A panel on local social justice efforts pointed out myriad challenges – and active efforts to meet them – during a Friday Forum discussion Feb. 12 at the University YMCA.
The YMCA is an independent entity with numerous university and community partnerships.
"As far as policy, the landscape is shifting," said Marlon Mitchell, a doctoral student at the U. of I. who works locally on issues of mass incarceration.
The incarceration issue has been impossible to ignore, as it has become part of the national conversation on race, even garnering attention by presidential candidates of both parties.
According to media sources, the United States incarcerates its people at the highest rate in the world – with blacks imprisoned at a disproportionally high rate. Many are serving sentences for drug-related or nonviolent offenses.
Mitchell said the argument for a better system has been an effective one and, with the additional challenge of paying for housing those prisoners, governments are slowly starting to adopt early release and reduced sentencing programs.
"People are returning home as we speak," he said. "The question is, 'What do they do after jail?'"
Mitchell said that problem will have to be addressed through job training and counseling programs meant to ease the transition from prison. Right now, he added, those programs don't exist in sufficient quantities, and finding a job with a conviction on one's record is incredibly difficult.
"There are basic services that we can provide as a community, and we're trying to build momentum," he said. "We have to try to give hope to the hopeless."
Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, who filled in on the panel for her husband, Aaron Ammons, Ward 3 alderman for the city of Urbana, said her husband is the perfect example of someone being given a second chance.
Convicted and having served prison time for a drug conviction, Aaron Ammons was pardoned last year by then-Gov. Pat Quinn.
"I met him after he had already changed his life and just didn't know what to do about it," she said.
Together they formed CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, where they have been active in local social justice issues.
"The national conversation on race has been revealing what black communities have known for a long time," she said. "It's becoming very difficult to ignore the obvious. What happens in Baltimore is not necessarily exclusive to Baltimore."
She said the community becomes even more important considering the state's inability to function as it should, and the fact that it is facing such dire financial problems.
Still, Ammons said she ultimately has faith in the legislative system.
"I believe in the political process, but you have to keep engaging the community," she said.
"It's going to take a grassroots effort to change this thing," Mitchell added.
Panelist Evelyn Reynolds, who heads up the local chapter of #BlackLivesMatter, said the change is going to have to come on several levels, including in the education system.
She said the problem goes beyond the three R’s and involves issues such as student discipline and social expression issues.
She said awareness is the answer.
"These issues have been startling to me on a local level, but I think there is hope there," she said. "Some of these issues can be solved pretty easily with teacher training and awareness."
"We can't allow the ideologues to take us back to the 1960s," Ammons added.
Kasey Umland, the University YMCA's associate director, said all of the Friday Forums this year have revolved around race and social justice issues.
She said they've all been well attended, averaging about 100 at each event. She said she believes they are a valuable part of the community's ongoing discussion about race relations.
"The response has been overwhelming," she said. "It's raised awareness, and it's helped us develop or strengthen relationships with the folks on campus. I hear student groups talking about these issues and considering the campus climate and their role in making it a welcoming place."
Friday Forum has been running for more than 80 years and started out as a weekly faculty lecture on a prescribed topic.
The University YMCA has partnerships with more than a dozen student organizations, as well as relationships with university students, employees and academic units.
"Historically, the Y has seen itself as a place to discuss important issues of the day," Umland said. "We've always had people come here to gather and reflect. It's part of our mission."