Kent will consider forming a commission to examine systemic racism in the city

Image of demonstrators marching against anti-Asian racism
Kent community members march to The Rock at Kent State as they chant in unison on April 8, 2021, to show their support for the Asian community. Asha Blake/The Portager

At the urging of several community leaders, Kent City Council pledged to consider forming an anti-racism committee as part of its February committee meeting.

Four Kent residents joined Portage County NAACP President Geraldine Hayes Nelson at last week’s city council meeting to encourage them to create a Committee on Inclusion aimed at addressing systemic racism in the city.

Hayes Nelson said that when she and Christie Anderson of the Kent Interfaith Alliance addressed council in September 2020, city council discussed “forming a new city commission to proactively deal with racism, hatred and diversity.” But they have not made any progress since then.

“They heard our presentation and said they would consider taking it to committee, but then there was no action,” Hayes Nelson said.

It is time, she said, to move the needle so all voices can be heard.

“Council must take heed and listen to the need of our beloved community for inclusion in order to build a better community and world for all,” Hayes Nelson said.

The committee would be the first of its kind in Portage County.

Robin Turner, the city’s only Black council member, said it is important to revisit forming the commission, which he admitted has been on council’s “pending list” for over a year. What the commission’s purview will be “is a little nebulous right now,” so direction and input from the petitioners will be important, he said.

“I think we’re all of one accord, at least, that we view this as a major issue that needs to be dealt with,” he said. “This is just a beginning point. This is our opportunity to let people know that we care, that we understand, that we get it.”

The commission can serve as an opportunity for Kent’s minority communities to become engaged in governance, he said.

Council Member John Kuhar said the commission would probably emerge in the next two or three months, but he said, “I don’t think we have a lot of racial issues. I’m sure there’s some, though. Maybe there is.”

Kuhar recalled events in the 1960s, when the country and even Ravenna experienced discord in the streets. Kent, he said, “pretty much” didn’t have those types of issues.

Growing up in Kent’s South End, the area of the city historically reserved for immigrants and people of color, Kuhar said he grew up “knowing the difference between Black and white, but I didn’t think there was unfairness. Obviously I’m not Black, so I can’t make that call,” he said.

Jennifer Case, the Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Nancy Warlop and Lee Brooker were the other four residents who delivered remarks to council. Each belongs to a faith group with connections to the Kent Interfaith Alliance. Case is a member of the Kent United Church of Christ, where the NAACP recently opened its office.

“As much as I love my town, and as much as I like to think of it as a progressive, open, neighborly community, I have learned I cannot kid myself by thinking we don’t have any problem with racism and racial injustice,” Case, a Kent resident since 2006, told council members.

Asserting that Kent is not safe and accepting for everyone, and that there is “lots of room for improvement,” Case urged council to create a commission that “would provide a space for all Kent residents to lift up their voices and be heard.”

Ruchotzke, who has served as a Unitarian Universalist Association Congregational Life Consultant since 2010, said the UUA formed an inclusion commission years ago. The discoveries and benefits of such a commission are invaluable, she said.

“I am learning things that I never would have otherwise, and it’s made me better at my job. Good intentions were not enough for our institution even though we were a faith community. We needed to be intentional, and a commission is what made it happen,” she said.

Representing Kent Interfaith Alliance, Warlop said she knows “there are those that would say there’s no racism in Kent or that talking about it creates it, but in fact in the past year and a half we’ve all been subjected to public displays of racial hatred, and to not talk about it or address it is to condone it.”

She reminded council that on July 15, 2020, its members passed a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter, stating that the “City of Kent is committed to condemning racism and encouraging a commitment to fair and equal treatment for all.”

Reading the text of the resolution, Warlop reminded council members of their commitment “to working actively against all forms of racism and injustice.”

“These are lovely works, but without action they just remain words on paper,” she said.

Hayes Nelson said the commission should:

  • Perform audits of city departments and make recommendations for anti-racist strategies and policies
  • Perform audits of hiring and employment practices to attract and retain Black people and people of color as employees
  • Collect stories of Black and other people of color who have experienced harm in dealing with the city
  • Examine and document critical events and practices that have led to harm
  • Research and recommend sensitivity and anti-bias training and policies to implement such training
  • Develop strategies to enhance the relationship between the City of Kent and Black and people of color residents

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this article referred incorrectly to the location of the Portage County NAACP offices and to the church affiliation of one of the Kent Interfaith Alliance members.

+ posts

Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.

Subscribe for free

Join 5,769 other Portage County residents reading locally owned news. Subscriptions are always free, but you can choose to upgrade later if you find our work valuable.