Officials present inclusive measures

Misty Wood / The Transcript

Julianna Lopez Kershen shares her experiences serving on the Inclusive Committee Subcommittee during a press conference Monday. Fellow member and House District 45 Rep. Merelyn Bell, right, listens.

UPDATE:

This story has been updated to reflect that Pastor Jesse Woodfork Jr. started the Missionary Baptist Church.

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Norman city officials are ready to recommend a list of initiatives they believe will create a more inclusive community for the underrepresented and underserved.

Recommendations from Norman's Inclusive Community Subcommittee will be presented to the city council during a study session Feb. 4, Mayor Breea Clark said Monday during a press conference.

The Human Rights Commission created a subcommittee in September to create a list of proposed actions to guide the city into a more inclusive community.

Initiatives included hiring a city equity officer, funding "public relations and information access for all residents, especially those of underrepresented groups," and making Norman a sanctuary city that would not "detain individuals for civil violations of federal immigration laws."

Other recommendations advised city officials to better reach senior citizens, single parents, the disabled and those who speak English as a second language, to name a few.

Nearly a dozen items dotted the list that provided a path to inclusion. Increased bike routes, inclusion education for businesses, expanded WiFi at city-owned spaces, hosting conferences for minority business owners, services for the homeless, ADA accessible housing and much more described the vision of the subcommittee.

The need for inclusive measures was evident to subcommittee members, some of whom -- as Norman residents -- have faced racial barriers to a better way of life.

Subcommittee member Ashley Morrison has lived in Norman for 28 years and obtained a bachelor's degree in liberal studies, works for the University of Oklahoma and is a self-employed diversity consultant. The single mother of four left an abusive relationship in 2013 and began a difficult journey to self-sufficiency.

"I started cleaning homes for $9 an hour," she said. "I finished my degree while navigating extreme poverty and trauma. I worked hard to advocate for my special needs child, who was being severely neglected and bullied at school.

"I share this with you because as a low-income, minority single parent, I've experienced every facet of discrimination ranging from lack of fair access to housing, the withholding of resources for my special needs son, to being shamed for being poor. I've witnessed how destructive these struggles can be and can tell you that my inability to access fair equity for my family has changed the lives of my children, and I cannot begin to tell you how deeply heartbreaking it is to know that."

Miles Francisco, an OU senior, will graduate in May with two degrees in political science and African and African American Studies. His father is Anthony Francisco, Norman's finance director and one of a few African American employees in the city's upper management.

"For a city that once would not allow someone that looked like he did to be out after the sun hit the horizon," Francisco said, "how far we've come. And how much farther we have to go."

Clark realized how racism and indifference to other minorities can be when she tackled renaming DeBarr Avenue. The street had been named after Klu Klux Klan leader Edwin DeBarr.

"I was repeatedly told to focus on issues that mattered," Clark said as she recalled her shock. "I personally saw there is a lot of progress that needs to be made in the community, but I also got a lot emails from those in the marginalized community encouraging me to keep going and our work does make a difference. So having this subcommittee, continuing these conversations shows that we are listening and we're working on it."

Part of the recommendations include a proclamation to renounce and apologize for Norman's "sundown" policy, which prohibited African Americans from being in town after sunset. The policy remained until 1967, but there are some who remember the early struggle for equality in town.

When Kelly Woodfork's grandmother moved to Norman 45 years ago, there was no church for African Americans.

Pastor Jesse Woodfork Jr. started the Missionary Baptist Church 37 years ago.

Woodfork called the proclamation a demonstration to right a wrong.

"I think that it is long past due, and I think that it is very important because our community is being so diversified, we have to let go of the old 'used-to-be' and bring in the new ideas of what's going on. It holds us back being tied to the negative past," she said. "This shows there is an understanding there was an issue, 'we are sorry that it happened and we are here to right a wrong.'"

Implementing the recommendations will come with "challenges" Clark said, and one of them could be funding. Norman faces a $5 million shortfall that will affect the current and next fiscal year budgets.

"Our budget being a challenge is not new, and it's not unique to Norman," Clark said. "I think that cities in the state of Oklahoma have a unique challenge, being the only state in the nation where we are constitutionally prohibited from accessing ad valorem taxes to support our general fund and initiatives like this."

Clark said if Norman can create and fill the position for an equity officer, she expects that employee to find grant funding for costs associated with the initiatives.

Mindy Ragan Wood366-3544mwood@normantranscript.com

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