Mayor Tari Renner

MLK Luncheon Speaker Urges Citians to 'Turn Righteous Anger Into Action'

 Julia Evelsizer

The Pantagraph

Four passionate trailblazers were recognized Saturday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards luncheon.

The event at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Normal honored two teens and two adults from the Twin Cities while focusing on the need to stand up to injustice and spur change through action.

Appellate Justice James A. Knecht, 1996 winner of the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, spoke to a crowd of hundreds before the winners were introduced.

“Dr. King said the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict. We’re not here today to be neutral. We are here to turn righteous anger into action,” said Knecht.

He encouraged attendees to “cast aside fear and vote for hope.”

“Speak out, march, practice compassion and decency, revere justice and vote,” said Knecht. “Vote with your collective voices. Vote with your feet as you march with the drumbeat of social change. Fill the ballot box with your hopes and dreams of what America can be.

Mayors Chris Koos of Normal and Tari Renner of Bloomington recognized the award recipients.

Jordyn Blythe (Photo by Lewis Marien/The Pantagraph)

Jordyn Blythe (Photo by Lewis Marien/The Pantagraph)

Winners of the youth “I Have a Dream Award” were University High School senior Jordyn Blythe of Bloomington and Normal Community West High School senior Xavier Higgins of Normal.

Blythe cofounded Serve Plus One, an organization providing service activities and reflection for teens. She also volunteers at several local organizations and cofounded U High’s Black Student Union.

“To all of the youth in the room,” she said, “it is our time now. Don’t be passive. You are never too young to serve. Work to make our world better now because this is what we inherit. Be compassionate and be loving.”

At Normal West, Higgins leads the Best Buddies program to foster friendships with students with physical and intellectual disabilities. He’s also involved in the freshman mentoring program.

“I plan to major in college in computer science and bring technology to people who can’t easily access it so they can work to excel themselves in their own homes,” said Higgins.

Adult recipients were Andre Hursey of Normal and the late Lorenzo Marshall of Bloomington.

Hursey volunteers with several children’s groups in the community and recently founded the Jule Foundation, an organization that offers financial literacy, tutoring and motivational speaking opportunities for youth.

“I want to thank my mother, Gloria, for planting that seed early on and truly showing me the way of serving others in our community,” said Hursey.

Elaine Marshall of Bloomington accepted the award on behalf of her husband who passed away in August.

Lorenzo Marshall volunteered in the Twin Cities and chaired the Juneteenth celebration in Bloomington. Elaine Marshall said her husband would have been humbled to be recognized.

“I can personally attest to the energy and time Lorenzo spent helping mentor others to be their best,” said Elaine Marshall. “Reflecting back on the memories we had in the 42 years we were together really helps the healing process. This award today is something I can add to the reflection of those memories.”

May 1 March Declares 'Immigrants Are Welcome Here'

Paul Swiech

The Pantagraph

Chanting "No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here" and "Immigrant rights are human rights," about 300 people marched Monday evening from outside the McLean County Museum of History to outside Bloomington City Hall to support immigrant families in McLean County.

Photo by Gabriel Jiminez Glez

Photo by Gabriel Jiminez Glez

Responding to Trump administration comments about increasing deportations through partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, several speakers called for the City Council to adopt a "Welcoming City" ordinance, which would bar the city and Bloomington police from reporting people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.

"We can't control what is happening in (Washington) D.C., but we can here," said Illinois People's Action board member Sonny Garcia, who was among several people who spoke at the rally in front of City Hall. He asked the City Council — which swore in newly elected members Monday evening in City Hall just before the rally — to "stand up and say 'no' to hate and be an example to the nation."

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner came outside to welcome the marchers.

Calling the United States, "a nation of immigrants," Renner said "the better part of humanity has to prevail and, here in Bloomington, it will prevail."

Renner told the marchers that "our police force does not work with ICE" but stopped short of endorsing the Welcoming City ordinance.

"In this moment, there is no moral choice but to fight back. Because all of us are all implicated in what is being done, in our name, to our immigrant sisters and brothers." D. Dontae Latson, CEO, YWCA McLean County.

"In the face of overwhelming national enforcement, we need more than promises and words. We cannot only declare we are on the side of our immigrant neighbors and tell them everything is okay. We must decide to do more. We must decide to pass the Welcoming City ordinance." Charlotte Alvarez, executive director, The Immigration Project.

"I am an Uber driver. About a month and a half ago I had some riders try to assault and kidnap me. This was very traumatizing and I wanted my attackers to be prosecuted. But, I was advised not to press charges as it would be worse for me and my family because of our immigration case. I decided not to press charges against my attackers because of my husband's immigration status. It makes me very sad to know that these men never had any consequences for their actions and may act again." 'Stephanie,’ Bloomington resident.

"We may not be able to control what is happening in DC, but we certainly have the power to determine how our immigrant brothers and sisters are treated right here in McLean County," Sonny Garcia, Board Member of Illinois People's Action.

"We are here today to join our immigrant brothers and sisters in building power to advance our shared struggle. Together, we will fight for and win our collective liberation." Divah Griffin, Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal.

He told The Pantagraph earlier that the city legal department is analyzing a Welcoming City ordinance, but there are concerns.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos also told The Pantagraph earlier, "While I'm generally supportive of what they're trying to accomplish, that particular document is difficult to support because there are legal issues."

Renner and Koos have expressed concern about endorsing a document that puts police at odds with federal agents. Renner may issue a mayoral proclamation as an alternative to the ordinance.

But Jenn Carrillo, YWCA McLean County mission impact director, told The Pantagraph after the rally, "We need to go beyond a proclamation and codify it in an ordinance."

Carrying signs that read "Blono is better when we keep families together" and "Migration is Beautiful," many marchers — some shivering in the wind and 47-degree temperatures during the lengthy rally — also held plastic monarch butterflies. They have become a symbol of the immigration rights movement because they migrate from Mexico to the United States and Canada.

"Migration is not only natural but beautiful," said YWCA CEO D. Dontae Latson.

The Rev. Doug Hennessy, retired pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bloomington, said: "God's Word tells us every person without exception has inherent human dignity and is worthy of respect. That families are meant to be together. That this one small planet is meant to be shared, not divided."

A Welcoming City ordinance "would be an important way for our community to say to our brothers and sisters and families who are most immediately threatened by the current situation, that we stand in solidarity with them," Hennessy said.

"The war against immigrants is a war against people of color," said Divah Griffin of Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal.

Among those who marched and rallied were David and Abby Warfel of Bloomington and their sons, Sam, 15, and Joe, 10.

"We're here to support the immigrant community," Joe said. "No human is illegal."

"We want to help families to stay together," Abby said. "We wouldn't want to be separated from each other. We want others to have that same sense of safety."

"The national climate on immigration is very distressing and we want to do something to make our community safer," said David Warfel, noting his ancestors emigrated from Germany.

"I want other families to have the same opportunities that my family had," he said.

For highlights of the march, visit

Solidarity Rally Addresses National Concerns

The Pantagraph

Josh Knight of Normal said he brought his 8-year-old son to a Not In Our Town Bloomington-Normal rally Wednesday night in Bloomington to show him how to be an American.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner joining hands with Bloomington's Imam Abu-Emad Al-Talla and Mayor Chris Koos of Normal. (Photo by Cristian Jaramillo/WGLT)

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner joining hands with Bloomington's Imam Abu-Emad Al-Talla and Mayor Chris Koos of Normal. (Photo by Cristian Jaramillo/WGLT)

"I wanted to show him that we treat all people equally and that we instill in him the values of American culture that we believe in and that is freedom for all people and to be an open and welcoming person," said Knight.

Nadia Khusro, a Normal Community High School senior, said she was born in the United States but has Muslim relatives living in South Asia. 

"They might not be able to visit us because they are not Christian and they are not white," she said. "It makes me scared and it also makes me a little angry.

"They are my family, and they should have as much of a right to visit this country as anybody else."

They were among about 1,200 people who filled the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts auditorium to capacity in a show of support for their immigrant neighbors and to protest President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration, making the rally one of the largest in recent memory in the Twin Cities.

Imam Sheikh Abu Emad Al-Talla of Masjid Ibrahim, a Bloomington mosque, was the first of many speakers who brought the crowd to their feet when he said, "On behalf of all Muslims all over the world: We love you guys. We are part of the United States of America."

NIOT organized the event following Trump's order on Friday banning entry to the United States citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days and people from Syria indefinitely.

On its Facebook page, NIOT asked the public to come “stand with our Muslim and other neighbors.” It also asked elected officials to attend, affirm the First Amendment's protection of freedom of religion stand against a registry of people based on their faith.

Five people stood outside the BCPA to show support for Trump's immigration policy, including Ward 3 aldermanic candidate Gary Lambert.

Julia Reinthaler said the group was "demonstrating our support of President Trump in his efforts to improve our national security by putting together a system that will fully, thoroughly vet any immigrants coming into this country.

"We believe in immigration and we're pro-immigrant, but we are very much supportive of this administration's efforts to overhaul our system and better serve the national interest," she said.

In the event, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said he had mixed emotions about the event.

"I am so thrilled to see this room packed," he said. "I am saddened that we have to be here to try to defend the idea that all people are created equal."

Speaking of the United States as a nation of immigrants, Normal Mayor Chris Koos spoke of his family's Irish and German roots.

"They came here because they left a hellish environment where they could no longer thrive," he said. "So they traveled halfway around the world to find a place where they could better their lives and their family's lives and the lives of their descendants.  

"So today if you come to our community from South Asia, from Mexico, Central America, from Sudan, from Libya and the five other now-named countries, and you come here to find a better way for you and your family we welcome you.

"If you choose us, we choose you. Welcome home," he added, drawing a standing ovation.

The crowd continued to applaud and stand as the two mayors and Al-Talla clasped raised hands in a show of solidarity.

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington urged residents not to live as strangers.

"During the past several generations many of my people have lived as strangers in lands not ours," she said. "On occasion we were treated well. Most of the time not.

"There was a time when our nation closed its doors on Jews escaping persecution. While some found safety in other countries, many were refused and ultimately perished in the Holocaust," said Dubowe, adding, "We cannot make this mistake again."

Mandava Rao of the Hindu Temple Bloomington-Normal read some Hindu mantras, and the Rev. Molly Ward, an Episcopal priest, closed with a prayer.

"This meant a lot to us — such tremendous support and tremendous energy from the whole community regardless of their faith, regardless of their ethnicity," said Mohammed Zaman, president of Masjid Ibrahim, at the conclusion of the  90-minute event.

"This shows that when a community gets together they can fight any evil, whether it's national, international or on any level."

'Benchgate' Raises Issues About Attitudes Toward Homeless People

"Homeless in Bloomington Part 1"


The recent case of vandalism to a bench frequented by homeless people in downtown Bloomington has reopened a community conversation about gaps in services for the chronically homeless.

Some downtown business owners have stepped up their complaints, while some homeless people say they are unfairly singled out by police. Bloomington police, business owners, and advocates for the homeless (met this week) to discuss what some see as a simmering problem.

Some have taken to calling the incident “Benchgate.”

A person in a hooded jacket was caught on surveillance video in downtown Bloomington smearing a greasy black substance from a bucket on a bench frequented by homeless people. He person apparently knew about the surveillance cameras near Main and Mulberry Streets. He -- or she –- took care to shield the face from view, and struck at 6:10 a.m. on a Saturday -- when few pedestrians are around.

“I think this speaks to the level of unwelcome that people who are homeless feel in our town," said the Rev. Kelley Becker, assistant pastor at First Christian Church in downtown Bloomington, who has a ministry to the homeless (and serves as NIOTBN Faith and Outreach chairman).

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner is concerned police have been unable to find who was responsible. He says the issue is not so much damage to a city bench as it is the kind of signal the incident sends about attitudes toward the homeless.

“This whole situation was very disturbing. As a mayor, a citizen, as a human being, it’s sad to me," Renner said.

The bench incident laid bare a side of the Bloomington community often kept hidden. It revealed a gap in services for the most difficult of homeless cases. It also underscored the widening concern among some business owners about the homeless population, as well as a growing frustration among police – and the street people themselves --  who say they feel targeted.

Todd Ledbetter is a homeless man who could often be found on that bench. His clothing was ruined when sat on the grease.

“I didn’t really have any other clothes so I had to wear my undergarments, my Nike-wear under my Levis," Ledbetter told WGLT.  "I  had some old shirts and stuff. Some good Samaritan came by and asked me if I needed a pair of pants. They brought me a pair of Levis, and fortunately they fit.”

“I think it’s discrimination against Todd just because of who he is,” said Mike Waters, who lives in an apartment building downtown and says he has known Ledbetter for years.  Waters says he placed a warning sign on the bench after not only Ledbetter, but a female shopper unwittingly sat in the greasy substance spread over it.

“They go after Todd. I don’t see them picking on other people in the public," Waters added. "Other people have tried to chase him out of here. They won’t let him in the businesses because he’s been here so long.”

Ledbetter represents the kind of homeless person most difficult to get back on track. He grew up in Carlock, IL and worked in an automobile repair shop. Ledbetter said he descended into alcoholism after two divorces and losing custody of his children. 

He served time for armed robbery in Champaign and has been arrested in McLean County three times on misdemeanor charges including trespassing at a Jimmy Johns and stealing a two dollar and fifty cent can of wine from a Thornton’s gas station.

 “When I first got out of prison, I went from down from 30 beers to 20 beers to 10 beers because I was trying to get out from under what was hindering me from being that one hundred percent Todd that I used to be,” Ledbetter said.

By his own admission, Ledbetter still drinks--and doesn’t intend to stop. For that reason, he’s unable to stay at the city’s two main homeless shelters. He’s also unwelcome at most downtown businesses, even to use the bathroom.

“I’ve had several cops say to me, people are just sick of seeing you and you need to leave," he said. 

Lori Kimbrough is outreach director of PATH, an agency that tries to match the homeless with services. She said complaints from business owners have nearly doubled in recent months, even though most of the homeless who congregate downtown are not violating any laws.

“Generally the folks are just loitering, they are out and about. Sometimes they ask people for money, panhandling, but generally they are just out and about hanging out," Kimbrough said.

Becker of First Christian Church said options for staying elsewhere have become even more limited. Last year, the city chased the homeless from a so-called “Tent City” where they used to congregate west of downtown because they were staying on private property.

“There are still a lot of people living near the downtown area, sleeping in parking garages or underneath bridges and maybe sleeping in a shelter in evening and then having no place to go during the day, not even to go to the restroom or even get a drink of water. And I think we need to think seriously about what our reaction to this is going to be,”Becker said.

Bryce Pierson is an assistant McLean County public defender who has handled dozens of cases involving the homeless.  “They find themselves in a situation where they are bound to downtown because the service providers are downtown," Pierson said.

"So you have individuals who don’t have any means for transportation, they don’t have cars, they don’t have means for bus tokens so they locate as close to the providers and court as they can and that tends to be the downtown area.”

Private agencies offer several services for the homeless. The Salvation Army on Washington Street operates the Safe Harbor shelter which offers overnight beds and meals. The Salvation Army also oversees a food bank and provides a day lounge for those not currently staying at the shelter.

The Mission at Home Sweet Home Ministries on Oakland Street provides temporary shelter for adults and families with children.

Tom Fulop of Safe Harbor says both shelters must restrict who can stay there.  

“Some folks don’t want to stay here because we have too many rules. One of the rules is you can’t drink in the shelter. We have put people out because they bring alcohol or drugs onto the property and that is not acceptable, that is not appropriate," Fulop said.

The Mission at Home Sweet Home Ministries doesn't allow people to use the sleeping areas during the day, although there are men’s and women’s day lounges. Executive director Mary Ann Pullin said because children stay there, the shelter won’t take in anyone recently convicted of a violent crime.

“We’re not able to serve everyone. People need to be drug and alcohol free. That’s to try and insure a safe environment for everyone, including the children," Pullin said.

Advocates said the hardest cases are homeless people with mental illness. Of the people who stayed at Safe Harbor in the past fiscal year, 21 percent had alcohol problems and an equal percentage had physical disabilities. But by far, the largest group -- 43 percent -- suffered from mental illness.

The city and county have been working for years on better services for the mentally ill. The county established a mental health court a few years ago. Just last week, it announced it will participate in a new federal program to divert mentally ill residents from the criminal justice system.

Bloomington's Mayor Renner said the city needs to find additional “humane ways” of moving forward.

“We did earmark a quarter penny of our sales tax for mental health issues. We do not want our jail to be the number one mental health institution, and currently it is,” Renner said.

For the mentally ill homeless, life can be a revolving door of arrests. Take the case of one 57- year -old Bloomington man. According to court records, police arrested him for minor misdemeanors seven times in a three-month period. His offenses included failing to leave a Quick Stop, a Kroger supermarket, and a La-Z-Boy furniture store when asked.

PATH’s Lori Kimbrough said  the man is well-known to homeless advocates.

“For him, he feels everyone is out to get him and that no one understands his concerns and issues which is totally understandable when he’s been barred from here, here and here," Kimbrough said.

Police noted on several of the arrest reports that this individual suffers from mental illness. But with nowhere else to take him, the man ended up most of the time in jail.

 “This isn’t a police problem, it’ a bigger problem than us," said Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner.

Heffner said panhandling, for instance, is not a crime in Bloomington, but if business owners call the police about a homeless person, officers have to respond.

“People pay the city for the right to have a business and if they think someone is in there disrupting their business by coming in and disturbing customers or stealing, they have a right to have a police response and that is our duty," Heffner said.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said detention might be a good thing some who have drug abuse problems or suffer from alcoholism, like Todd Ledbetter, the man who used to sit on the defaced bench.

“We can get him some of the help he needs while he's here and that is help that he might not seek on his own," Sandage said.

But there are several drawbacks. Pierson, the assistant public defender, said homeless people repeatedly arrested for minor misdemeanors usually get increasingly higher bonds with each subsequent offense. That makes it harder for them to get out of jail.

Pierson said many of his homeless clients then feel pressure to plead guilty just to get released for time served.

“They don’t look long-term. So short-term it’s a good option to enter the conviction and be released. They don’t look at the collateral consequences that go along with having the conviction on their record," Pierson said.

PATH’s Kimbrough says criminal convictions make it more difficult for homeless people who are seeking to straighten out their lives to obtain employment or housing.

“You serve your time and come out, and if you didn’t have a place to live before you went in, you certainly don’t have one when you come out. Now you’ve added to your record jail time, and it’s harder to find that permanent housing option," Kimbrough said.

Each of the McLean County shelters offers only short-term housing. For instance, Safe Harbor allows residents to remain for eight weeks, although some can stay longer under special circumstances.

Pullin of Home Sweet Home Ministries says there is an even larger problem: a general lack of affordable housing in McLean County.

 “Often times people regard the homeless as people who are unmotivated, lazy, and that's simply not true. Most of the adults who stay here are employed and many are employed at two jobs or more," Pullin said.

"Here in Bloomington-Normal, if you wanted to afford a basic two bedroom apartment, you'd have to work two fulltime jobs at the  minimum wage if order to afford that," Pullin added.  "If you have children and child care expenses on top of that, it's impossible."

One approach other cities have tried is called the “Tiny House” project. As the name suggests, these are small homes built to fit several on a single lot. A consortium of local churches recently renovated a trailer into a Tiny House.

That house currently sits on a parking lot in Heyworth. That’s because Bloomington officials need to figure out where the home can go under the city’s current zoning rules, and whether it can be hooked up to city water and sewer services.

Pullin of Home Sweet Home says affordable housing must also be coupled with supportive services.

“To insure they are taking their medications as prescribed and will be balanced and won’t be out of control," Pullin said. "That is the biggest issue, essentially people with mental illness need support, not just a place to live, but they need ongoing support to make sure they have their needs met." 

Pullin said she believes most people who find themselves homeless can be helped, but there will always be a small number who refuse services.

Todd Ledbetter, the man whose favorite bench was defaced, still frequents the same downtown corner even though the city has not replaced the bench. Now, he sits or lays down on the street, and at night sleeps in alleys or under bridges.

Passersby who know him as a familiar presence often greet him by name and stop to check on his condition.

“People come here and say, ‘Hey Todd, how you doing?’ People who got jobs at a pizza place bring me pizza at midnight to eat when I’ve had nothing to eat all day.”

Ledbetter remains there, with the hope that perhaps one day he can pull his life together, and that someone maybe will offer him day work, so he can scrape together the money to sleep some nights in one of the city’s discount motels.  

Police Force Focus of Nov. 4 Program; Body Cams in Bloomington's Future

Body cameras were discussed at the Bloomington City Council’ mid-October meeting.  But questions remain before they hit the streets, and Illinois State University criminal justice Prof. Jason Ingram is raising a few.

Ingram says the cameras can increase police and public safety, if they're used the right way.

"It's a camera, so it has to be turned on and it only captures what it's pointed at. So if an officer has discretion on when he or she can turn it on, there's potential for non-compliance,” Ingram said. 

Jason Ingram

Jason Ingram

His biggest issue is privacy and determining who can see the video: "Officers do have a reduced expectation of privacy, because they're a public servant, but I don't know how that plays out with citizens on camera.”

Ingram will offer his thoughts on police practices and protections at Police Use of Force: Myths and Policy Considerations, a free, public program by the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 in the Normal Public Library Community Room.

Police departments all over the country are using body cameras. Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner, who has researched the issue for the city council, says they are inevitable, and will improve safety for police and the community.

"Privacy issues are a big concern, obviously cost is a big concern,” Heffner nonetheless concedes.

His department will begin a grant-funded trial run in January. After that, it's up to the council to determine if the cameras are worth the cost.

"At the end of the day, if it turns out it's going to be somewhere around $100,000 for us to do this every year and to keep this going, than the council has to figure out is that a top priority," said Mayor Tari Renner.

Even though the cameras do face challenges, Heffner says they're excited to move forward in the process. "I think we will get better feedback from the officers once we get some cameras here to actually test,” he said.

The Bloomington police department says they'll test several types of cameras before making a decision, and Renner suggests they might go with several options, to give officers their pick.

For further thoughts on body cams, watch the WMBD-TV video at

National School Choice Week: No Social Barriers

Bloomington Alderman Karen Schmidt celebrates National School Choice Week at God's Deliverance Outreach Ministry with Pastor Rochelle Patterson.

Bloomington Alderman Karen Schmidt celebrates National School Choice Week at God's Deliverance Outreach Ministry with Pastor Rochelle Patterson.

A record number of US governors, mayors, and county leaders took part in the reportedly largest-ever series of education-related events in U.S. history by issuing official proclamations recognizing Jan. 25-31 as School Choice Week in their states and localities.

These 158 proclamations were issued by 64 Democratic and 43 Republican mayors, including Bloomington's Tari Renner. Held every January, National School Choice Week is an independent public awareness effort. National School Choice Week 2015 will be America's largest-ever celebration of opportunity in education. Featuring more than 11,000 independently organized events across all 50 states, the Week shines a positive spotlight on effective education options for children.

National School Choice Week is independent, nonpolitical, and nonpartisan, and embraces all types of educational choice – from traditional public schools to public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.

"Families all across the country are celebrating the freedom to choose the right schools for their children this week. As people nationwide gather to support opportunity in education, it's clear that elected officials are standing up and taking note," said Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week. "There's no political or geographic barrier to supporting educational options for parents and kids, which is why we see Democrats and Republicans from every region of the country recognizing School Choice Week."

According to a 2011 Education Next poll, 50 percent or more of African-Americans either “completely” or “somewhat” favored vouchers for students to attend private schools, versus just 23 percent or fewer who oppose the idea. When presented with tax credits for individual and corporate donations for private school scholarships, “somewhat” or “complete” support hits 57 percent.

A Black Alliance for Educational Options report surveyed 1,700 black voters in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi in March 2013. In each state, 85 percent to 89 percent of those surveyed wanted as many educational choices as possible. More than half of those surveyed in each state—55 percent to 57 percent—said they would send their child to an alternative to their assigned school, if given the choice.

The group Hispanics for School Choice (HFSC) meanwhile advocates "for the removal of any restrictions on the parental right to choose" between public, charter, virtual, or home schooling.

"We are excited to start working on our advocacy goals for the upcoming year, all of which will break down barriers that are preventing too many children from reaching their full potential," Said Jason S. Crye, executive director of HFSC.


Renner at MLK Awards Luncheon: Police Remark 'Not Who We Are'

As more than 600 attendees lunched and ruminated on the spirit and philosophy of one of the U.S.' preeminent civil rights leaders, Mayor Tari Renner acknowledged and apologized for a 2013 racial remark by a BPD policeman that came to light in a recent court proceeding.

At the 39th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Awards Luncheon program Saturday at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center, Renner said the comment, which earned the officer an official reprimand by new Police Chief Brendan Heffner, "is not who we are."

"It's not the community I want us to be in the 21st century," The mayor said (see accompanying video by Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal's Darlene Miller).

"It is just unacceptable behavior. I'm very sorry for that," Renner said. "Let's work together. I need your ideas. We need your creativity in the future. I look forward to working with all of you to make Bloomington-Normal a better community and embrace our diversity."

Keynote speaker was AME Church Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie of Texas, who told the luncheon's sold-out crowd "the recent events this year have shaken America out of our fantasyland of a post-racial society." Recent police shootings and subsequent public protests have "exposed the underbelly of hatred and fear and elicits biases that still exist," the AME's first elected female bishop said.

"We must find a nonviolent way to give voice to the rage simmering just below the surface," Murphy McKenzie maintained.

"We need more people with uncommon courage to work toward a solution to the problems that face us in our communities ... and find a way to speak with one voice. We must work hard to find a common ground."

Community groups including NIOT:BN and local police agencies hope to identify that common ground during Breaking Barriers, a police-community discussion from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at City of Refuge Church, Bloomington.

A new lifetime achievement award was given posthumously to local labor leader David Penn.

Award-winner Stokes is a volunteer with the Boys & Girls Club, is active in Mount Pisgah Baptist Church and is a long-time member of the Orthodox Woodriver District Baptist Association. She is first vice president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP and is past president of the Bloomington-Normal alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Jones has coordinated the Bloomington-Normal Cultural Festival; spearheaded the creation of an entrepreneur showcase to inform the community of minority businesses; and created a monthly fundraising event with proceeds going to different community organizations.

Ajayi attends Normal Community High School; Smith is a student at Normal Community West High School. She was cited for her leadership of the school's Culture Club and her church; she has worked for a Not In Our School campaign. 

Smith was cited for her school and extracurricular activities and her broad support of inclusiveness. She will be salutatorian for the Class of 2015.

NIOT Reps Air Police-Citizen Concerns on WTVP

In the aftermath of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal's Mike Matejka and John Elliott (Bloomington NAACP president and Minority and Police Partnership) suggest a dialogue should occur between leaders of law enforcement and the minority community. The pair, along with Peoria's Jamila Wilson, discussed police/community concerns on Thursday's installment of WTVP-PBS' At Issue.

The Minority and Police Partnership is attempting to create a more open dialogue between the police departments and citizens, while the Peoria Police Community Relations Advisory Committee was recently created to foster positive relations and mutual respect between police and the community. Meanwhile, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner in December announced a new city review of police procedures and community relations, and NIOT:BN this week applauded Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner for publicly condemning one of his officer's racial remark about an African-American stabbing victim (see post below).

McLean County law enforcement agencies are joining with MAPP, NIOT, the NAACP, and others to sponsor a Jan. 2 Breaking Barriers community/police dialogue from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bloomington's City of Refuge Church, 401 E Jefferson. Anonymous questions for police can be sent in advance by visiting

Elliott in the WTVP interview maintained many minority citizens may feel reluctant to publicly "speak up" or file a complaint after they have experienced or suspect police abuse or mistreatment, for fear of official retribution. He feels that younger African-Americans "don't feel like they're being understood."

John Elliott, left, converses with citizens and police at NIOT:BN's December relaunch.

John Elliott, left, converses with citizens and police at NIOT:BN's December relaunch.

Elliott also emphasized the importance of improving diversity within police agencies, suggesting some citizens may feel more comfortable dealing with members of their own community.

"How do we build an atmosphere where that young person says, 'I want to be a police officer -- this is attractive to me, and something where I feel I can proud of that and that this is a service not only to the larger community but also to my particular ethnic (community),'" Matejka stated. 

Peoria's Wilson sees increased interest among individuals who "want to come out and talk about their levels of interactions with police, be they positive or negative."

"I think that's a first step -- the fact that we're having conversations," she said.

For more information or to watch additional episodes of At Issue, visit

Renner to review 'Selma' events, Voting Act impact Friday

Copyright Paramount Pictures

Copyright Paramount Pictures

Bloomington mayor and political science expert Tari Renner will offer insights on a crucial chapter in U.S. civil rights Friday in anticipation of the film "Selma"s arrival in the Twin Cities.

During Friday's biweekly City of Bloomington mayoral open house, at 4 p.m. in City Hall Council Chambers, 109 E. Olive St., Renner will discuss the Selma-to-Montgomery march -- the seminal basis for the new Martin Luther King Jr. biopic "Selma" -- and the lasting impact of the federal Voter's Rights Act of 1965.

Those are familiar topics for Renner, a political science professor with Illinois Wesleyan University. Dr. Renner, who also served on the faculties of Duquesne University and Washington College, was hired to chair IWU's poli-sci department in 1994.

His research interests have focused on local government policy-making structures and American elections. Renner received his Ph.D. and M.A. in political science from American University.

"Since race and southern politics are among my research and teaching interests, I'm hoping to help educate the community on the eve of the release of the movie "Selma" on Friday," Renner related.

The regular open house, an opportunity for residents to study the workings and latest activities of Bloomington government, will resume at 4:30 p.m.

"Selma" chronicles the three-month period in 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) led a campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. 

Oprah Winfrey appears in the film as civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper. For more information about the film, visit For a movie preview, visit Youtube at

"Selma" will be screened at Wehrenberg Bloomington Galaxy 14 Cine and Starplex Cinemas Normal Stadium 14. Check theater listings for times.

Celebrating the Season4Reason: The Relaunch

Photo by Nia Gilbert

Photo by Nia Gilbert

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner tapped into Tuesday’s official awareness-building “relaunch” of Not In Our Town-Bloomington/Normal to spearhead a fresh look at local police practices and community relations.

Renner was one of dozens signing pledges to fight bigotry and bullying at NIOT-B/N’s relaunch event at the McLean County YWCA. As the community anti-hate initiative unveiled its “Season4Reason” awareness/information campaign, the mayor reported that "going forward, I'm calling for the city to review and assess our current training programs and community policing practices, and I'm asking the Human Relations Commission to begin a dialogue on race relations and make recommendations for the future."

The Bloomington Police Department is a charter member of the Minority and Police Partnership of McLean County, and Chief Brendan Heffner holds regular focus meetings with the public.

"I want to be sure and lead on this rather that be reactive," Renner told The Pantagraph. "Whether it's like Ferguson, Mo., or Staten Island, N.Y., we in Bloomington are going to make it clear that this will not happen in our town."

Tuesday's event featured NIOT’s new billboard and bus ad designs, as well as a Not In Our Town-Bloomington/Normal Quilt produced by Normal-based Sew Memorable, whose owner, Lisa Feeney, was in attendance. NIOT-Bloomington/Normal Steering Committee member Camille Taylor noted the event was attended by a “standing room only” crowd topping 125, including community officials and leaders, law enforcement representatives, educators, students, and residents on hand to pledge their support.

“I was overwhelmed to see not only the large number who came out, but also the variety of leadership and everyday folks from our community,” Taylor said. “The young people there were heartwarming as well, because they are the future leaders in Bloomington-Normal.”

As Renner pledged an overview of community relations, school officials from across the Twin Cities stressed the need to embrace NIOT’s anti-bullying message.

"It's very important for me to make sure that all of our students are included. Even though we're a large building and we've got 2,000 students we want to make sure that everybody has a place," said Dave Bollmann, Normal Community High School principal.





Photo by Nia Gilbert

Photo by Nia Gilbert




Sandy Whisker/Sweet Memories Photography




The Not In Our Town Quilt: Joining the parts of our whole

 As part of the relaunch, NIOT has joined with Bloomington's First Christian Church and Normal's Sew Memorable Quilt design/production studio to unveil the Not In Our Town Quilt.

 The 37-inch square quilt features eight new Not In Our Town logos focusing on various segments of the community, including schools, emergency services, and the retail and corporate sectors. The logoed patches are sewn on a background employing the original black-white-and-yellow Not In Our Town palette, overlaid with pattern stitching depicting joined hands.

 "We're seeking new ways to communicate a very fundamental message -- the need for a safer, more inclusive neighborhood," NIOT communications coordinator Martin Ross said. "The quilt is a great metaphor for security, comfort, the diverse parts joined into a harmonious whole.

p"That's our objective for the Twin Cities -- to bring our diverse religious, cultural, and economic communities together for the mutual benefit of the entire community."

 The quilt was made possible through a $250 donation from First Christian Church as part of it's continuing community outreach campaign. The downtown-area church annually hosts a summer block party for west side families, and in 2015, it will introduce a new Sunday service aimed in part at serving the LGBT community and others who, according to FCC Associate Minister Kelley Becker, "don't currently have a church home."

 Sew Memorable owner Lisa Feeney, a former corporate trainer, specializes in commemorative, special occasion, or organizational quilts often fashioned from T-shirts.

Bloomington police chat with community leaders at the event. Photo by Nia Gilbert

Bloomington police chat with community leaders at the event. Photo by Nia Gilbert

 "Sew Memorable Quilts grew out of my basement hobby," Feeney noted. "I have sewn all my life -- I worked in a ballet shoe factory in college; I made my own wedding gown (10 foot train, hand-beaded 22,000 beads and 9,000 pearls onto galloon lace!!); and made draperies when my kids were small."

Twin City Not In Our Town sponsors anti-hate initiative

The PANTAGRAPH/December 7

by Maria Nagle

BLOOMINGTON — Against the backdrop of the deaths of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., and now New York City, and accompanying nationwide protests, Bloomington-Normal's "Not In Our Town" is sponsoring a new anti-hate initiative.

More than 100 political, community and educational leaders have been invited to show their support in fighting hatred and discrimination at an awareness-building event from 2 to 3 p.m. Tuesday at the YWCA McLean County, 1201 N. Hershey Road, Bloomington.

"Not In Our Town has always had a step in place for residents to show their support — the pledge card," said local NIOT member Marc Miller.

NIOT will unveil a newly-redesigned pledge card at a ceremonial signing of the first cards by community leaders to set an example for other residents, Miller said.

"Not In Our Town is a national movement that began right here in Bloomington," said Mayor Tari Renner. "I am honored to do whatever I can to help promote this cause so that people understand the best part of humanity and avoid our worst instincts."

A PBS "Not In Our Town" documentary, which explored how Billings, Mont., responded to a series of hate crimes, inspired the 1995 formation of an organization with the same name in Bloomington, making it the first city in the country to adopt the NIOT anti-hate, anti-discrimination program. 

Anyone who wants to come out and sign a pledge card Tuesday is welcome.

The latest campaign also includes placing NIOT's anti-hate, anti-discrimination message on electronic billboards, including one along Veterans Parkway at Lincoln Avenue, and posters on Connect Transit buses.

"One of our goals is to make this a safe, inclusive community," said Miller. "I don't see how anybody could say they don't agree with that principle."

While the event was planned seven to eight months ago, its goal to create a safe, inclusive community is all the more critical in light of what has happened in Ferguson, organizers said.

"We're blessed that nothing terrible has happened in Bloomington-Normal. Our goal is to make sure that is always true." Miller said. "We take pride in being proactive rather than reactive."

He also hopes the local anti-hate campaign will be a catalyst for community dialogue and spur renewed interest in the pioneering local movement whose profile has diminished in recent years.

"Inoculation against hate is getting people to talk about what's wrong and help make it right," said Miller. "When we don't talk about things it festers."

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner and Assistant Chief Gary Sutherland plan to attend the ceremonial signing event. 

"It's important for our residents to know that we are vested in communicating with the public so that we can all live in a safe community ... where we talk to each other and not at each other," Heffner said.

He and Sutherland attended a recent NIOT summit at the University of Illinois-Chicago to learn about developing civil rights issues and other related matters, Heffner said.

The organization is hoping to sponsor public discussions this spring between local law enforcement agencies and residents "to build mutual respect in that process," said Mike Matejka, who has been a Bloomington-Normal NIOT member from its inception.

"We can talk about what goes on in Ferguson. We can talk about what goes on with our police and what happens in our schools," said Matejka, Great Plains Laborers District Council's governmental affairs director. "And we can do it in a way that is respectful and hopefully builds understanding."

"I think the joy of Bloominton-Normal is we don't have events like Ferguson going on," Miller said. "It doesn't mean we don't have problems. It does mean we want to make this community a great place."