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SOLUTIONS: How to bridge the racial gap in Peoria

PEORIA, Ill. (WEEK) — When it comes to everyone having an equal slice of the pie…Peoria’s racial breakdown isn’t so sweet.

“Policy normally drives our inability to have opportunities,” said Larry Ivory, President and CEO of the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce.

Local leaders say there’s multiple forces at work when it comes to the severely unbalanced ‘access’ scale for black and white residents.

“There are some people who intentionally leave people out. They’re comfortable with the group that they’ve been with,” said Ivory.

While some believe it can be intentional, they also credit ’embedded racism,’ which they say almost goes undetected simply because some systems are designed to leave people behind.

“Capitalism only can thrive if there is an amount of poverty and those at the bottom of the food chain are usually people of color,” said Pastor Marvin Hightower, President of the Peoria NAACP.

And while the solution may not be pretty, Hightower said “”it’s gonna take being comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

They say it starts with diversity. But not just on the surface

“Diversity is not a color or a look. It’s a mindset. They hired a diversity officer but what does that really mean? Is it really about moving us a step up? Is it really opening access to opportunities?” asked Hightower.

“You just can’t have a meeting and say let’s get together and let black people vent and talk about the issue,” said Ivory.

Instead, some say the complexity of the racial divide is what needs to go under the microscope and that’s done through good old-fashioned interaction.

“If I don’t live around you. If I don’t go to church with you. I don’t play with you. Only thing I know about you is what I see on TV,” said Dr. Marwin Spiller, a sociologist at Illinois Central College.

But beyond conversations is the grunt work… what advocates call rolling up your sleeves and taking action.

“Don’t come to me telling me how bad racism is if you’re Caucasian. Go to your group; to your people, where you have influence and tell them how bad it is. We already know,” said Hightower.

And asking the right questions.

“How do we incentivize black businesses to come to Peoria and set up shop?” asked Ivory.

Ivory suggests hosting financial literacy classes at barbershops and black churches, challenging other city leaders to meet people where there are.

“We’ve created a pattern of being intentionally left out. created a habit of being left out and created a culture of being left out. the only way to change that it to be intentionally included. Create a habit of being included and create a culture of inclusion,” said Ivory.

Hightower says that can’t happen until city leaders acknowledge an entire zip code of struggling residents. During local elections he says he noticed something alarming.

“People that are running, their signs are not on the south end. That lets you know the priority,” said Hightower.

Meanwhile, Spiller said big businesses need to be held accountable for how they impact black communities or how they don’t.

“You need industries to pay their fair share,” sad Spiller.

He suggests offering black businesses the same tax breaks as their white counterparts – and the list goes on.

But mainly, Hightower said black people should recognize their power of their own advocacy.

“Just to come to the horseshoe on Tuesday night is not enough. Get involved in commissions too and get to know other people that you don’t know,” said Hightower.

Lauren Melendez

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