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Peoria Community Members Emphasize Need For Minority Representation In Redistricting

Tri-County Urban League President Laraine Bryson testifies before the House Redistricting Committee Friday. Bryson said many of the city's struggles are the result of inaction and neglect.

Peoria residents and organizations are making their voices heard as the Illinois House Redistricting Committee begins to determine how to redraw the state's legislative maps. 

Residents providing testimony at a Friday virtual House hearing on Peoria focused on disparities within the community. They said the redistricting process can help deal with those problems.

Pastor Marvin Hightower is the president of the Peoria NAACP. He said the South Side, where he grew up, has changed significantly over time. He noted the city was once ranked as the worst place to live for Black Americans.

"There has been little to no investment in the South Side for over 30 years, which has caused blight and vacant lots which generate no tax revenue," said Hightower.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 27% of Peoria residents identified themselves as Black or African American as of 2019.

Hightower said the redistricting process should give individuals what they need to be successful.

"Representation matters, but in order to get proper representation, there must be a good process in place to garner it," said Hightower. "The process must not only be fair, but it must also be equitable."

Sherry Cannon, representing Collaborative Peoria, pointed out how Peoria has the sixth-highest level of residential segregation between Black and white people in the country, according to Governing. She said the community's disparities have probably only worsened amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've got a lot of problems in Peoria," said Cannon. "We've got a lot of work to do, and there's reasons for all of these disparities."

Tri-County Urban League President Laraine Bryson said many of the city's struggles are the result of inaction and neglect.

"I believe that the next 10 years, the needs focus specifically around economic opportunities and jobs, education and criminal justice issues," said Bryson. "That census is very important in terms of bringing resources back to our community."

She said Peorians need representatives in government who understand their plight.

"Legislative representation matters, minority representation matters, judicial representation matters," said Bryson. "All citizens must have a voice, someone to advocate for them."

Bryson said the residents who need the most help should not be overlooked.

Osama Alrefai, a leader in the area's Muslim community, said the community has struggled, particularly after the 2016 election. He said community members resisted filling out the census for fear of retribution. 

"Our youth are afraid to be engaged in any political process," said Alrefai. "They are afraid to even associate themselves as Muslims."

He said the community has limited access to public officials and representation in office.

"The fear that is happening, and the distress that is happening ... is still a roadblock for us to be able to serve our beloved Peoria community," said Alrefai.

Community members also focused on the way the map drawing process is carried out. 

Burton Raabe said he has been passing out petitions for an independently drawn map for decades. He said many people he talked to felt like they have not been listened to. 

"I think it's very important to restore confidence in how we choose and draw the districts and be committed to fairness," said Raabe. 

Al Hooks, also from the Peoria NAACP, said the community needs to have a say in redistricting.

"We really need to have a process that is allowed to get the input from residents such that we see improvement in our community," said Hooks. 

The House and Senate Redistricting Committees continue their work throughout the next three months. Democrats control the process. Despite the lack of available 2020 Census data, new maps are expected by the state's constitutional deadline of June 30.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WCBU will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WCBU can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.