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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007 02:32 pm

Alone in a crowd

Young African-American professionals say Springfield offers them very few reasons to stay

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ILLUSTRATION BY PAUL LACHINE
Untitled Document It’s Saturday night. Tandra Anderson is in St. Louis to do a little holiday shopping. Kim Moore also is in the Lou, on business. Jimmy Rice is at the Panera Bread on Springfield’s east side, typing quietly on his laptop and sipping hot tea. He is toying with the idea of going to see the latest Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, and will probably go to bed afterward. All three live in Springfield, went to college, hold full-time jobs, are under 40, and are African-American. For them, and young black professionals like them, Springfield just isn’t where it’s at. The least pessimistic ones will you tell you that Springfield, at best, is lame. Others straight-up hate it here. For them, Springfield is a steppingstone, an agonizing layover en route to a “real” city with nightspots that play the music they like, that embraces African-American culture, where blacks are represented in high-ranking government offices and there are lots of other blacks. If opportunity were to knock, not only would they answer the door but their bags would likely already be packed and waiting by the door. The root of the problem goes deeper than the old nothing-to-do refrain. Part of it is the city’s troublesome history, dating back to the 1908 race riots. It’s also the sense that Springfield can be fiercely resistant to progress, stuck in 1865, its entire identity pegged on an American hero who once said that if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do it (even if he also said he would free all of the slaves to save the Union).
What’s more, getting ahead in Springfield is about more than who you know — it’s about “who’s yer daddy,” what political party he belongs to, and which party happens to be in power, they say. In Springfield, a city whose population is 13 percent black, which has never had an African-American mayor or fire chief, and which has had, at most, a couple of black members of local legislative bodies at a time, this means that there aren’t a whole lot of blacks getting ahead. So why would they want to hang around for the long haul? But the issue here is more serious than a handful of unhappy citizens. What demographers sometimes call brain drain — the exodus of skilled, talented individuals as a result of lack of opportunity — can have serious long-term consequences. Nicole Jenkins, a 23-year-old graduate student and Virginia native attending the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, is among those who want out. “I went to Hampton [University, in Hampton, Va.] and lived in an area where being young, black and educated is commendable. Here, it doesn’t matter — you’re just black,” she says.
“There’s no arena to go to where there is even a mixed young, ethnic crowd, which is sad. I’m just ecstatic I only have six months left in this prison sentence, then back to the coast, where there is not sickening outright racism, and an innumerable amount of blacks. “Sorry if I’m so negative, but I’m telling you the truth.”

Let’s face it: Springfield is not a hip city. Among the town’s top attractions are the International Carillon Festival, the Lincoln Pilgrimage, the International Livestock Exposition, the State Farm Classic LPGA Tournament, and the Midwest Charity Horse Show.
But it’s not just blacks who say that Springfield sucks. Many young white professionals feel the same way, and this attitude is partly what led to the formation of the Young Springfield Professionals Network. According to YSPN co-founder Sarah Wolin, the group is for the “young and young at heart.”
On Dec. 1, despite a snowstorm, more than 100 people showed up for a YSPN trivia night. Most of the members, who must be at least 21 to join, are from Sangamon County, Wolin says.
Asked about diversity in the fledgling organization, Wolin says the leadership doesn’t have specific numbers but is conducting outreach through several community groups. “When we talk about diversity, it’s not just ethnic diversity. It’s the type of professions they’re in — age and where you’re from, rural areas versus more urban areas,” Wolin says. The way 34-year-old Springfield resident Moore sees it, Springfield’s problem is that it’s a city with a small-town mentality, run by a cadre of wealthy, politically entrenched white families. If you happen to be in the minority here, someone who doesn’t have one of those magical Springfield surnames, you’re just out of luck. When the workday ends, Moore says, she and her friends would rather to stay at home than do the downtown bar scene, where most of the patrons are white.
On weekends, they often head for Chicago or St. Louis to be around other people who look like them. “There are 101 poetry events going on in St. Louis on any given night; there are concerts constantly; you can go to the Central West End and see a bunch of young black people hanging out,” she says. But, Moore says, “When you can drive an hour and a half to another state, that’s not good” for Springfield. Studies show that cities with large numbers of young black professionals tend to do a better job of attracting and retaining them. Memphis, Tenn.; Houston; Charlotte, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; Detroit; Baltimore; Philadelphia; Dallas; Chicago; and Atlanta are perennial contenders for the honors of best cities for African-Americans, according to Black Enterprise magazine.
Rice, a 27-year-old native of Springfield, moved back home from the D.C. area in 2005 to take a job at Abundant Faith Christian Center.
“I was almost depressed when I got back,” Rice says. “Black culture was minimal; there was no place to go kick it, no place where the people looked like us. When Staci Baldwin, also from Springfield, moved to Georgia for college, she never looked back. “Springfield doesn’t really offer much for young African-Americans trying to excel in life and not become a statistic,” says Baldwin, now a special agent with the Federal Aviation Administration in Atlanta. “I didn’t see any jobs in Springfield in the field of criminal justice that caught my eye, and I’ve been reading about the SPD — and it still looks grim.”
Erica Meek’s assessment is just as bleak. Meek, who recently graduated from a St. Louis-area law school, says she wouldn’t consider a move back to Springfield, either. “There are no incentives to move back — no diversity, no culture, no restaurants, no nightlife, no shopping, no good schools,” she says.
“The only thing attractive about Springfield is the cost of living, but that just isn’t enough incentive to give up all of the other offerings of a larger and more progressive metropolis.”

On Nov. 29, the Citizens Club of Springfield brought about 75 people together to discuss the future of race relations in Springfield. The organization had already sponsored two forums on the subject. There was no absence of brainpower in the Dove Conference Center that day. On the dais were Ken Page, president of the Springfield branch of the NAACP; Larry Golden, emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield; Jim Lewis, a federal prosecutor; Gary Plummer, president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce; and David Burns, business manager of an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local. Kenley Wade, chairman of the Citizens Club’s race-relations subcommittee, moderated. For two hours, the usual suspects — as Golden characterized the panelists — recited the usual litany of problems in the Springfield Police Department, boosting minority employment with the city, economic development on the east side, and more jobs for black folks. If anyone could fix any of it, it was the people collected in this room. Mayor Tim Davlin and his top assistant, Jim Donelan; Ministerial Alliance president Dr. Wes McNeese; mayoral candidate and Ward 10 Ald. Bruce Strom; and former U.S. Marshal Robert Moore (Kim Moore’s father) were just of the few of the players in attendance.
The message was simple: Springfield has made some progress but has a long way to go, as the NAACP’s Page said, before it can even become an “adequate city.”
And those in attendance seemed to agree that the task is now up to Springfield’s younger generation of leaders. However, even though 18- to 39-year-olds account for 26 percent of Sangamon County’s population, the white representatives of that group present that night wouldn’t have filled the seats around the City Council’s horseshoe, and there were even fewer young blacks at the forum. If young people don’t participate in these discussions, it’s unlikely that anything will change, a dilemma understood all too well by Thomas Dorsey, a Springfield attorney and president of the Black Chamber of Commerce, who did attend the meeting.
“I want my kids to grow up and go to a good school and get a good education with a diverse population,” he says. In a recent interview, Davlin said that he absolutely sees “the value in attracting and retaining young professionals from all races and ethnicities to our city” and believes that young people have always been one of Springfield’s strengths. “When Mike Pittman and Kevin Gamble joined forces, they did not have a track record of success,” Davlin says, “yet through perseverance they have not only expanded development in the inner city area but Mike has begun a specialized newspaper and Kevin is a leader at the University of Illinois at Springfield.”
Davlin says that Springfield, with its primary employers in government, health care, and insurance, is in a good position to attract a diverse group of young professionals. Not only will those people contribute to the success of Springfield financially, he says, more important, they will also have a big influence on the future of Springfield. “As society strives to part ways for good with all semblances of racism, I believe one of the keys to achieving this goal is for young professionals of all races to be role models for our children,” Davlin says. “This is best achieved when children see people of all colors and backgrounds contributing positively to our successes. Given opportunity, young professionals can have a profound impact on our community.”

The mayor suggests that minority young professionals lead by example. Kim Moore agrees. Her group The Network hosts events in Springfield that appeal more to young, black professionals, such as Expressions in the Dark, which is held on the first Friday of each month. “We have to make it happen for ourselves,” she says. “When there’s a few of us, we need to bring all of us into the fold so we can grow.”
But Moore, one of The Network’s co-founders, says that blacks can still do a better job of supporting one another. “I want my city to be so much better, because it has so much potential,” she says. This summer, however, she was disappointed at the low attendance at Meeting at the Elders Circle, a gospel play her group brought to Springfield.
“You want to say there’s nothing to do?” Moore says. “We’re breaking our necks, going into debt. . . . But I do it because we have to do something. If I didn’t, we’d go berserko.”
For 40-year-old Dorsey, economic development is the key. He credits the GSCC with “trying to take us to a new place” with its Bridges initiative, which, according to GSCC president Plummer, will boost the local economy by $2.6 billion, add 4,500 new jobs, and give rise to more than 350 business startups. This could translate into more black-owned businesses in Springfield, which is why Dorsey is trying to track down as many of the African-American business owners as he can find among the some 500 minority-owned businesses located in Sangamon County and get them involved with the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce.
“There should be alternatives besides working for the state. You talk about brain drain now? If there are no jobs, people are gone,” he says.
Ultimately, Dorsey says: “City leaders will have to figure out how to attract youth and must also take a youthful perspective on things. This city will have to decide if it wants to make itself attractive, and maybe it doesn’t.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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