December 01, 2022
Local News

International civil rights expert talks about building culture of belonging for NIU, DeKalb area

DeKALB – More than 500 people tuned in virtually for what community members called the beginning of a larger conversation about building a culture of belonging in the DeKalb area.

The event was sparked by a summer of marches, protests and demonstrations throughout DeKalb County spurred by the death of George Floyd that set off a renewed national, and local, reckoning with race, policing and community relationship building. Progress, and how to get there cooperatively and compassionately, was a topic of the evening's forum.

Dr. john a. powell – an internationally recognized expert in civil rights, civil liberties, structural racism, housing, poverty and democracy – talked about concepts including belonging and othering during the Thursday night virtual event held by Northern Illinois University and City of DeKalb officials and community members. Organizers said powell prefers to have his name not capitalized.

Michelle Nunez-Salas, a senior nonprofit and non-government organization major at NIU and one of the panelists for the event, said afterward she liked Dr. powell's message about the importance of bridging in order to create a better culture of belonging.

“I think he did a great job of touching on the importance of educating others, despite it being hard work,” Nunez-Salas, a Chicago native, said.

Nunez-Salas said she also appreciated how Dr. powell said the effort could be fun, too.

“It makes me very hopeful for the future and what that means for students, faculty, and other community members,” Nunez-Salas said.

As he fielded questions from commnity members on how to build inclusive environments, Dr. powell talked about the importance of building bridges to unite various pockets of the community.

When asked how the DeKalb area can reconcile history as a supposed sundown town - a phrase commonly used to refer to all-white neighborhoods that historically had discriminatory local laws and resorted to violence or intimidation to disenfranchise minority residents-- Dr. powell said history is always within people, structures and attitudes. Though maybe nothing changes if that history is faced, he said, but if it isn't, nothing changes.

“So we have to face it," Dr. powell said. "And if people say that was then, we’ve moved beyond then, have you? When did you beyond them? Was it last week? Was it ten years ago?”

He said when communities take stock of their issues, they often blame those issues on certain groups of people, as opposed to scrutinizing more systemic issues that may have contributed to the issue. That way of thinking lets people off the responsibility hook, he said, and doesn't allow them to contribute to creating a culture that makes everyone feel like they belong.

Dr. powell used the analogy of a party to better explain how people generally practice inclusion. He said if he threw a one, it would be his party – he would be the one inviting people, choosing music, food, friends. Attendees wouldn't bring their own items, and wouldn't, as a result, contribute anything of their own, and would be expected to adjust to the setting laid down by the host.

He said people should become part of the party as co-creators.

"So now it's our party," Dr. powell said. "We pick the music. We pick the food. We pick the furniture. We pick the guest list. And that's an awesome thing, but that’s a lot of responsibility. It means that we have to step up in a different way.”

Dr. powell talked about living in the San Francisco Bay area and its history of housing. He said if anyone looks at past racially exclusionary covenants, or restrictive covenants in deeds that kept Black people from living in the area, those are still the areas in the Bay Area that are the whitest, even though those covenants haven’t been enforced for 50 years.

“But the history of that still lives today," Dr. powell said. "I’m an educator, so I believe that knowledge is important and it’s good, so let’s talk about our history. Let’s talk about our present and let’s talk about our future.”

Panelists asking Dr. powell questions for the virtual event included NIU students and community members such as DeKalb Acting Police Chief Bob Redel and local landlord Mike Pittsley.

Organizers said more information from the event will be posted on the City of DeKalb's website, cityofdekalb.com, and NIU's website, go.niu.edu/Belonging, in the future.

Nunez-Salas said NIU serves as her sanctuary as much as she may feel a little unsafe in the area at times. She said recent racist vandalism at the university's Center for Black Studies still points to some hate and ignorance in the community still – "which is definitely concerning," she said – but she thought the community's reaction to the event, including painting "Black Lives Matter" on Castle Drive, was a lot more powerful than the initial action involving the racial slur.

“It has made me feel empowered to use my voice," Nunez-Salas said. "And to keep the dialogue going and keep engaging in these powerful conversations."

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon covers local government and breaking news for DeKalb County in Illinois. She has covered local government news for Shaw Media since 2018 and has had bylines in Daily Chronicle, Kendall County Record newspapers, Northwest Herald and in public radio over the years.