City of Portage community spotlight: Diversity and Equity through Action committee

The future of his city is important to Jeremiah Sims.

He wants it to be safe, inclusive and provide equal opportunities for all of its residents.

Sims, one of the leaders of the peaceful June 1 protest which aimed to raise awareness about the need for equity and diversity within the community, said he didn't want the spirit of that evening to end.

He joined the newly formed Inclusion, Diversity and Equity through Action (I.D.E.A.) committee to help raise awareness, educate the public and help tackle issues.

"A lot of people don't even realize it is a problem in the community. You can't solve a problem if you are not aware of it," said Sims. "Part of the problem is people being able to sit in their comfortability when people of color don't have that ability."

Shaunna Finley, a member of the Portage Township School Board and the city's Board of Works, said the idea of the committee began prior to the demonstration. She and Mayor Sue Lynch began talking about the need for the group prior to Lynch taking office in January. The idea picked up after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

The group began meeting in June and will make a presentation on its progress to the city council at the council's Sept. 1 meeting.

"We want to be proactive instead of reactive," said Finley, adding IDEA is addressing not only the needs of people of color, but other minority groups including the disabled and women.

Their goal is to promote inclusion and diversity within the city; to make Portage a more welcoming community and to provide initiatives through which all people can reach their full potential.

They've begun their work by meeting with police department officials.

Finley said the 13-member committee, along with city officials, have talked about several issues facing the police department, including low pay, the lack of training and resources and a need to better promote the department to the community and the Region to attract future police officers.

Finley said it was "eye opening" that Portage police starting salary is $39,000, near the bottom of the pay level for Region departments.

Finley said they want to work with the department to improve communications with the community and to help provide resources for officers. She said Chief Mike Candiano is making strides in improving communications by releasing monthly arrest and incident statistics. Those have also been eye opening, she said, in that more than half of the crimes committed in the city are being done by outsiders.

Finley said the committee wants to work with all city departments in coming months to see what they need, what obstacles they face and what is needed to get more minorities involved in the city's committees, boards and commissions.

"We are looking at the city as a whole, starting with the police department. We want to have a seat at the table when it comes to inclusion. At the end of the day, we live here. We want to be another lens to support our community," said Finley.

Sims agreed, adding raising awareness is an important aspect as they move forward.

"It is more about equality and making sure Portage can be the best community it can be," he said, adding people of color "shouldn't have to feel alone in their community."