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Here's how you can participate in tonight's NIU, City of DeKalb 'Belonging: A Community Conversation' event

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University and DeKalb city officials are hosting a virtual event meant to bring people together for a conversation about creating a culture of belonging in the community.

The conversation will be virtual and is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, featuring Dr. john a. powell, an internationally recognized expert in civil rights, civil liberties, structural racism, housing, poverty and democracy. Organizers said powell prefers to have his name not capitalized. He also is the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

To register for the event, visit NIU’s calendar web page at A link to watch the event will be emailed to participants.

Reggie Thomas, DeKalb resident and head of the jazz studies program at the Northern Illinois University School of Music, said he has made a point in trying to take part in more community-centered events from his position at NIU, which he started in 2014. Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, he said those community outreach efforts included the annual jazz concert with the NIU jazz music program, DeKalb High School students and Sycamore High School students at the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb.

At the same time, Thomas said, the community has to admit to itself that there exist pockets of people who feel excluded or marginalized – especially in the wake of recent civil unrest.

“We need to be able to have all parts of our community feel welcome at all of the offerings of our community,” Thomas said.

Shelly Perkins, executive director for the DeKalb County Housing Authority, said she believes that a better sense of inclusion and belonging makes for a better community overall. She said she has heard from housing assistant applicants and long term area rental unit tenants they feel there’s a lack of inclusion in the area – whether that means a landlord is refusing to participate with rental assistance, disability accommodations aren’t met by a landlord or a minority group member feels unwelcome.

“We hear it all the time, and it goes hand in hand with any subsidy program,” Perkins said. “You have one group that looks down on one group.”

Vernese Edghill-Walden, chief diversity officer for Northern Illinois University, said that, in her five years at the university, she has heard from newer and long time residents that there is a bit of a disconnect in the community. She said this event has been in the works for a while before the pandemic, but it’s become all the more important to hold in recent times.

“I think that, with all that’s happening nationally, we need to be able to come together as a city to develop a plan for how we can ensure that our residents and students … and the community feel like this is a place where everyone, regardless of background or identity, feel like they are and can be a part of it,” Edghill-Walden said.

Edghill-Walden said it’s just the beginning of the conversation. She said she hopes people walk away with salient points of how to move forward in creating a more inclusive community.

“I hope we walk away with at least one thing that we can do differently or better to improve and help build community that they can belong in,” Edghill-Walden said.

DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas, who’s co-hosting the event with Edghill-Walden, said it’s important for local government to be involved in these conversations as well. If the word is out that DeKalb is “kind of a rough town” or not welcoming for people of color, for example, that doesn’t serve for a sense of belonging in the community, he said.

“So we should always be concerned about being welcoming,” Nicklas said.

As of about 6 p.m. Tuesday, there were more than 400 participants reportedly signed up for the virtual event, according to the event’s page.

Thomas said he ultimately wants people to be open to the experience going into the event, and keep that type of open mind coming out of it.

“That’s what we need more than anything else,” he said. “Open minds and open hearts.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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