Constituent Newsletter

Campus Turmoil: What Does it Mean for the City?

November 15, 2015

Dear ______________________:

It's been a week of turmoil on the MU campus, following months of rising racial tension. Acts of bravery and brinksmanship have precipitated dramatic power shifts, and I want to extend my congratulations and sincere good wishes to Mike Middleton and Hank Foley - leaders who are highly qualified to take charge at this challenging time.

Now, we have a small window of opportunity to contemplate how City government should respond, as part of a community-wide solution. First, I believe we must all take part in an honest and transparent dialogue about race and discrimination, uncomfortable though that may be for many of us. So I encourage you to share your thoughts with me.

While the global history of slavery and racial discrimination is horrific, it's important to understand that these are not just tyrannies of the past. Present-day racism is not as explicit as in earlier times, and I encourage you to read Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" to learn more. This well-researched documentary account of the late twentieth-century institutionalization of racism into America's law enforcement and criminal justice systems demonstrates the tenacity of discrimination in our culture.

I see two distinct but closely-connected issues facing our community. The most obvious manifestation of racism consists of verbal and physical racial assaults, and I have been deeply shocked to comprehend how commonly these acts are taking place at the University of Missouri and in our broader community. The second, more sinister and shadowy face of racism is its deeply-rooted insinuation into our institutions and culture, leading to oppression of marginalized people and a tolerance for inaction.

America strives to be a nation of opportunity for all - where everyone can succeed by working hard and staying out of trouble. However, having spent time working with community leaders in some of Columbia's poorest neighborhoods, it is clear to me that we have not yet achieved that vision of equal opportunity for all. Therefore, we need to understand and address injustice, and guard against a "blame the victim" mentality.

I congratulate City Manager Mike Matthes on his vision in recognizing this disparity of opportunity and promoting social equity as the foundation of the City's Strategic Plan, and I commend my City Council colleagues for endorsing Mike's vision. We have laid the groundwork for critical programs and policies that will improve opportunity for the most disadvantaged members of the Columbia community, but it will take much more work to plan and implement them.

What should these social equity-focused programs and policies look like? ... I encourage you to weigh in with your thoughts - only with the broadest community input can we create buy-in and the opportunity for success.

In my personal view:

  1. We must implement a community policing philosophy that strives to build positive relations with law-abiding residents of our poorest and highest-crime neighborhoods, and offer alternatives to arrest for non-violent youth offenders in order to interrupt the "school-to-prison pipeline."
  2. We must develop appropriate training and create jobs for those most in need of employment. This will require the City to partner with the public schools, post-secondary educational institutions, employers, and unions to enhance critical skills. I believe the City can also enhance local employment by directing more of its purchases to local vendors, and by stimulating the Columbia business economy in areas where we currently send a lot of money out of the community, such as energy and food production.
  3. We must design and fund a community transportation system that provides access to jobs and services for everybody. Olsson Associates has just been selected as our Transit Consultant - they will spend a year in Columbia, study our existing bus system, engage stakeholders and residents in visioning, present best practices from other college towns, and ultimately develop recommendations and a long-range plan. Please be sure to get involved in this process.
  4. We must work with banks and private developers to identify and adopt policies that generate more affordable housing - thousands of working poor literally cannot afford to own or rent a home in Columbia. Join us at the City's Affordable Housing Symposium, December 3-4 to learn more about these strategies and begin developing a community plan.
    5. And we must stop the siphoning of funds from our public utilities to subsidize expensive new housing that is simply unaffordable to a large segment of our citizens. Equitable development charges and connection fees that cover the cost of expanding our public infrastructure systems are essential to keep the cost of living down for our poorest residents, while maintaining adequate levels of service for all of us.

Those are my thoughts - what are yours?

Finally, I want to let you know about two upcoming workshops the City is hosting on the topics of inclusion and diversity, both presented by the National Conference for Community and Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis:

  • Building Inclusive Communities: Friday, November 20, 2015, 8:30am - 4:30pm
  • Interrupting Racism: Friday, January 29, 2016, 8:30am - 4:30pm

The workshops will be held in the Training Room at the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, with lunch provided - you can register online at www.nccjstl.org.

Ian Thomas