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Springfield activist group gets serious about minority hiring


A local activist group is putting pressure on the City of Springfield to hire more minorities and to only work with contractors who also hire minorities.

Larry Beckom of Springfield leads Bridging the Gap, a group dedicated to ensuring minority job opportunities. He calls the city’s record of minority hiring “dismal,” and is pushing for an ordinance that would mandate specific minority hiring levels.

Beckom is a longtime volunteer community activist. His group, Bridging the Gap, works with the Springfield branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups.

Beckom is focusing mainly on getting more African-American police, firefighters and workers at City Water, Light and Power. He also wants minority hiring requirements for contractors who do work for the city.

Illinois Times previously reported that more than 96 percent of Springfield firefighters are white and fewer than 8 percent of Springfield police officers are racial minorities, despite 20 percent of the population being nonwhite. [See “Springfield’s poor record on minority hiring” by Bruce Rushton, June 21, 2012.]

Most projects that use federal funds – which includes many city road projects – are required to set aside a percentage of the funds for minority job training. Beckom says that doesn’t happen.

“No one has been policing the (construction) activity with what’s going on in the City of Springfield,” Beckom said. “I’ve heard lots of people saying they’re using local labor, but they’re not using local black labor.”

Beckom says labor unions in Springfield are one source of the problem. African-American men in Springfield regularly have trouble finding work through the unions that supply workers to city contractors, even though there is a program set up to specifically address the problem, Beckom says. Eric Day, 29, of Springfield completed the Highway Construction Careers Training Program at Lincoln Land Community College in May. The program is funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation and is supposed to expand the number of people in “historically underrepresented populations,” according to a program flier from Lincoln Land Community College. The program offers training, but not job placement.

Day says he applied for a highway construction job through two different unions and never heard back. The same thing happened to David Shears, 55, of Springfield, who graduated from the same program in 2010. Shears says he took a union entrance exam and was never even told whether he passed. Beckom says he is trying to establish a relationship with local labor unions to ensure minority hiring is a priority.

Mayor Michael Houston recently met with Beckom’s group to discuss ways to ensure more minorities are hired for city positions, as well as by contractors doing work for the city. Beckom says Houston agreed to propose a city ordinance that would mandate specific levels of minority hiring. The ordinance has yet to be introduced to the Springfield City Council. Bill Logan, Houston’s executive assistant, said the ordinance was close to being ready, but is not yet complete.

Beckom addressed the city council last week, asking for – among other things – the creation of a minority hiring oversight committee. Beckom said such a committee used to exist but was inexplicably disbanded. A call seeking comment from Sandy Robinson, the city’s director of community relations, was not returned before publication.

“I don’t see how it could be a lose situation to reimplement,” Beckom told the council.

Speaking to Illinois Times this week, Beckom said Houston offered to create a subcommittee within an existing committee to address minority hiring, but Beckom objected, saying a mere subcommittee would have no power to enact change if its members didn’t also sit on the main committee.

“The mayor is trying to sidestep us,” Beckom said. “That’s not how it should be done.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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