On Thursday night, the Bloomington-Normal chapter of the NAACP began its monthly town hall meeting with a sobering statistic.
Of the 337 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in McLean County, 76 involve Black residents, or 22% who have tested positive for the disease. But Blacks only account for 8% of the county’s population.
Black Americans are dying of the coronavirus at a rate three times higher than that of whites. Experts have cited a lack of access to quality health care as one of the main factors driving the gap in death rates.
In early June, the McLean County Board of Health acknowledged the need to address disparities in health care. During Thursday’s town hall, branch Health Chair Arlene Hosea urged those attending to get involved in the effort.
“Send your resumes to County Board President John McIntyre,” Hosea said. “We need to have a seat at the table.”
The recent appointment of Kristen Weickle as the Unit 5 school superintendent creates a new opportunity to address another glaring racial disparity: education.
NAACP Branch President Linda Foster said she had a positive initial meeting with Weickle, who the Unit 5 school board positioned as “ready to bring new energy to this task” of promoting diversity and inclusion in Unit 5.
Unit 5's high schools lag behind District 87 in terms of diversity. Normal West is the least diverse, with 28% students of color, compared to 50% at Bloomington High School and 34% at Normal Community High School.
“In our initial conversation, she told us what she planned to do,” said Foster of Weickle. “We expect her to do that, but we also asked her to go back and look at what has already been done. We don’t need to go back and continue to be at the starting gate. We wanted to make sure that she knew that there were already initiatives on the ground.”
One of those initiatives is the work of the E3 task force, headed by Jade Hursey. A mother of three, Hursey said the idea for E3 (which stands for Equity and Excellence in Education) grew “organically” out of conversations she had with other moms.
They started to notice a pattern of unequal treatment their children were experiencing in school. In addition to being subjected to disciplinary measures at a rates disproportionate to those of their white peers, the children had few, if any, black teachers.
Hursey said she’s confronted the Unit 5 school board about the need for diversity in hiring.
“One of the answers they’re giving us is that there isn’t a pool of teachers to recruit into Unit 5 that are people of color, African American.”
Hursey acknowledged that a teacher shortage is a problem across the board, which makes recruiting people of color more difficult. “But when it’s a priority, when you really want to get things done, you start to think outside the box and you make it happen,” she said.
“The task force that I’m on, we’re not asking” continued Hursey. “We’re requesting and demanding that steps be taken to figure out how do we recruit not just teachers, but administrators. Because when you have a person of color that’s helping to evaluate data, that’s helping to build curriculum, and that has other perspective--that has value, too.”
Branch Vice President Dr. Carla Campbell-Jackson, who participated in the meeting with Weickle, said the NAACP clearly stated its expectations for immediate action.
“We made it crystal clear that we expect deliverables,” said Campbell-Jackson. “We can talk about this until 2030, but there comes a time when we need real action. And the time is right.”
That is due, in part, to sustained, high profile efforts by Unit 5 students. Normal West student Jasmyn Jordan, who participated in Thursday’s virtual meeting, founded the Normal West Black Student Union in response to racist treatment at school. In June, the BSU led a protest to share experiences and demand action.
Thanks to youth activism, Foster sees an unparalleled opportunity for change.
“If you look back to Jim Crow through reconstruction, everything has always been about race,” she said. “But now these actions and behaviors are no longer seen as acceptable. Young people won’t accept it. Law enforcement reform, housing disparity, education -- everything is on the table.”
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