LIMA — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought a message of peace and equality for all people, a legacy that almost 50 years after his death, communities such as Lima are still struggling to achieve, community leaders said. While much has been done to bridge both real and perceived barriers for minorities, there’s still much work to be done, they said.
While Lima City Council has had minority representation through the years, in the civil service ranks, particularly at the Lima Police Department, the workforce doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community. Community leaders acknowledge the gap exists and said efforts continue to be made to address it, but there are no easy answers, they said.
“Well, from decades ago I would say it’s probably gone backwards. I wish I could tell you why that is, I don’t really know,” Police Chief Kevin Martin said. “If you go back decades, there was a time when we had an African-American chief and we had several other ranking African-American members of the department. Now we’re struggling to get minorities to want to participate in the hiring process even.
“I’m not sure why. I wish I could figure it out and fix it. It’s something that’s taken a long time to develop and I think the solutions are going to take a long time to make work as well. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix.”
Martin said he’s dedicated to working on both short- and long-term solutions to rebuild trust between the minority community and the department to help with recruitment and retention efforts. Martin said he and others continue to reach out to service organizations, churches and local colleges to help with minority recruitment. He said he’s also working with building trust with the youth so they may one day consider a career in law enforcement.
“Hopefully by getting out there and communicating with the kids in a nonhostile way, even as early as grade school, hopefully that will have some long-term benefit in re-establishing that trust,” Martin said. “If we re-establish that trust we will also help to improve our minority recruitment in the long-term.”
Derry Glenn, 6th Ward Lima city councilor, said King would not rest if he saw where the city of Lima is at today with its employment and recruitment of minority workers.
“Martin Luther King would not sleep today if he saw some of the things we have going on,” Glenn said. “Can it be fixed overnight? No, it can’t be fixed overnight. It’s been a long time and it should have been fixed by now.”
Glenn said part of the solution is not just focusing on the issue around Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month or when a civil service test is approaching but rather year-round.
“This is not something we’re going to fix overnight. We need to go out there recruit and work very hard,” Glenn said. “This has been going on so long it feels like we haven’t budged. We walk about it, but all of us have to work at it. We need to motivate our kids to stay here. This is a great town to live in. We need them to realize that and all of us have to work at that.”
Lima Mayor David Berger said the city has always done and continues to do marketing outreach designed to encourage members of the minority community to train for openings. City Council last summer passed a change in the city’s civil service rules designed to encourage more participation in the recruitment process. It’s too early to tell it’s success, Berger said.
“We have actively promoted training opportunities in the media. We have created multiple sessions at times we think are more convenient, both on Saturdays and evening hours when folks are off their regular jobs. Those are things we will continue to do,” Berger said. “The fact is we do recognize there is a significant minority population in our community and it is, in my view, entirely appropriate the workforce look like the community it serves. It is a benefit to the local taxpayers to be hiring people from our community for those jobs.”
Vickie Shurelds, executive director of the Cheryl Allen Southside Community Center, said while the city perhaps hasn’t done enough to bridge the gap, neither has the minority community itself.
“It’s a double-edged conversation because the city has not done enough as far as embracing the complete community. At the same time, those of us who may feel disenfranchised not only from this community but the state and the country have not done enough to make ourselves a place at the table for those conversations,” Shurelds said. “One of the things Dr. King did was he, in a very gentle way, moved things aside and pulled his chair up to the table so that he was part of that conversation and so he was the focus of that conversation so that he could tell our story.
“It was wonderful for us to be led by someone like that. The truth of the matter is that Dr. King opened the door and we were all supposed to walk through that door and support him and support the dream and support what needed to happen. When he was taken from us we all just kind of fell apart.”
Shurelds said it’s a change in how the minority community views itself that’s needed — to view themselves as part of the community instead of being on the outside looking in.
“There’s so much that we need to have happen for the African-Americans in this community to not even be considered African-Americans in this community that we’re just the people of Lima,” Shurelds said. “Once we can just be the people of Lima and not have to sit down and categorize what we mean by that that’s when we know we’ve reached what Dr. King was talking about.”