the national rate of 58%. In addition, 50% of Peoria’s Black population spend over 30% of their total monthly gross income on rent, while one-third live on just half of their income. Difficulties in accessing first-time home ownership loans and incentives was a leading complaint among the attendees.

Some who attended the town hall offered solutions to problems such as Black educational and employment disadvantages, including Venus Black and Alicia Lenard, who represent YouthBuild Peoria and YouthBuild McLean County, respectively. Lenard, who has helped lead the McLean County YouthBuild organization for three years, is assisting Black in launching the national career readiness and placement program in Peoria on Dec. 18.

“This program is going to offer GED training, construction and occupational skills training and leadership development. It will focus on case management and reducing a lot of those barriers that children have, such as transportation, not finishing high school, crime, being a single parent and [more],” said Black.

In addition to co-chairs Bertschy and Peterson, the meeting was attended by commissioners of the various committees associated with the Peoria City-County RJE Commission, as well as area educators, religious leaders and Peoria Housing Authority representatives. The commission co-chairs assured all attendees that their statements and concerns would be held in confidence, though the testimony, both oral and written, from the public was archived for the committee’s reference and use.

“Our next phase is working on strategy,” Peterson said. “As we [process] that information and put it together, we’ll share it. We want you to know that you are being heard.”

The entire Joint Commission on RJE 2022 Annual Report can be accessed online. Limited hard copies also are available at Peoria City Hall.

RELATED WCBU REPORT:Peoria's ongoing racial inequities highlighted in joint commission's inaugural report | WCBU Peoria

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.