Human Relations Commission working to launch pilot race relations program

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The Lansing Human Relations Commission met on July 16, 2020. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

“Common Ground: Lansing Edition” to be submitted for approval by HRC, then Village Board

by Melanie Jongsma

Disclosure: In addition to reporting on this topic, Melanie Jongsma is serving on the Common Ground Committee, which reports directly to Lansing’s Human Relations Commission.

LANSING, Ill. (July 29, 2020) – It was February of this year when the Common Ground Committee first met, following the February 20 meeting of the Human Relations Commission (HRC). The committee’s goal was to outline a plan for implementing a Common Ground program in Lansing and present that plan to the HRC for approval at their March meeting, with hopes of organizing a program launch meeting for April or May.

Then—COVID happened.

The March, April, May, and June HRC meetings were cancelled, and the Common Ground Committee was forced to regroup. Not only was their timeline interrupted, but the very nature of the program was threatened—with a quarantine in place, how could people be asked to meet with someone they didn’t know?

Building on Common Ground

Common Ground is a program that pairs people of different cultures and equips them to meet monthly for at least a year and engage in meaningful conversation. The program is designed to help people explore differences, correct misunderstandings, and discover similarities. The partners choose their own meeting times and locations, and they make a commitment to each other to prioritize those meetings, communicating proactively if plans need to change.

Don Goff (left) and Reuben Butler were part of a 2010 Common Ground program hosted by Living Springs Community Church in Glenwood, Illinois. “I learned a lot from Don,” said Butler. “At our first meeting he told me, ‘Did you know Barack Obama is half white?’ Right then I knew it was going to be a fun year.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

HRC Commissioner Micaela Smith volunteered to chair the Common Ground Committee. She saw within the program an opportunity not only to build relationships between individuals, but also to build civic pride and support local businesses. Fox Pointe concerts, for example, could be an ideal opportunity for Common Ground partners to meet, enjoy a pre-concert meal together, and then share their opinions or memories related to styles of music. Lansing’s ethnic restaurants—Mexican, Southern, Italian, and others—could also become settings for other conversations about culture and traditions.

Then-Commissioner Rich Schaeffer also served on the Common Ground Committee. Schaeffer considers himself “a guy who just likes to talk to people,” and he saw in Common Ground a structure for the kind of conversations he wanted to be having.

Moving forward

On July 16, the Human Relations Commission held its first meeting after months of world change that included quarantine, school adjustments, business impacts, racial tension, and local politics. Common Ground was on the agenda, and Commissioner Smith brought the HRC up to speed on the committee’s hopes. She confirmed that the Common Ground program aligns perfectly with the stated mission of the HRC:

“The Commission is responsible for designing and recommending innovative programs to enhance community involvement among all Lansing entities in order to increase cultural competency and improve intergroup relations.”

“I think it’s an awesome program,” said HRC Chair Leo Valencia, encouraging the committee to move forward with working out the details of how it might look in a COVID-restricted world. Valencia also announced that Commissioner Schaeffer had resigned from the HRC. (No information has yet been provided by Mayor Patty Eidam about appointing replacements for Schaeffer or for Commissioner Jamica Quillin, who resigned at the end of 2019.)

After the adjournment of the July 16 HRC meeting, several Commissioners approached Smith individually to offer help and involvement with Common Ground. Smith then organized a follow-up meeting of the Common Ground Committee, at which it was decided to, because of COVID, limit participation in Common Ground to 50 people, and propose a launch date to be scheduled as soon as possible, in case another quarantine is enacted.

Gauging interest and finding the 50

The committee also put together a seed list of potential participants and invited members of the Human Relations Commission to add names. The HRC began contacting people in their networks to gauge interest in the program.

Mayor Eidam was among the people approached with an invitation. She expressed concerns to Chairman Valencia about the program and outlined steps that would need to be taken before Common Ground could receive approval from the Village. Valencia began working with the Common Ground Committee to ensure the requirements were being met.

Loose ends

For example, at the July 16 HRC meeting, Commissioner Michael Bolz posed a question about using a disclaimer form to absolve the Village of any liability. Attorney Erin Blake stated at the meeting that she would look into that matter, and she and Valencia have had conversations since then, but nothing specific has yet been put in place.

Also, though the HRC had given verbal approval of the Common Ground concept at the July 16 meeting, no vote was taken. Valencia has begun the process of calling a special meeting of the HRC on August 6 in order to share a more detailed proposal and get an official vote of approval.

After reviewing the proposal, if the HRC votes to approve the program, Valencia and Smith will then present it to the Village Board for their review. The Board meets only once in August—Tuesday, August 18. The typical approval process is for Trustees to receive new business for discussion at a Committee of the Whole meeting, then vote on it two weeks later at a Board meeting, though in certain circumstances votes have been taken sooner.

Waiting for launch

The Common Ground Committee is eager to hold the launch meeting as soon as possible, because of the uncertainty COVID introduces into any long-range plans. Recognizing that it is difficult for potential participants to affirm interest without a launch date in place, the committee has asked people to “pencil in” August 20, August 27, and September 10 as possible launch dates, pending HRC and Board approval. If more information is requested before approval is granted, the launch date would be delayed accordingly. If approval is not granted, the program will not move forward as a Village or Human Relations Commission initiative.

Questions about Common Ground: Lansing Edition may be directed to Micaela Smith, Chair of the Common Ground Committee, or Leo Valencia, Chair of the Human Relations Commission: