Minority report

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

When longtime resident Debra Mitchell-Braxton was appointed to the Vision 2020 Community Relations Council recently, she became only the third black and 26th woman among the more than 140 community residents serving on the various boards that advise the Cape Girardeau City Council.

Black residents make up 9.3 percent (3,288) of the city's population (35,349), according to the 2000 census. Nearly 53 percent of the city's residents are female, census numbers show. By comparison, 2 percent of the city's boards and commissions consist of black residents and 18 percent of the seats are held by women.

Black leaders Dr. A.G. Green and former city councilman J.J. Williamson say the city needs to reach out more to minority residents through black churches -- and that black residents must take more initiative to get involved in city government.

"The backbone of the African-American community has always been the church," said Dr. Green, pastor of Rhema Word Breakthrough International Ministries, 750 N. Mount Auburn Road. "If you want to reach a certain segment of the African-American community, you have to start with the church."

The city advertises for applicants on the local cable-television access channel, at the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce's leadership program, and in the city's online newsletter.

Councilman Charlie Herbst, who chairs the city's public awareness committee, thinks the city needs to make a greater effort to inform city residents about the application process and city government services in general. The city used to send out a monthly newsletter with utility bills to inform residents about city projects and services. The newsletters also urged interested residents to apply to serve on city boards. As a cost-cutting move, the city stopped the newsletter last year.

"We removed a vehicle for communication with every household in the city of Cape Girardeau," Herbst said.

In its place, the city established an online newsletter in January. But Herbst said the information doesn't reach residents who don't own or have access to computers.

Williamson says many black residents don't read the newspaper and don't have home computers. Williamson also said the city could encourage more minority applications by enlisting the aid of black churches to publicize the application process.

At Herbst's urging, the city plans to ask churches and groups like the Salvation Army to print copies of the online newsletter and make it available to residents.

Green said minority residents also have to make an effort to learn about city government and city committees. "We should have the personal initiative to do that," he said.

Mitchell-Braxton said it can be intimidating to some blacks to serve on otherwise all-white committees. "It takes a person who has a lot of self-confidence," she said.

She believes minority residents would be willing to serve on boards if they were asked.

Women appointed by the council serve on seven of the 16 city committees and three other committees that include representatives from other governmental entities. Half of the 12 members of the historic preservation commission are women. Four of the city's seven council members are women. Six of the eight members of the Cape Girardeau Public Library board are women. The board has one vacancy.

When library director Betty Martin says she would like more diversity on the board, she means men. "We are trying to find someone, preferably a male, preferably a minority and maybe someone who has some children," Martin said.

To serve on the board, residents must live in the library district. That district includes the city's south side where many minority residents live.

Last week, the city council reappointed three members to the Vision 2020 Community Relations Council and appointed two others. With the change, the 12-member Vision 2020 board now has six women. The board also has two black members: Williamson and Mitchell-Braxton.

Nancy Jernigan, executive director of the Area Wide United Way, encouraged both Williamson and Mitchell-Braxton to apply for Vision 2020 board seats. Having minority residents on the advisory board is good for the community, she says.

"It is important to understand each other's culture and consider that as we are making plans for the future."

Jernigan would also like to recruit a Hispanic resident to serve on the board in recognition of the small but growing Hispanic population in the community. "We need to recognize how alike we are rather than how different we are," she said.

Black advisory board member Dr. Ivy Locke, vice president of business and finance at Southeast Missouri State University, serves on the city's investment committee. That is likely to change soon because Locke is leaving her university job at the end of the year.

City finance director John Richbourg recruited Locke because of her financial expertise. Her race had nothing to do with her selection, he said.

Mayor Jay Knudtson said city hall is colorblind when it comes to advisory board appointments. "We have great representation. There is no issue in terms of diversity," he said.

Deborah McBride, a black south side civic leader, said the lack of diversity on city boards "makes us feel isolated. It makes us feel as though our voice doesn't count."


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