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Living Black in Bloomington-Normal roundtable: What's changed since 2020, and what hasn't

From left, Chris Belt, Christie Vellella, moderator Sarah Nardi, Candice Byrd, and Djimon Lewis.
Jon Norton
From left, Chris Belt, Christie Vellella, moderator Sarah Nardi, Candice Byrd, and Djimon Lewis.

In the summer of 2020, WGLT embarked on the 23-episode Living Black in Bloomington-Normal series, featuring interviews with 23 different community members about their experiences.

Now, WGLT is following up on the that award-winning series with a roundtable discussion about what's changed since 2020 — and what hasn't. Joining the discussion were past participants Chris Belt, Candice Byrd, and Christie Vellella, as well as new participant Djimon Lewis. The discussion was moderated by WGLT's Sarah Nardi.

You can listen to the hourlong roundtable discussion using the black PLAY button above.

Christie Vellella is a retired teacher and social worker. She now works with Integrity Counseling. Vellella grew up on the southside of Chicago and moved to Bloomington-Normal in the 70’s.

I had the benefit of a fully self-contained black environment. And that is not the case with people who live in Bloomington Normal. I could stay in my south side of Chicago, and be educated, and get my medical care, get my teeth fixed. Get all my needs are met by a welcoming community. And, you know, we don't have that in Bloomington-Normal. So, it's like, as soon as you step out your front door, it seems that you would feel like here there's a target on your back because you don't have that community of people who are like you.

Dijmon Lewis is a junior at Illinois State University majoring in Organizational and Leadership Communication. He is originally from Bolingbrook.

We keep seeing the same thing happen again and again. It's the intersection of issues. We see police brutality happening again and again. We see our kids go missing, we see black women go missing. And nobody says a peep about it. We see just so much callous disrespect to black life. And I just think people are tired. And I think that fatigue is a part of why people really did not show up for Jelani (Day). But it's one of those things where what are you going to do when it happens to you, or when it happens close to you? And I think honestly, Jelani’s case has pushed me to the point where I know if something happens to me, the police are not going to solve it. You might as well not even call the police.

Candice Byrd is case manager with YWCA McLean County. She is a Bloomington-Normal native and mother to three.

I definitely appreciate the fact that history has been brought into this entire piece. Because we do have a bigger fight. Because naturally, humanistically, you would think at the end of slavery, all of the things that we have been asking for would have just been granted. You know, it would just be. As soon as you said we weren't (slaves) anymore. As soon as you said we are human, and we can have land, that we would just automatically have equality. But sitting down and explaining what equality actually looks like has been the problem.

Chris Belt grew up in Bloomington-Normal and is a father to two young kids. He is an English teacher at Normal Community High School.

The race conversation gets shut down very fast once feelings from all sides flare up too much. So, I've just developed an approach to (teaching) where I try to honor everyone's humanity. I don't point fingers. The way I describe it (for students), I bring in the transcendentalist idea of Ralph Waldo Emerson's transparent eyeball moment. You're just consciousness. So, I say, you're out of your body, you're just consciousness. We're just like, looking at history. You're not black and white. And we're just looking at how history played out. Then you can go back to your bodies once the lessons over and hope that you have a transformed perspective.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
Ariele Jones is WGLT's assistant program director and host of Morning Edition, Highway 309, and Center Stage.
Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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