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Next steps underway for enhancing ‘belonging’ in DeKalb

January 25, 2021

Efforts by Northern Illinois University and local partners to increase racial healing recently got a boost from the State of Illinois in the form of a grant to foster efforts to create a Belonging leadership council and fund public art and engagement activities in DeKalb.

The $30,000 Healing Illinois grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services will fund local work being done by Northern Illinois University, the City of DeKalb, Family Service Agency, the Ellwood Museum and the DeKalb County History Center to advance racial healing. The DeKalb County Community Foundation contributed an additional $5,000 to support the initiative.

DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas and NIU Chief Diversity Officer and Interim Chief Human Relations Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden have been spearheading discussions about issues related to belonging since January of 2020.

The concept of belonging was discussed in a recent community conversation with Dr. john powell, an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties, structural racism, housing, poverty, and democracy. NIU, the City of DeKalb and over 40 members of the community helped to plan the conversation, which included more than 500 community members.

“Dr. powell’s conversation with our community helped to create awareness and articulate the importance of belonging as well as the realities of othering in DeKalb. All of us involved in the conversation saw a hopeful path toward creating a culture of belonging in DeKalb. The Healing Illinois grant will allow us to drive that work forward,” said Edghill-Walden.

As part of the collaborative partnership, NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) is working with local leaders to aggregate local data for use in creating the framework and plan for a DeKalb Area Belonging Council. Plans are for a steering council to begin creating the council in late January, with a report due by the end of March. Regular updates and opportunities to engage with the work will be available at

The grant is also funding two arts initiatives that highlight local diversity and racial reconciliation. The Ellwood Museum and the DeKalb County History Center are launching an “Arts in Action” exhibit that will begin to interpret history and race in DeKalb County.

Jessica Labatte, who teaches in NIU’s School of Art and Design, and two of her photography students, Amy Fleming and Jacob Rivera, will curate a “Faces of Belonging” exhibit. Both exhibits will be accessible virtually as of March 31.