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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 02:18 pm

Mayor falls short on promise to hire minority firefighters

Like Captain Ahab, will the Springfield Fire Department ruthlessly pursue its colorless foe?

When the top brass of the Springfield Fire Department filed in and took their seats before the alderman to present their budget last week, something struck me about their presence. Within seconds, I realized my senses and sensibilities were awash in whiteness. White hair. White shirts. White skin. And, of course, all male.

In 1992, my husband and I with our two small children moved to Springfield to make a home for our family. Having selected Springfield, in part, because it was a capital city where my interests in public policy and politics could flourish, it did not take long for me to get engaged in the community. My first big eye-opening experience into Springfield’s establishment culture came early, after following a fierce debate about the hiring of a diversity specialist for School District 186. In the end, the backlash from the community was too great and the person and the position were eliminated. Around that time, I also remember learning that we had an all-male and an either all-white or mostly white fire department. When phone solicitors raising money to support the Springfield Fire Department called our home, I told them I would donate when they showed significant increases in female and minority hiring. They stopped calling.

Fast-forward to the 2011 mayoral election where all candidates committed, in general, to increasing diversity among the city workforce, including fire and police. But candidate Michael Houston put forth a bold proposal. Bold considering Springfield’s history of failure with regards to minority hiring. At the Faith Coalition for the Common Good forum with a large number of African-Americans in attendance, candidate Houston outlined his proposal. “You can’t just keep doing the same thing that you’ve been doing for the last 50 years and expect that you’re going to get a different result,” Houston said, eliciting applause from the crowd. He said his administration would hire 25 percent minorities over a two-year period to bring the police and fire departments to 15 percent minority representation each [see Illinois Times, March 10, 2011].

Fast-forward to August 2011, when Mayor Houston, interviewed again by Illinois Times, “announced the city would begin in September the recruitment process for new police hires for the first time in two years. Houston also took a step toward fulfilling a campaign promise of increasing minority recruitment for city jobs, saying 25 percent of new police recruits would be minorities.

“My goal is to have both a police and fire department that is reflective of the community,” Houston said. “In my mind, the way you’re going to make that happen is 25 percent of our hires should be minorities until we have a representation that reflects the community.” [ See “City seeking minority police recruits,” Aug. 2011.]

But wait – did I miss something? Didn’t the fire department just hire 20 new firefighters with a federal SAFER grant?

Of those, we learned at the budget hearing that the Springfield Fire Department hired one African-American and one female. Hardly the 25 percent promised by first candidate and then Mayor Houston. This brings the fire department to a grand total of 212 white males, four African-American males, two Hispanic males, one Asian male and eight females. That’s 97 percent white and 96.5 percent male!

To be fair, Mayor Houston promised to meet the 15 percent goal for police and fire over two years. He has a little over one more year to fulfill that promise.

Sheila Stocks-Smith of Springfield, who ran for mayor in last April’s election, is a special projects consultant and adjunct professor at UIS, teaching a class on public policy.

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