There’s marching, and then there’s institutional change, and for many Wednesday who spoke about being black in DeKalb County, the institutional change hasn’t happened yet.
“My heart is heavy,” said Pastor Joe Mitchell, who opened the forum and said he did so reluctantly. “I wasn’t very willing to do this. I don’t want to do this. I’m about tired of talking. I am at a point now where my frustration and my rage, where I’m done having conversations. Sometimes we have to tell the truth so we can move to a place of restoration, reconciliation, so that we can be better people.”
The Zoom forum, organized by DeKalb County Board Chairman Mark Pietrowski, included more than 320 people on the call, from mayors and elected officials, to black residents who said they were tired of experiencing racism in their own community, and tired of being the only ones talking about it.
“Many of you know I have been raising my voice in this community for many, many years,” Mitchell continued. “There’s not too many elected officials on this call today who I have not sat down at the table with. I’m very skeptical that this will turn into what it has always been: An uprising, we get excited, we do something, and then two months later nothing’s happened.”
Kiara Jones, the DeKalb County Board’s newest member, cautioned advocates to speak out publicly.
“If you care with and for us, do it publicly,” Jones said. “If black lives matter to you, say it and demonstrate it publicly. So many years, we have been fighting for our freedom, and now is the time for each and every one of you to fight with us. I am ready, I am strong, I am brave. Those of you with privilege, use it.”
Vivian Meade, who organized Saturday's first Black Lives Matter protest in downtown DeKalb, said she's starting a communitywide Black Lives Matter group that will focus on action, anti-police brutality, anti-racism and getting people involved in political office for representation.
“The leadership of the Black Lives Matter [group] will consist only of people of color,” Meade said. “I want this to stay a safe space.”
During the two-hour forum, others shared their experiences working in the county’s educational institutions such as Northern Illinois University, Kishwaukee College and local school districts, and did not express optimism in the diversity of the systems, nor in its ability to change.
Pernevlon Ellis started teaching sociology at Kishwaukee College in 2011, and said he’s “surprised” he stuck around as long as he has.
“I got married in this town, joined a church here, my youngest kid graduated from DeKalb High School,” said Ellis, who served on the foundation board for the Ben Gordon Center, and vice president for Hope Haven homeless shelter.
“I’m kind of disappointed in how people of color, and a lot of people I’ve served are adolescents, many of whom all feel that the structure and culture of our community is racist,” Ellis said. “We see evidence of that in how we provide educational services in our community.”
Jessica Lyons, a former DeKalb school board member, joined the forum with her son, and said school districts need to do a better job of addressing the achievement gap between black students and others, and called on nonblack community members to take responsibility for their own biases.
“What I don’t want to see is asking black people in the community to educate others,” she said. “Educate yourself.”