For centuries our country has been engaged in a fight for equality in the face of systemic racism and discrimination. While we cannot magically eradicate racism on the national level, we can at least confront it locally. Since the community is discussing racism involving discriminatory business practices this week, it is important to share what the City of Rapid City is doing to address racism.
Leaders have an obligation to speak up when terrible actions and statements occur. We recognize approximately 25% of Rapid City’s population at any given time are Indigenous, and we have an obligation to serve all constituents, visitors, and tourists. In fact, one of our core values is to be a safe, healthy, and inclusive community. Therefore, our Common Council must uphold those values when making important decisions.
Aside from press conferences and joint statements, Rapid City has been actively fighting against racism. Our city’s involvement and role with racial issues goes back decades. In the 1970s-1990s we had a loosely formed committee addressing racial issues as they occurred. Mayor Hanks established the City’s first official Human Relations Commission (HRC) through ordinance in 2009. Ten years later, seeing the need to be more proactive than reactive, Mayor Allender created the HRC Task Force; and through their hard work, in January 2021 new members were assigned, their mission enhanced, and the commission’s goals were expanded.
Our Common Council fully comprehends the value of this work despite some expressing concern for “more important matters” and feeling uncomfortable with the city involving itself in racial issues. If you are unfamiliar with the HRC, it is a group of local volunteers with diverse backgrounds working together to provide community educational forums and sponsor cultural events. Their strategy is to BEAM: Bridging cultures, Educating others, Advocating for cultural practices and Modeling acceptable behavior regarding race relations. This is significant and essential work which benefits everyone in our community.
In their scope, the HRC is also working to improve communication with our local tribal and community leaders. In fact, last month the HRC began finalizing details on an informational tour to the Pine Ridge Reservation which will take place in a few weeks. While this appears to be a seemingly simple visit, it took years to coordinate. We can only move forward at the speed of trust; and considering our history of broken treaties, we have much to overcome.
Each of us enter relationships with our own personal traumas, experiences, lifestyles, and cultural biases. Some of which are challenging to acknowledge and accept. But as city leaders it is essential to view our vastly different worlds through many different lenses. This field trip may seem superficial to some; however, it has the very real potential to lay the foundation for bridging our cultures, to improve our trust in one another, and hopefully make us more informed and effective leaders.
When discussing racism, we must also address homelessness due to the two issues often being blended. In addition to adding the Quality-of-Life Unit to our Rapid City Police Department in 2018, our Council approved support for the non-profit organization Journey On. This group offers a professional, compassionate response to homeless individuals, rather than sending law enforcement for intoxicated subject calls or assigning the Mobile Medic team for Care Campus transports.
Journey On has quickly established itself as a solid stakeholder in the health and well-being of our city’s most vulnerable population by responding to more than 1588 calls since mid-December, freeing up valuable resources and saving taxpayer dollars.
In addition, Mayor Allender recently created a Human Services Coordinator position at City Hall. Lila Mehlhaff is a local businesswoman and enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who was born and raised on the reservation. Through her personal and professional experiences, she understands the unique complexities regarding the homeless community; and in essence, strives to be a homeless expert by identifying gaps in services, implementing initiatives, and partnering the city with other governmental and nonprofit agencies. Her main motivations are to offer a voice for mistreated and vulnerable relatives as well as help make our community a better place for everyone.
Despite all these dedicated, tangible actions, we were reminded this week battling racism continues to be a challenging task. And while we realize there is Freedom of Speech in this country, I truly believe we can all agree that racism has no place anywhere in Rapid City.
This is hard work, and the city can’t do it alone. Everyone must do their part. If you see something, say something. If you had a bad experience, share your stories-in deep detail. If you practiced racism, apologize, own up to it and most importantly learn from it. Do not make excuses. Call yourself out. Be humble and vow never to allow the darkness of racism to rear its ugly head in your presence.
As Maya Angelou once said, “When we know better, we do better.”