Springfield dreams

Visions of 2021 and beyond

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Painting by Felicia Olin

A pandemic, a civil rights uprising, economic turmoil, an historic election – this year has brought many hardships. It has made the inequalities and divisions in our society more clear. It's also been a time for reflection and change.

Social service providers and community activists, already making do with a lack of resources, have been forced to find new solutions for increasingly complex problems. Illinois Times and NPR Illinois asked various community leaders about lessons learned and hopes for the future.

A health and equity perspective

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Sara Way, Senior Photographer-SIU Medicine
Dr. Wendi Wills El-Amin

"We're in a season where we have seen insurmountable trauma," said Dr. Wendi Wills El-Amin, a family physician and associate dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. The medical school committed to being an anti-racist organization in January before the Black Lives Matter resurgence began. Response to the pandemic from the medical school and its health care arm, SIU Medicine, has focused on increasing access to services and care to marginalized people.

In September, SIU Medicine moved its COVID testing site from the parking lot of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health building on South Grand Avenue to Abundant Faith Christian Center on Taylor Avenue. It operates three days a week, and SIU also brings the screening service to different churches and community centers on Fridays. "We understand that you can't just open your doors and expect everybody to come," she said.

Attention is now shifting to education efforts around the vaccine. Wills El-Amin said the reckoning over racism this summer has opened up the conversation on some of medicine's racist history, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, from 1932-1972, where Black men with syphilis were not given treatment options as they became available. A report later called it "ethically unjustifiable." "Those are real things that have happened, and bringing that into the conversation is going to allow us to navigate in a different way," she said.

Wills El-Amin wants more mental health resources to address the trauma experienced this year. Often, experts discuss a fight or flight response to difficult situations. But this year, she's seen many people freeze. "When you see people who are in that state, it means that they're not going to access health care," she said. "And that's why we have to get our mental health in a more robust state."

She said she was inspired by the Black Lives Matter car parade through Springfield in late May, where she witnessed kids and adults on the east side standing on their porches, smiling and waving. "It's like they were being seen for the first time," Wills El-Amin said. "That type of solidarity is what's going to help Springfield."

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Photo by Rachel Otwell
Khoran Readus (left) and Sunshine Clemons at the BLM Springfield car parade on May 31.

Movement for Black lives

Black Lives Matter Springfield started in 2016 after the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The group has found it hard at times to be heard. That changed when several thousand people participated in the vehicle parade it organized on May 31 to demonstrate against police brutality, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

BLM Springfield has worked to balance safety during the pandemic with civic engagement, noting that COVID has disproportionately infected and killed people of color. Since the parade, co-founders Sunshine Clemons and Khoran Readus have met with police to discuss potential reforms.

With others, BLM Springfield advocated for the removal of statues of Stephen A. Douglas and Pierre Menard from the Statehouse lawn, as well as a change to the name of Douglas Park. Both efforts were successful. "It's unfair to glorify people from our past – who were leaders at that time – but were slave owners or direct beneficiaries of slavery, and expect people who, if slavery were in place today, would be enslaved, to frequent those places and be comfortable there," said Clemons.

Mayor Jim Langfelder recently recommended Clemons be appointed to Springfield's Police Community Review Commission. And both she and Readus were awarded as Humanitarians of the Year for 2020 by the Greater Springfield Interfaith Association.

"What gives me hope is knowing that my partner and I have the passion to keep doing the work that we're doing. And we have a good support system in place to help us continue," said Clemons. Readus said they've made great strides over the past several months from where they started back in 2016. "A lot of people did not want to have any relationships with us or have anything to do with us. Fast-forward now to 2020, those relationships are now present," said Readus.

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Photo courtesy Jonna Cooley
Jonna Cooley stands before a crowd at a former PrideFest.

Services for LGBTQ community

The Phoenix Center canceled its PrideFest this year, an annual downtown event to celebrate and increase the visibility of the local queer community. Its LGBTQ support groups meet online these days, and staff have worked remotely. Harm reduction and housing remain priorities, said Cooley, the center's executive director. Harm reduction includes a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users as well as STI testing.

Reaching those in need, including LGBTQ people in rural areas, has been difficult. The center created a walk-up window at its offices and started doing deliveries. It hosts two housing programs, one for LGBTQ people and another for those living with HIV. Residents have faced isolation. "With the type of living we have, and people sharing community space, we've had to put some pretty strict rules in place. So it's been a challenge for them to basically stay put, and it's been a challenge for us then to make sure that they have all that they need, including social support," said Cooley.

Cooley has also dealt with pandemic-related challenges in her personal life. Her wife has stage four cancer. Cooley has to be especially mindful of not spreading any additional illnesses to her.

Once the pandemic is over, Cooley said, she is looking forward to "phenomenal social events" for the LGBTQ community. Expanding access to services, perhaps with satellite offices in other parts of the state, is also a possibility, she said.

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Photo by Deborah Yoggerst
Erica Smith

Helping the homeless

Erica Smith heads Helping Hands of Springfield, which serves people experiencing homelessness. "Even before COVID, our organization was working on providing more housing opportunities for people. We know that the answer to homelessness is housing. And while emergency shelter is very important, housing is the answer," said Smith. One silver lining this year has been COVID-relief funding that has gone toward a rapid rehousing program, where clients are provided apartments.

"We knew housing is health care before COVID. And now we really know housing is health care. Having your own house allows you to quarantine and protect yourself and other people." Smith said she is also committed to taking a trauma-informed approach – one that focuses on healing and recovery. "You do tend to see, when we're talking about people experiencing chronic homelessness, co-occurring mental health issues and substance use issues."

"We have to make sure that we're helping people who are unemployed now, or who are precariously employed or underemployed because of COVID." Mental, behavioral and emotional health are all important considerations, said Smith. As many people deal with isolation and poverty, unhealthy coping mechanisms could set some on the path to homelessness.

For now, Helping Hands is focused on making emergency shelter accessible and safe. For the long term, Smith said she's aiming for stronger programs that deal with people's social and emotional needs while helping them gain independence.

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Photo courtesy Dominic Watson
Dominic Watson

Supporting Black businesses

Black-owned businesses often have a hard time accessing capital to start and sustain their operations, and can struggle to expand their reach to a wider customer base. Meanwhile, Black businesses and institutions "have always been at the forefront of trying to drive change in their community, as well as the greater community as a whole," said Dominic Watson, president and CEO of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber organized Black Restaurant Weekend in early June, highlighting eight restaurants and celebrating Juneteenth weekend with the goal of building community through food. Watson said several restaurants saw revenue from the weekend exceed $30,000.

The Black Lives Matter movement has started conversations on race in Springfield and led to more of an interest in funding and supporting Black businesses and organizations. Watson said he hopes this continues. "We didn't close that much of the gap. But if we continue with this momentum, and try to overcome the barriers that exist, we'll be on the path," he said.

Still, with the Springfield Rail Improvements Project well underway, Watson and other community activists worry it could further divide the city. That's one reason he's advocating for an east side business hub. He's optimistic we'll learn from the turmoil of 2020 and from those who have long done the work of community organizing. "We have some of those who have shown us what not to do. And we have a lot of those who are offering counsel on what we can do moving forward," Watson said.

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Photo by Katherine Sarsfield
Piero Taico

Food for community

Piero Taico is a self-proclaimed "hustler of all things local foods." He's a communications coordinator for the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, which supports farmers and consumers with a local-first and environmental approach. He's also worked this year with the Environmental Protection Agency and city of Springfield on a Local Foods, Local Places initiative for a community kitchen. Taico, a first-generation American who has baked and sold Peruvian goods with his family, has envisioned a community kitchen in downtown Springfield for years.

This year has made the cracks in our food system more visible, said Taico. "A lot of folks forget the cracks we're talking about are people experiencing food insecurity." This year has brought about an increased focus on locally produced food staying in the state, he said. And more people seemed to take a hyper-local approach to food, via gardening. The trick will be whether that energy lasts. "I'm never one for lack of hope," said Taico.

"I'm a firm believer that when people are more connected to their food, something very fundamental is fulfilled physically, mentally and spiritually." Taico envisions a new year where people clearly see food as an issue of climate, careers and community. "We all need to eat to survive. But I think the more important question now is what do we do for all of us to thrive?"

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Photo Courtesy Allison lacher
Allison Lacher

Artists ponder their place

Allison Lacher heads exhibitions for the University of Illinois Springfield Visual Arts Gallery. An artist herself, she's a co-founder of the DEMO project. It was an alternative art space on the Springfield Art Association campus, in an old house that was demolished in 2018.

Lacher is an advocate for the arts, especially of the contemporary and conceptual variety. She said for herself and many of the artists she has spoken with about the year, "It's been a real time of assessment and reevaluation." In the midst of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the question of who art is for and why has been central. "Artists are wondering, what is this work for? Who is my audience? How am I reaching people with my work? Is my work important right now, in the context of what's happening in the country?"

The social component of art has been largely lost, though creativity abounds with virtual art tours and auctions, and socially distant exhibitions. Springfield has a robust arts scene, though groups often work in silos. "I keep wondering about what would happen if the visual artists in Springfield organized en masse," said Lacher.

"It's not always the artists who are carving out the structures and opportunities that we work within, or the objectives of those structures and opportunities. So what do we all need, as an arts community in Springfield? What do we prioritize? And how do we advocate for that together?" Looking ahead, Lacher envisions organization among the arts community to start answering those questions collectively.

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Photo courtesy Veronica Espina
Veronica Espina

Compassionate care for immigrants

Since 2017, members of the Springfield Immigrant Advocacy Network have pushed for a "Welcoming City" declaration to honor immigrants and their contributions to Springfield. SIAN offers legal and language interpretation assistance, and has organized rallies against family separation policies.

But Veronica Espina, co-founder of the group, said after seeing immense need in the immigrant and refugee community in central Illinois brought on by the pandemic, the all-volunteer organization had to shift focus. In March, it started raising money to buy diapers, baby formula and food, and to help people pay rent. The change was about more than meeting basic needs.

"We recognize that xenophobia is at the core of racism – anti-immigrant sentiment is at the core of racism. So how do we approach serving our communities from a bias-free approach?" All SIAN volunteers and members must complete training on anti-racism and the democratic principles of organizing. Espina's motto is, "Do no harm."

Espina said relationship building and listening are at the core of SIAN's work, a break from what she calls paternalistic forms of charity. "Organizations traditionally decide for the communities what this community should be needing or eating. And that is not what SIAN does," Espina said. This shows, for example, in the choices of what food the organization offers to families. SIAN puts tortillas, fresh fruit and pork in their weekly deliveries that serve up to 300 people.

Nonprofits, foundations and volunteer groups have found ways to share resources during the pandemic, and Espina hopes this continues. She said too often resources are restricted to serve one demographic versus another. "The work that we do is intrinsically connected, and it is connected because we believe that our communities have human dignity, and we need to honor them by serving them well."

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Photo by Sarah Petty Photography
Katie Davison

Entrepreneurs adapt

Katie Davison, executive director of Innovate Springfield, said 2020 forced new ways of thinking. She said entrepreneurs the business incubator serves have been able to handle the shift in normal operations and demands, "because they're already dealing in a kind of volatile market and situation anyway ... or they were already working in a space that was virtual."

Innovate Springfield, part of University of Illinois Springfield, also shifted its own operations, closing its workspace for part of the year and moving its workshops, events and programs online. Some of those changes may stay, as the convenience has meant better access.

The year also brought a renewed focus on mental health, specifically in avoiding burnout and finding work/family balance. These have always been issues for entrepreneurs as they launch and nurture new businesses. But Davison said there is now more demand for resources and more open discussion. "Many of us were working at a level that is not sustainable," she said. "And this time, this kind of great pause, has encouraged us to think about the core functions that we must do."

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Photo courtesy Michael Phelon
Michael Phelon (far right) with two former Outlet mentees, now mentors for the program themselves.

Mentoring and meeting needs

Michael Phelon started The Outlet mentoring program in 2004. It's located on South 12th Street, though this year, the 30 mentors are mostly connecting with youth remotely. The program serves 48 youth from in and around Springfield with a focus on boys and young men from fatherless households.

This year, Phelon has seen an enormous amount of personal loss. His mother and uncle died, as did his mentor, Dr. Clarice Ford, and his "right-hand man" at The Outlet, Marcus Butler Sr. "It's been rough for us. Most of the young guys that I work with, they are already coming from hard situations," said Phelon.

Learning online comes at a higher cost to students from low-income households where access to the internet and meals isn't always a given. "My personal grocery bill went up double and I have a stable home. So imagine a mother who may not have what God has blessed me and my wife with." Phelon said more than ever, the focus has been on addressing basic needs. The Outlet has a new on-site food pantry, for instance.

Phelon resigned from his position at Lincoln Land Community College so he could focus on The Outlet full time. He said he feels that puts him in a distinct position, as a Black male leader of a nonprofit in Springfield. And he's heartened by an increase in charitable giving, including a $40,000 donation from the Asian Indian Women's Organization.

Phelon said he is looking forward to when it is safe enough to resume The Outlet's civil rights road trips. Destinations include Memphis, Selma and Chicago. "I believe these guys have to dream. And they've been somewhat stuck in situations that they had no control over."

Phelon said he's grateful to those in Springfield who make his work possible and he wants to see increased civic engagement. "I hope we come out of 2020 with our eyes open and ready to take action in our community," he said. "We can't wait for the next person to solve what's going on. And it's not going to take an outside person. It's going to take us to change Springfield."

Mary Hansen is a reporter for NPR Illinois, Springfield's public radio station, and can be reached at [email protected]. You can hear audio components of this reporting at NPRIllinois.org. Rachel Otwell is an Illinois Times staff writer. Contact her at [email protected].