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Big Table Findings Highlight Diversity And Inclusion, Workforce Development

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The Big Table
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Zoom/Facebook Live
Panelists (clockwise from top left) J.D. Dalfonso, Joshua Gunn, Sheila Quirk-Bailey and Chris Setti discuss the findings of this year's Big Table discussions during a Zoom conference Thursday.

Emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion and educating the workforce remain among the Greater Peoria area’s key needs, according to a summary of this year’s virtual Big Table discussions presented Thursday.

During a Zoom media conference discussing the findings, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joshua Gunn said more work needs to be done to develop and recruit a workforce that is representative of the community. He said greater diversity and inclusion is required to unlock paths to improvement in the other focus areas.

“It will be a key component to every aspect that we’re talking about,” said Gunn. “Without an equitable lens to the work that we do around workforce and education or quality of life and certainly entrepreneurship and innovation, we’re not going to be as effective as we need to be.”

Illinois Central College president Sheila Quirk-Bailey said educating a qualified workforce goes hand-in-hand with economic development and eliminating racial disparities that lead to financial inequity. She said the Regional Workforce Alliance is leading that effort.

“We focus our work around the emerging workforce, which answers to the barriers and some of the views about really embedding that career education,” said Quirk-Bailey. “In middle school (and) in high school, we have a group that works on upskilling, which really speaks to the fact that only 40% of the people in our region have a degree past high school, when 60% of our jobs require some sort of credential past high school.”

J.D. Dalfonso, President and CEO of Discover Peoria (the rebranded name for the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau), said the region boasts a quality of life advantage not found in other parts of the country.  

“Our diverse region offers rural, urban, and suburban lifestyles all really within 15 minutes from each other,” Dalfoso said, “which has really been recognized by demographics across the United States and the state of Illinois, where more densely populated communities don't showcase the quality of life central Illinois really can provide.”

Chris Setti of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council said meeting the goal of a representative workforce will help expand possibilities for entrepreneurial innovation.

“We have a great quality of life that includes affordability, that we have an excellent workforce, that we are an inclusive community,” said Setti. “Entrepreneurship is not limited to people of a certain race or certain class,” said Setti. “So how do we develop systems that are supportive of entrepreneurs at all stages?”

Gunn said a lot of work remains in all the focus areas to make Peoria a better community, but that the Big Table discussions are playing a crucial role in taking the first steps toward improvement.

“We are primed and ready, and our diversity is really a strength for this region,” he said. “So the better we can harness that and leverage that I think the future is really, really bright.”

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