Editor's Note: The Jefferson City community has been facing the complex topics of diversity and racism for several months, and we've been reporting on those discussions as they happen. Today's story focuses on the city government's efforts to revive a commission that would help guide the community in continued conversations. We've also heard from faith leaders, school district officials, teachers and other community members. For a look at all of the voices who have contributed to this discussion, view additional coverage at newstribune.com/diversity.
Jefferson City's Human Relations Commission is taking form as the City Council prepares to vote on new commission members.
Last week, the council's Committee on Administration unanimously approved nine commission members, and the City Council will vote on these members Dec. 18.
If approved, the commission would consist of Mitchell Woodrum, Andria Hendricks, Hector Alonso, Jami Wade, Jane Barnes, Makele Ndessokia, Patsy Johnson, Kennette Goodman and Raymond Lee.
The advisory commission's last meeting was in June 2010. The commission, at that time, thought there was not enough interest in the group, and it was crossing over too much with other groups like the state's Human Rights Commission and the local NAACP.
The commission would hold educational events about diversity that members said sometimes took volunteers away from other groups, said Gail Strope, director of the Jefferson City Department of Human Resources. Strope was the city staff liaison to the Human Relations Commission before it disbanded and will once again serve in that position once it is resurrected.
Mayor Carrie Tergin said Jefferson City began efforts to revive the commission a few months ago after interest rekindled.
In September, a racially insensitive photo involving local students circulated on social media, leading to several diversity-driven meetings hosted by Jefferson City Public Schools, Faith Voices for Jefferson City and other community members.
In October, Faith Voices for Jefferson City identified central issues the group wants to work on, including creating a task force to study and make recommendations on city and police policies, working on community and neighborhood improvement and setting up a network of information to help support minority-owned businesses. They also suggested the school district create an appeals process for students who have had discipline issues and possibly incorporate trauma-informed and aware discipline training for faculty.
When Woodrum, an officer in the National Guard, learned of the photo, he began researching other cities' human relations commissions. He contacted Tergin as well as people he thought would be a right fit for Jefferson City's Human Relations Commission.
While Tergin and Woodrum researched those commissions, The Human Rights Campaign — an LGBT civil rights advocacy group — gave Jefferson City the lowest score possible (zero) on its Municipal Equality Index, which looks at cities' inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community members in October.
Tergin said the city did not fill out the survey, and the score gave the wrong perception. The newly resurrected Human Relations Commission could complete surveys like this in the future, she added.
The commission's primary focus will be educating city residents by hosting programs, public forums and meetings that will "aid in eliminating and preventing prejudice, discrimination, intolerance and bigotry" based on race, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age or disability, according to city code.
Tergin said she wanted to ensure members accounted for diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.
Woodrum interned with Missouri's statewide LGBT group PROMO and has served on city boards. Hendricks is a business instructor at Lincoln University and has "extensive background in community outreach," Tergin said.
Alonso has a wide range of health care experience, which Tergin thought would be useful to the commission since the majority of residents will use some form of health care in Jefferson City. Wade owns Capitol City CORK on High Street and is a previous Historic City of Jefferson board member and teacher.
Barnes is a speech-language pathologist, while Ndessokia has a background in human resources. Johnson is part of Faith Voices for Jefferson City, the National Association for Advancement of Colored People and president of Community Development Advocacy Group.
Goodman serves as a legislative assistant for the Missouri House of Representatives and volunteers with Project Homeless Connect. Lee is a pastor and works at Lincoln University.
The committee can make recommendations to the City Council about educational programs they think would be beneficial to the community.
"You can tell people, 'Hey, this is wrong. Don't do this because it's hurtful,' but until you educate them on why it's wrong, it doesn't really go anywhere," Woodrum said. "You have to tell them the why and make them understand why it's so bad, and that's what we need to focus on. We need to make people realize that at the end of the day we all have more in common than we do apart, and I think that will ultimately bring the community together."
Woodrum said he would like the commission to bring in speakers and host public question-answer sessions, as well as work with the school district to start after-school programs and workshops.
Barnes said communication is key for any discussions and hopes those discussions will continue between the school district and Human Relations Commission.
"Our kids are our future, so when we as adults are modeling through our examples and our words and our actions, I think the impact is greater and more receptive on students who are looking up to adults in our community," she said. "It also helps when developing their awareness of self and others and the community, so I think that's a really important group to make sure we're absolutely involved with."
According to city code, the commission can't hear alleged discrimination cases or act as a judicial or investigative body on these cases.
While Tergin believes the city is welcoming, the commission will help "maintain the inclusive atmosphere because we don't ever want to tolerate discrimination in any manner," she said.
"It's important to have a way to process that information and make it productive in our community," Tergin said. "The goal is we want to be welcoming, so there are groups that are having meetings and talking about ways we could do better and have a better community and be more welcoming. Having the Human Relations Commission is the perfect place to hear those ideas to be shared so we can come up with a valuable plan for moving forward."
Tergin said even though the nine-member Human Relations Commission will soon be filled, the city always accepts applications to commissions and committees.
How do you think Jefferson City should work to address concerns about diversity and racism? Share your ideas and experiences using the form below or with an email to reporter Nicole Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.