Cheryl Clay speaks for the voiceless as the Queen City struggles to manage rising poverty levels and diversify its civic leaders.
2016 Projection “If Springfield does not reverse its climbing poverty trend, we will continue to see crime numbers increase and the way of life as we know it change.”
SBJ: Springfield’s minority levels are lower than similar size communities – 89 percent white here, for instance, compared to 76 percent in Topeka, Kan. Why is that not acknowledged more?
Cheryl Clay: I believe people in positions of power in our city, as far as they are concerned, the status quo is just fine and we have no problem. When I look at diversity from a broader view, I look at diversity not only as you can live anywhere you want and be employed anywhere you want, but also on an economic status. How is our wealth divided within our community? The people who are making the decisions regarding our community, how does that reflect the diversity in our city? If you look at it from that angle, we have no diversity in our city.
When people look for people to serve on committees, they go to the same fish pond and pull the same fish. You have many people who are serving different capacities on various committees, but when you look at the names, they are one and the same. Basically, the people who are making the decisions in our community in no way reflect the diversity in our community. It is as simple as that.
SBJ: So, what does diversity mean in southwest Missouri?
Clay: I don’t think it’s so much racial makeup, which is the first thing that comes to people’s minds. To me, diversity takes that into account, but includes women and things like economic status. Our society is divided into the haves and the have-nots. Springfield’s poverty level is astounding for a city this size and it’s tolerated. To me, that’s a diverse issue. We have people who are economically under the radar, but they have no voice.
SBJ: The Community Partnership’s Springfield Impacting Poverty Commission reports 25.6 percent of city residents live below the national poverty line. Do groups such as the Springfield Impacting Poverty Commission help?
Clay: I guess time will tell. They came forth with recommendations, so we will see if they take those into account. But again, until they include the underrepresented of our population, they are never going to solve the problem. How are you going to tell someone how to not be poor anymore? I don’t think unless you have walked in those shoes you are qualified to do that.
We do not pay a livable wage in Springfield. You can walk in any fast food restaurant and look at who’s behind the counter. It used to be high school kids. Now, it is middle aged or seniors and people trying to survive. On our City Council, we have several business owners, who when you mention raising the minimum wage, it’s, “Oh, no. We can’t do that. We can’t survive.” I don’t know how to do it in each business, but don’t tell me you cannot do it, it will kill business. That is a bunch of bologna.
SBJ: Springfield residents repealed the city’s sexual orientation and gender identity ordinance this year. What does that say about equality in the Queen City?
Clay: The Supreme Court says everyone has the right to marry whomever they want to marry. Unfortunately, Springfield repealed the protection for housing and jobs. They always want to say we are in the middle of the Bible Belt. What does that have to do with equal rights for everyone? We are not asking for anything special, not asking the church of God and Christ to hire a gay person, but just the fundamentals.
SBJ: What legislation are you watching in 2016?
Clay: Voter identification laws. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act a couple of years ago, and it has not been restored. Ever since then, we have legislators saying we have to have voter IDs to vote, that we have voter fraud. But yet, they cannot prove one. It is a veiled attempt at discrimination and a poll tax.
SBJ: Racial tensions have flared at Missouri State University recently. Is the administration doing enough to address student concerns?
Clay: I think they are. I do believe that Clif Smart’s heart is in the right place. But again, he has a board of governors. If you look at the board, there (are few people) of color or minority. Anytime you don’t have a board that reflects your student population, you have a problem.
SBJ: Are there any areas of concern for you in 2016?
Clay: The NAACP is very much involved with payday loans. That is a debt trap, and it is horrendous that our legislators don’t put a cap on the interest rates. They prey, not only on people of color, but on the lower economic status. It should be against everything in a person’s heart with mercy and compassion to allow a business to charge 400 percent interest.
This year, for the 38th season, the Springfield Ballet Inc. will perform “The Nutcracker” on the proscenium stage of the Landers Theatre, with six performances set Dec. 15-18.