Challenges leading to formation of the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force were systemic. And while the urgency of multiple violent incidents has momentarily waned, such challenges remain, unfettered by government boundaries.
Over the course of two years, SET Task Force members and subcommittee volunteers researched the twin scourges of violence and poverty, documenting why these persistent problems cannot be addressed without broad vision and a comprehensive action plan.
The task force report and community objectives are just the beginning.
Resolution does not lie solely within the confines of the police department, or in specific neighborhoods. These aren’t problems that can be strewn solely across the shoulders of parents, or upon the school district. Violence doesn’t know and doesn’t care where Cedar Rapids ends and Linn County or any number of neighboring communities begin.
As Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz wrote in a 2017 guest column, “We know that crime often is symptomatic of other issues.”
Achieving the goal of a safe, equitable and thriving community takes purposeful effort, supported by all.
For these reasons, we support “next steps” outlined by SET Task Force members that call upon the city, county and Cedar Rapids school district to renew and expand their partnership through the joint hiring of a project director. Objectives identified by the task force will not be realized without a champion capable of navigating various public entities, the nonprofit sector, private enterprise, and all other facets that comprise this community.
The SET Task Force delivered its report in February 2017.
“We believe that these recommendations belong to the community,” said co-chair Stacey Walker when the group’s objectives were unveiled. “Therefore, it will be the community that must ultimately hold our institutions and organizations accountable for their implementation.”
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Within weeks, task force members and the community were coming together again through a series of widely attended public forums focusing on public safety, housing and economic opportunities. That fall a conference was held with area social service providers and users to discuss implementation progress.
It was feedback from these large gatherings as well as from ongoing small group discussions that led to the recommendation of creating a paid position — someone to coordinate and guide task force recommendations forward.
As proponents noted both in writing and while meeting with our board: “While we recognize that many agencies have made great strides, this work does not belong to any one agency and it cannot be accomplished by one agency alone.”
A full-time director — and perhaps, if resources allow, an administrative support person — would develop and implement a process for addressing task force objectives. The director would cooperate with and among the city, county and school district, draw from the expertise of service providers and community experts, and incorporate the voices of those who depend on and/or have become victims of the system.
Task force members hope the three jurisdictions will agree to jointly fund the initiative for at least three years. Supervisors have already voted to commit $100,000 to the project. A preliminary budget assumes an annual salary of $85,000 for the director and an additional $50,000 annually for one support position. The collaborating entities would determine if both positions would be available from the beginning, or if the initiative began only with a director.
The group is also recommending partnership with the United Way of East Central Iowa, which would serve as a fiduciary agent. The partnership would allow the new positions, and an advisory board that oversees their work, to reap the benefits of the United Way’s nonprofit status and ongoing audit procedures.
A key focus of the position would be to identify and procure funding to meet task force objectives, including his/her own salary and expenses. The focus also would be an opportunity for the jurisdictions and nonprofits to combine forces to leverage grant funding on a variety of long-standing community betterment initiatives.
Sitting down with representatives of the three government entities to further explore this proposal, our board is convinced there is no other viable path forward. If the entities and the community value the work of the task force and hope to meet its objectives, a transparent and coordinated process must be established.
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Critical conversations that should be happening, simply are not. Instead, each government entity has retreated into its own workspace. While representatives from each group tout individual accomplishments toward specific task force objectives, the input of the hundreds of community residents who believed in and contributed to the work of the task force is being lost. Worse yet, working alone does not accomplish the overarching goal of addressing persistent, systemic problems.
For the past three years this area has reacted to violence, again and again. We’ve seen our teenagers jailed as well as buried. We’ve worried when and where the next shots will be fired, and who might be hit.
We’ve also allowed inequality to further entrench. Most of us are not aware, much less question, why the poverty rate for African-Americans in our community is 39.5 percent while the overall poverty rate is 11.4. Nor do we consider transportation barriers when wondering why some parents don’t attend school meetings or why some residents don’t speak out at public hearings.
Many of us live in a bubble not too different from the ones in which agencies operate. We see what is right in front of us, what impacts us directly.
The proposal to hire a director is proactive, and one of the most low-risk, low-investment, high-potential ideas to come before local government.
The SET Task Force was important three years ago. Formed by a resolution of the city council, with subsequent nods from the Linn County Board of Supervisors and the Cedar Rapids school board, few doubted the value of exploring solutions.
Now that first step is complete, and the objectives are on the shelf. What comes next is an even more critical question for the future of this community.
Time to exit the turf battle, dust off the objectives and take another step forward.
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