Smile Politely

We need a little less conversation, a little more action by C-U leadership

Managing the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and managing the demands to address systemic inequalities, is no easy task. In Champaign-Urbana, there has been some action in response to each, and proactive leadership is to thank for that.

However, there’s a common thread both locally and nationally on both topics: Who is to blame? “This is our fault,” or “We created this problem,” or “We made a mistake” are not phrases we hear often — if ever — though we should be hearing them, as good leadership requires humility.

Bob Asmussen’s recent article in The News-Gazette, “Who’s to blame? Easy answer: All of us”, addresses responsibility and the COVID-19 pandemic. The article provides a lot to agree with, but we disagree with Asmussen’s overarching point that everyone is to blame for the continued spread of the virus. Everyone is not to blame. Many people followed the guidelines, reviewed and believed the data, listened to scientists, and did their part to protect our most vulnerable. Though he mentions these things, blaming everyone is wrong, as there’s more nuance to the situation. Those entitled to think and act outside of the advice of experts have done harm to our communities. It took months for President Trump to publicly admit wearing a mask would help stop the spread of COVID-19. Poor leadership and ego-driven decision making stand in the way of positive change.

Examples of proactive, selfless leadership include, but aren’t limited to, postponing Big Ten sports, school districts protecting our children and teachers, making sure Greek Reunion didn’t happen the way it was supposed to, and canceling in-person performances at Krannert Center.

Proactive, empathetic, and selfless leadership is seeing the big picture, focusing on the long-term goals rather than the short-term solutions and symptoms of larger issues. Whether we’re talking about the pandemic or Black Lives Matter, good leadership has the potential to protect everyone, especially those who need it most.

Poor leadership is focusing on chalk “graffiti” rather than the racist Rogue Barber Co. owner (a former police officer) who instigated tensions in the first place. Threatening citizens with “this will not happen again” after the Champaign Police Department building was chalked and painted is not taking responsibility for why this culture is the norm in 2020 in C-U. It is rooted in decades of wrongdoing by the Champaign Police.

We should focus on why people have been driven to voice their concerns this way. People are doing everything they can so leadership simply hears what they have to say. This is exactly why the police department’s building was “vandalized”. Oftentimes, the only way to gain the attention of those in power is to dismantle the brick and mortar that builds a city. The police department was defaced because leadership is not acting. There have been no efforts toward meaningful change at the suggestion of the communities that are demanding them.

In a statement issued by the City of Champaign in response to the defacing of the Champaign Police Department building, Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen said, “We cannot move forward as a community unless we learn to listen to one another, respect one another, and rebuild trust.” There can be no rebuilding of trust if there never was any in the first place. Trust requires mutual respect. There has not been mutual respect of marginalized communities in C-U by municipal leadership or the police. Building trust starts with actionable changes instituted by responsive leadership.

We have seen some small change in Urbana. In the proposed FY20-21 budget, 32.7% of the city’s $35M general operating budget was proposed for police. Urbana City Council voted to make a $120,000 reduction of that amount back in June.*

Next, following a public outcry, the City of Urbana worked with the Urbana Police Department to remove Blue Lives Matter emblems from the back of their squad cars. Though we have yet to see a public apology claiming responsibility for the harmful use of this symbol on taxpayer property, responding and removing the stickers is certainly a start.

If leadership in C-U are truly interested in building more inclusive and supportive communities, they will start instituting actual change by reallocating funds through strategic defunding of police departments so other areas of our twin cities can be rebuilt.

When leadership actively responds to the reasonable needs of its citizens, people tend to reciprocate the goodwill. We need action from leadership that shows they can be trusted before we return that same trust.

The University of Illinois’ fall plans to reopen is yet another example of weak leadership in C-U. Administration is unlikely to claim responsibility for what is certain to be a semester full of COVID-19 outbreaks. The students will be blamed, or perhaps bar owners, or something or someone else that’s not related to the decision to reopen campus for in-person instruction. Universities and colleges all over the country will do this to protect themselves from being held accountable (just see what Boston University has done lately). The gown is not protecting the town that maintains its very foundation. It is not listening to those who will be overworked and underprotected to make its fall plans run smoother (i.e., building service workers and graduate students). Selling the testing technology to entities outside of C-U fails to recognize the needs at home, as our community needs better testing strategies ahead of 50,000 students and staff returning. The FDA emergency authorization is a good start to expanding that to the rest of the community. The mutual contract of trust between the U of I and C-U has been broken. 

Our leaders have to remove ego in order to make actual positive change. What are they afraid of losing? Money? Face? Power? “We made a mistake” needs to be a more commonly accepted phrase. When our leaders prioritize the needs of those they protect, it makes a difference. It is then, and only then, that we can truly (re)build trust.

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

* Editor’s Note: In the original version of the story, we made an error with the data in relation to City of Urbana’s reduction of the police budget. It has been revised and we regret this error.

Top image by Anna Longworth.

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