Black Lives Matter: Realizing the Opportunity

Today’s historic crossroads presents an opportunity to rebrand Peoria as a model for the state and the nation.

by Mayor Jim Ardis, City of Peoria

The “history” focus of this month’s Peoria Magazine could not be more appropriate. Like Illinois and the nation as a whole, our community is at a historic crossroads. One road attempts to “muddle through,” while the other offers an opportunity for positive, collaborative and sustainable change. 

We are experiencing great turbulence amidst the interwoven dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, a divisive presidential race, ongoing political and religious tensions, and protests for racial justice. I am confident in the ultimate taming of the pandemic and the resulting economic recovery. The presidential race will finally conclude on November 3. The political and religious tensions, unfortunately, are likely to continue. But Black Lives Matter cannot wait or continually be talked, written and tweeted about without making some fundamental changes. 

As we address the substance of this movement, my goal is to recognize this moment as a truly historic opportunity to strengthen our essential character as a city of hope, economic growth and social partnership, and build better lives for everyone. 

Building Community Bridges
One important element—perhaps a “bridge” to racial respect, dignity, fairness and opportunity—is the broad spectrum of beauty, energy and personal expression that can be found in the arts. In this regard, I call to your attention the excellent article by community leaders Doug and Eileen Leunig in Peoria Magazine’s June issue entitled “What If… An Envisioning.” Their article makes many excellent points, including the fundamental conviction that “Peoria can rebrand itself as a center of arts, innovation and healing.” The Leunigs, however, are taking this mission to the next level. 

In subsequent initiatives, they have described and proposed how enhancing Black artists’ expressions and work in Peoria can contribute directly to embracing the reality that Black Lives Matter throughout our area. Many well-intentioned people “talk the talk” on overcoming racial disparity, but I commend Doug and Eileen for “walking the talk” and presenting real ideas for community-wide achievement. 

Peoria is blessed with organizations dedicated to improving quality of life for all, especially those of us with social, economic or health-related barriers. The Tri-County Peoria Urban League, for example, was created by community leaders in 1965—at a time of serious unrest over racial disparities in employment, education and the treatment of people of color. They and many other organizations have done tremendous work, but would be the first to agree that huge gaps remain. Engaging Black Lives Matter at this time in our history is a huge opportunity to address those gaps.

Walking The Talk
You might be saying, “Okay, Mr. Mayor, these are fine words you have written, but what actually do you propose in ‘walking the talk’?” That is a fair question. I’ve been thinking a lot and discussing with others the next steps to translate words into positive actions. 

When COVID-19 restrictions allow for us to meet in larger groups, I will help provide leadership to community discussions; develop practical, affordable and sustainable actions; and ultimately be held accountable at the ballot box. Many small community discussions are already going on—I’m participating in some of them and I hope you are, too. When we are allowed in bigger groups, I believe our community will be primed and ready for meaningful action. 

All of us must accept accountability to do our part in addressing the necessary changes. Among Peoria’s greatest strengths are the many creative, well-informed and compassionate people to draw upon for help and new ideas. Think Nick Yates and the Build Peoria initiative, for instance, or City Council member Denise Moore and her husband Garry, Dr. Chris Reynolds at Bradley University, Chris Setti and colleagues at the Economic Development Council, the Leunigs, Marcellus Sommerville at Peoria Friendship House, Andre Allen of Methodist College, and so many other inspiring community leaders.

Rebranding Peoria
Black Lives Matter is a huge opportunity to rebrand Peoria as a model for the state and the nation. In the process, we can draw upon talented individuals of diverse backgrounds to realize the vision of freedom and justice for all that we celebrated on the Fourth of July. Let’s take personal ownership of this opportunity to demonstrate God’s given grace through our compassion, kindness, humility and patience in the treatment of our brothers and sisters. PM