Commission discusses how to end African American disparities

By Sarah Schneider

  Community members call for action in ‘divided city’

A sheet of paper passed around the Carbondale Civic Center was the first step towards the goal of the Illinois Commission to End Disparities Facing the African American Community.

The commission, formed in 2011, held a public hearing Thursday night to discuss healthcare, education and employment disparities facing the city. While the commission will submit a report to the General Assembly by Dec. 31, the chairman of the commission, Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, said real change will happen when those in the community organize and raise a voice against injustice.

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“The people of Carbondale need to get organized and mobilize themselves in order to be heard,” Hunter said. “The citizens need to be registered to vote as well, to really make a difference.”

Hunter said the commission has held several public hearings in cities with large African American populations, and she hears the same themes at each one; cities are still divided by race.

Carbondale resident Ella Lacey said not only is the city divided, but there are disparities in the city’s largest institution. Lacey has been part of the community for 53 years, has three degrees from SIU and is a retired faculty member from the school of medicine.

“SIU is doing quite a bit of celebrating the fact that 37 percent of the population is African American students in this year’s freshman class. That’s pretty good. It says things are changing,” she said.

But she went on to say that number drops consistently in the sophomore, junior and senior classes, and the percentage of graduate students is 7 percent. She also pointed out only 3 percent of faculty members are African American.

“Those numbers are just striking to me and represent disparity, disparity, disparity,” she said. “The only category (in the SIU factbook) above 10 percent is service maintenance work.”

She asked the commission to ask for data at various levels within the university.

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“We want to know within colleges, within departments and units, is that the same representation happening?” she said.

However, Lacey said she does not think the numbers at SIU are unique from other universities and asked that the issue be addressed at all public universities.

Other disheartened members of the community brought up issues, such as union workers and health care coverage, but Carbondale citizen Margaret Nesbitt said she still has hope that change can be made in Carbondale.

“I am interested in the committee coming to Carbondale, because there is so much that needs to be done,” she said to the panel. “I have been involved in trying to make a change in the city I live in with hope that something will come out of it.”

Nesbitt spoke of one program that helps African American youth in the city, the I Can Read program at the Eurma C. Hayes Center.

“We decided in 1999 to start a reading program because a judge in the county jailhouse said the kids couldn’t read what they were being charged with,” she said.

While several community members addressed the need for more youth programs in the city. Kiah Anderson, a senior from Harvey studying Social Work, said more programs are needed to support women in education.

“We need programs that are geared toward the progression of female students to define black womanhood,” she said.

Anderson stressed the need for race and gender pride to rebuild the minds of girls. She spoke of the newly founded Sisters Interacting Successfully group at SIU, which helps foster discovery and identify their personal strengths and weaknesses.

Anderson said there needs to be similar programs in the community in order to promote higher education for girls.

“Have you asked (Illinois State Sen. Gary Forby and Illinois State Rep. Mike Bost) for money?” Hunter said. “Because you should.”

Hunter stressed that the commission will form a report in order to promote change, however if citizens are concerned, they should act.

Members of the community will meet at the Church of the Good Shepherd Oct. 9 to continue the discussion of raised issues.

Written testimonies concerning issues facing the African American community can be sent to [email protected] For more information on the commission call 618-303-3860 or see aafc.org.

Sarah Schneider can be reached at 

[email protected] 

or 536-3311 ext. 255.

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