Belvidere mayor forms ‘Bridge’ to strengthen ties with Latino community
MondayPosted May 22, 2017 at 12:01 AM Updated May 22, 2017 at 2:44 PM
By Susan Vela
BELVIDERE — Mayor Mike Chamberlain was stunned a few years ago to discover that the city’s Latino community accounted for approximately 35 percent of the city’s population.
The nearly 5 percentage point increase in Latino residents since 2010′s U.S. Census Bureau count prompted him to approach local Latino leaders about an initiative that would make both longtime residents and newcomers feel more welcome.
Chamberlain has established a group called Bridge that brings together community leaders of all backgrounds for monthly meetings to share ideas for civic improvement.
“It’s not a political committee. It’s not a committee that has one specific function,” Chamberlain said. “We’re still kind of feeling our way along. I’m just trying to make the opportunity available to see whether we can build something.”
Too often, he said, members of minority groups don’t feel comfortable in their hometowns. Chamberlain wants to vanquish any anxieties through discussion and action. He said Bridge volunteer work is a possibility.
But it’ll be up to community leaders to make Bridge work. Chamberlain said he doesn’t “even like the word ‘minority’ or ‘diversity’ ” and wants Bridge to be about the community coming together to coexist to the most comfortable degree.
Some Bridge members say they would like to see more Latinos frequent the downtown business district. Belvidere’s changing community means a large number of State Street businesses are owned by Latinos, such as Taqueria El Molcajete and Los Girasoles Hair Salon.
“I feel comfortable,” said Los Girasoles stylist Lourdes Medina, who still likes Chamberlain’s Bridge.
Lori Mason recently became owner of Sweets & Sundries, an ice cream and candy shop off State Street.
“Anything that promotes business owners is a smart move,” she said. “I do think the downtown area needs help.”
Chamberlain approached Nancy Razon, the Belvidere School District’s bilingual liaison, when he began considering his new committee. She hopes Bridge participants can boost the number of Latino consumers who shop downtown.
Razon said language barriers had been a problem in the past. Some Latino business owners, she said, don’t feel there’s a strong citywide support network committed to helping them adapt to Belvidere.
“If we want to make it a better town, we need to work with the community,” she said.
Bridge has met twice since February. Chamberlain and Razon said about 15 people, mainly representatives from the Latino community, have attended both sessions. The next meeting is set for 8 a.m. Friday in the City Council Chambers, 401 Whitney Blvd.
Jessica Muellner, who represents District 3 on the Boone County Board, has been attending regularly.
“It’s a worthwhile thing,” she said. “I wanted to see the direction that the mayor was going. A lot of people pay a lot of lip service but this is a way to help things. We all get to know each other.”