Leaders from Northern Illinois University and the City of DeKalb gathered April 13 to express their desire to work together on improving race relations in DeKalb through the soon-to-be-launched Belonging Council.
The event at NIU’s Center for Black Studies was motivated by recent instances that made national headlines in Minnesota and Virginia, where people of color were harassed, harmed and, in some cases, killed by police with little or no provocation.
“The events of the last 48 hours have shocked us all,” said DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas. “But those things also inspire of us to think about ways that we can work together, in solidarity, as part of our Belonging efforts, to find our way toward more accountability and more transparency.”
Nicklas co-leads those efforts along with NIU Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Vernese Edghill-Walden, who also serves as the university’s chief diversity officer and as the interim chief human resource officer. She shared Nicklas’ dismay at the recent incidents.
“Once again, we find ourselves having a conversation that centers around fear, hatred and violence,” she said, recalling the strife of last summer. “While I see this from the perspective of an African American woman, I know that members of the Asian community, the LGBTQ community, trans people of color, the Latino community, the indigenous people of this country, undocumented immigrants and immigrants in general are all experiencing pain and fear and violence, and all of us deserve to be heard and valued. We need to do something about this for our community and for our future.”
Edghill-Walden and Nicklas are both hopeful that the Belonging initiative will help address those issues in DeKalb.
“The Belonging Council will strive to find ways of doing things differently that will allow us to bridge gaps and engage with one another so that we can get beyond words and start taking action in a collaborative way,” Nicklas said.
Achieving that goal will require input and effort from all sectors of the community.
“DeKalb should be a place where everyone, regardless of where they are from, regardless of their gender identity or their background, can feel at home. We have examples of how we accomplish this goal, but it is going to take us all working together to get this done,” Edghill-Walden said. “Belonging isn’t just a concept. It is something we truly want to achieve. But it is going to take more than talk; it is going to take action.”
Mayor-elect Cohen Barnes, making his first public appearance in that role, pledged that his administration will back those efforts.
“Everyone that lives in DeKalb should feel safe here and feel that they belong,” Barnes said. “I think we have a real opportunity to come together as we never have before, and to start making progress on a lot of issues that trouble our community and our nation. I am absolutely committed to moving this conversation forward.”
NIU President Dr. Lisa C. Freeman also expressed her support for the work of the Belonging Council.
“All across the nation, there is hurt and fear,” Dr Freeman said, “and we all need and want the same: – the opportunity to belong, to feel welcome, safe and part of something good. Our community, collaborating together with shared values, can be the catalyst for great change.”
“As both president of NIU and a resident of DeKalb, I am incredibly proud of the way our city, university and communities are coming together to foster belonging, equity and inclusion,” she added. “I encourage all to be involved in moving us forward.”
The Belonging effort will take on a more formal structure the Belonging Council, made up of stakeholders from across the community, is launched later this spring. It will include religious leaders, representatives from not-for profit agencies and concerned citizens.
For the last several months, NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies has been working with a steering committee to develop a mission statement, a list of guiding values and a set of short- and long-term goals to help the organization move forward quickly. The committee also is working on a way for interested members of the community to get involved.