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On lists, recommendations and reports about Springfield, a lack of diversity and a need for more inclusion nearly always appears as a concern. 

So earlier this year, the city board tasked with mediating potential human rights violations decided to conduct a voluntary online survey to figure out how the public perceives diversity and inclusion in Springfield. 

On Tuesday, Heather Hardinger, who chairs the commission, and Gloria Galanes, a Missouri State University professor who compiled the results, presented the findings.

Almost half of the 2,276 people who responded to the survey said they believed the city was “not inclusive” or “not very inclusive,” expressing that they’d like to see a more diverse population and more diverse people in visible, public positions. A little more than 50 percent had themselves experienced discrimination or knew someone else who had. 

That discrimination isn’t limited to race. 

People said they’d like to see a more inclusive culture for LGBTQ individuals, for those with disabilities, for people in different socioeconomic classes and for women. 

There was a small percentage of people who responded to the survey saying they didn’t believe that diversity was a good idea at all, which Galanes said wasn’t likely to change. 

However, there was also a large group of people who said they do not quite believe that discrimination exists because they have never personally witnessed it in their circles or felt like they have ever discriminated against others. 

“I had comments such as, ‘I own a business, I have never discriminated. My friends own businesses, they don’t discriminate. I don’t think it’s really a problem,'” Galanes said. “They believe that even asking questions about diversity is race-baiting and creating problems where none exist.” 

Galanes said she believed that group could be reached with stories from others who  have experienced discrimination or with opportunities for people to get to know one another. 

A multi-pronged approach that explores why diversity is important, educates people on being inclusive and involves key players in key systems such as government, education, health systems and business would go a long way to moving the needle, she said. 

One facet of the community that can really help in these efforts is the faith community, particularly in the area of LGBTQ rights, Galanes said. 

Respondents to the survey said the conservative Christian community in Springfield was perceived as standing against equality in the area, in part due to its support for repealing the city’s SOGI ordinance that protected LGBTQ individuals from discrimination. 

“SOGI was an extremely painful subject for many, many of the respondents,” Galanes said. “It was seen as both an insult and a genuine injury to the LGBT community … particularly transgender individuals took an enormous hit.”

She said the faith community has a great opportunity to bring people together, share messages of inclusivity and be welcoming to different groups. 

Another area of improvement could come from educating people who work with the public about how to best interact with people from different cultures, she said, noting that many respondents relayed negative experiences with law enforcement, city or county workers, people in public spaces and teachers. 

And on a broader scale, Galanes said respondents wanted to see more active participation from majority groups in calling out discrimination where they see it. 

“Those that are making Springfield LESS inclusive will continue to do what they do until their (white) peers call them out and tell them to stop,” one respondent wrote. “Minorities cannot make this change.” 

Hardinger, the chair of the human rights commission, suggested several action steps for the council, including council listening sessions, participation in tough talks, bystander training to help people call out discrimination in real time and conducting a qualitative, citywide survey. 

She said while it was “almost impossible to legislate something like morality,” city leaders have a role to play in setting an example for the community. 

They should show up to cultural events, participate in diversity efforts, create a plan to make the area more inclusive and beef up the process for handling complaints to the human rights commission, Hardinger said. 

“These are times right now that will be in the history books,” she said. “And so how we respond to these opportunities we have to make our community a better place to live and make our country a better place to live, they do matter.” 

Katie Kull covers local government for the News-Leader. Got a story to tell? Give her a call at 417-408-1025 or email her at kkull@news-leader.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.

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