PEORIA, ILL. — Illinois state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, remembers very clearly when a 24/7 Wall Street article in 2016 named her hometown of Peoria, which she represents in the statehouse, as having the worst disparities between white and black residents.
The Peoria NAACP had scheduled an event to celebrate and honor retiring President Don Jackson, who had led the organization for decades. Unfortunately, Gordon-Booth recalled, the 24/7 article came out that day.
"Don was a fierce, fierce fighter for the black community and underprivileged people," said Gordon-Booth. "It felt like a funeral."
Gordon-Booth described herself as having a foot in two worlds in Peoria; she grew up an African American woman but she's been a state representative since 2009.
"It's not like I was delusional. I knew that people were having real serious challenges," she said. "But seeing that though, seeing it on paper ..."
She said she cried "like a baby."
"For a day it broke my spirit," she said. "But the next day I was like, 'All right. Let’s get it done.' "
Peoria has since moved down to No. 7 on the 24/7 report. At the same time, the Racine metro area is ranked No. 2 on the most recent report, listed as the second-worst place in the U.S. for blacks. Gordon-Booth said some policy changes in Peoria have helped, but added that there is more work to do.
Before the 24/7 Wall Street article came out, Gordon-Booth had held her first expungement summit in March 2016, where she brought together lawyers who offered their services for free to help people clear their record.
Approximately one in four Illinois residents has a criminal record. In a community like Peoria, where the largest employers are in local government, education and health care, it is a significant barrier to employment.
"If you have a background, you are calcified in poverty," said Gordon-Booth.
Illinois has a system for expungement; not all charges apply and once someone has served their time, they have to stay out of trouble for certain period of time before they can qualify to expunge their record. But only 3% of the Illinois population goes through the process, in large part because it's cost-prohibitive. Gordon-Booth estimated it costs about $7,500.
Her expungement summits give people a chance at a fresh start at no cost but their time.
"I opened the doors at 7:30; there were already 80, 90 people waiting in the rain. All of them were African American," she said. "It was obvious that how the justice system had been impacting people."
She described a 70-year-old man, presumably retired, who told her "I just want this off me." One woman approached her and said since her expungement, she was able to become a certified nurse. Gordon-Booth said she's seen grown men cry.
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"Because they have another chance. It is life-changing," she said. "Three years ago, when I was doing these events, I had an elected official tell me I was holding a party for felons. I said, 'No, this is about second chances. This is about people who have paid their debt to society.' "
Now that Illinois is rolling out marijuana legalization, Gordon-Booth said she is collaborating with technology companies to see if there's a way to automate expungement for marijuana-related convictions.
A state-wide solution
Gordon-Booth noted that Peoria wasn't alone among Illinois cities on the 24/7 Wall Street list; that year Kankakee also was in the top 10, and in subsequent years they have been joined by Springfield, Decatur, Rockford and Danville.
She also noticed that many of the cities that topped the list, within and outside Illinois, were once hubs of heavy industry, like Racine.
"It’s the Midwestern states that relied on manufacturing that are having the hardest time. We’ve got to bring people into the 21st-century economy," she said. "How do we meet people where they’re at and build them credentials that are usable?"
The solution she came up with, in partnership with the Illinois Community College Board and Illinois Central College, is a grant program in which community colleges, in partnership with their area economic development councils and local businesses, identify needed skills and develop condensed, paid apprenticeships where people can become certified in those skills.
"The goal with this program is to take people that are under-credentialed within the community and giving them the ability to go into the top five skills gaps in that region so after certification, there’s a guaranteed job," she said. "We’re taking someone who is receiving food stamps, rental assistance and we’re now making that person a taxpayer for life ... we’re making an investment in people."
Going down, in a good way
Gordon-Booth wasn't the only person spurred into action. Peoria had been on 24/7 Wall Street's top 10 list in previous years and, in early 2016, The Peoria Journal Star chronicled an increase in activity among activities and community organizations and city officials to address the community's disparities.
And it appears some progress has been made. In 2017, Peoria moved to No. 2 on the national list, in 2018 to No. 5 and this year it was ranked No. 7.
Gordon-Booth said that while there were some people who saw the listing and weren't surprised, there are still some who refuse to believe it.
"There were people in the community who could not believe it, didn’t want to believe it, didn’t want to accept that it was a reality, but that is a mistake," she said. "We can't be in the business of believing the good press releases and dismissing the bad ones."
But she doesn't worry about convincing those who don't want to believe. Instead, she devotes her time and energy to doing what she can with the power and position she has.
"At the end of the day, you’ve got to move with the will of whatever body you’re in," she said. "It doesn’t all happen at once, but if you stick with it, things will change.
"I’m sticking with it because I’ve seen the needle move."
"It’s the Midwestern states that relied on manufacturing that are having the hardest time. We’ve got to bring people into the 21st century economy."
Illinois state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria