While the pandemic has been keeping people apart, the City of DeKalb, Northern Illinois University and a collection of local agencies have been working to bring the DeKalb community closer together through the Belonging initiative.

The initiative to develop a belonging community was sparked by a virtual conversation in October 2020, led by Dr. john a. powell, who leads the Belonging Institution at U.C. Berkley. Joining the city and the university in the effort are Family Service Agency, the Ellwood Museum and the DeKalb County History Center.

Aided by a $30,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) in January 2021, and a $5,000 donation from the DeKalb County Community Foundation, those organizations have been working on a variety of public art and engagement activities designed to examine issues around race in the community. The goal is to make DeKalb a more welcoming, inclusive place that embraces diversity.

“We are delighted to be in partnership with the City of Dekalb and our community partners on such an important endeavor,” said Vernese Edghill-Walden,  vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion /Chief Diversity Officer and Interim Chief Human Resources Officer at NIU. “The positive support received from the entire community has been wonderful. We look forward to co-creating a community where all members are seen, valued and respected is a community where all members can live and more importantly can thrive.”

DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas is equally enthused about the program.

“The social justice movement that has positively energized the dialogue about racism in our country and in this community since May 2020 has also helped us engage one another in finding what unites and humanizes us,” Nicklas said of the project. “It is our hope that this initiative will encourage our diverse community in the further exploration of how we can better embrace one another as we work, learn and live together.”

Projects funded by the IDHS grant have come to fruition this month, creating opportunities for members of the community to explore issues that create division and potentially motivating them to find ways to tear down those barriers and make DeKalb a place where all can feel they belong. See below for information on each project.

Faces of Belonging

The Faces of Belonging project is a traveling exhibit that promotes “belonging” among individuals who live, work and study in DeKalb. It highlights the rich network of diverse individuals who make up the community through their unique photographs, perspectives and varied life experiences. The portraits capture individuals that work to create a sense of belonging for others in the community. Each shows a person in a place in DeKalb that creates a sense of belonging for that individual. The photographs are accompanied by excerpts from interviews with the subjects of the photographs, sharing insights into what belonging means to them and how to create a sense of belonging for everyone.

The project was created by Jessica Labatte, an associate professor in NIU’s School of Art and Design, and two of her photography students, Amy Fleming and Jacob Rivera. The photographs can be seen on Huskie Line buses. The exhibit can be viewed online at www.belongingdekalb.com.

Arts in Action

Developed by the DeKalb County History Center and the Ellwood House Museum, Arts in Action investigates the history of race relations in DeKalb County with the assistance of nine visual artists. Their work touches upon the themes of fear, exclusion, community and hope.

Arts in Action is designed to be a platform for community members and artists to tell their stories, especially for those whose voices have not always been heard. The project goal is to build a stronger community by sharing, listening to and understanding the stories of everyone in the community.

A virtual exhibit launched March 31 and can be viewed on the DeKalb County History Center Website.

Hateful Things

Northern Illinois University’s Pick Museum of Anthropology, in collaboration with the Center for Black Studies, is hosting the traveling exhibition, “Hateful Things.” Created and circulated by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, the exhibition represents nearly 150 years of anti-Black/racist memorabilia and imagery, each embodying the terrible effects of the Jim Crow legacy. This powerful exhibition lifts objects from their original purposes to serve as reminders of America’s racist past and challenges present-day images and systems of oppression. It is a representation of racial stereotyping with the aim of stimulating the scholarly examination of historical and contemporary expressions of racism, as well as promoting racial understanding and healing. The exhibit is open to the public for in-person and virtual tours through April 9, and reservations are required. A virtual tour is available online.

 Diversity Dialogues

The Diversity Dialogues series at NIU was created to allow participants to understand and discuss a wide range of topics from local and global perspectives. It focuses on participants enhancing their awareness, becoming comfortable in engaging in informed conversations and expanding to social justice actions to create positive change and solve problems. As part of the Belongings initiative, Dr. LaVonya Bennett led a virtual session March 25, co-sponsored by Target, to provide participants an understanding of the historic and current lived experiences of people of color and how trauma is caused and influenced by racial identity.

Belonging Council Formation

The grant has also supported work to create a community Belonging Council to guide such activities going forward. A team from NIU‘s Center for Governmental Studies has facilitated a series of formation discussions with a steering committee of community members working collaboratively to create foundational documents and a vision for a Belonging Council within the City of DeKalb. To date, the steering committee has created a working draft of the Belonging Council’s mission statement, a list of guiding values, and undertaken an analysis of the operating environment. The steering committee will work on the development of short- and long-term organizational and mission-driven goals along with an action plan for the remaining workshop sessions, which are planned to be completed in early April.

For more information about Belonging, visit cityofdekalb.com/belonging.

Header photo: One of the many striking images from Faces of Belonging, view them all online