My Peoria: Miles Ahead of Expectations

This region is aware of its shortcomings and working hard to make them right.

by David Jackson, Greater Peoria Economic Development Council
Jackson with friends and colleagues at Drag N' Paint
Jackson with friends and colleagues at Drag N' Paint

I was in New York a couple weeks ago and got to catch up with some friends of mine. Teyo moved from Vegas to New York one week after I moved from Vegas to Peoria, about six months ago. He’s been actively trying to get me to move to the Big Apple, believing that I need to be engulfed in the big city just as he is. “Peoria is too small for you!” he tells me. He’s been going at it for six months now. So, finally, face to face, I told him about the people, my job and how much fun I was having in Peoria.

Progress Over Stereotypes
I am in many ways a minority in this country and in many other countries—even in my own country, Ghana—so living somewhere I don’t feel extremely out of place is important to me. Moving to what I assumed was a stereotypical, industrial midwestern city raised a lot of concerns for my friends and me (The general assumption is that such communities aren’t very progressive), especially since I have never been one to hide my sexuality or lose my brightly colored socks!

I had my expectations then, and I’ve lived my experience now. My verdict? Peoria isn’t the most progressive city in the country, but it is miles ahead of my initial expectation. Yes, the population is predominantly white and there are some big racial divides, but the majority of people I have met in this city are consciously trying to bridge those gaps—from the everyday citizen right up to the top decision makers. 

A few weeks into my arrival here, I attended Mayor Ali’s State of the City address at Dozer Park. Not only was I impressed that our new mayor was a woman, she was also a woman of color! Toward the end of the event, they asked elected officials to stand up so we can show appreciation for their support. As I looked around, I saw people of color well represented with Peoria City Council members Andre W. Allen and Denise Jackson. The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and CEO Council is currently led by Joshua Gunn, an enigmatic personality who I believe is an asset to the region. I also saw Alex Sierra, a Latino and Peoria’s youngest public official, serving on the Peoria Park District Board of Trustees. Progress!

Jackson and his friend Teyo in New York
Jackson and his friend Teyo in New York

When this region came together to develop the Big Table Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) under the leadership of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, they determined that diversity, equity and inclusion would be infused throughout all areas of the strategy, with the aim of addressing systemic barriers to wealth creation and quality of life based on race, gender, sexual orientation and disability. Looking around, you can already see this in action. It’s no surprise our CEDS was recognized by the National Association of Development Organizations as a best practice in equity and inclusion.

Fun, Full and Well-Balanced 
A couple of the friends I was with in New York are planning to visit Peoria. I told them I might need a big-city fix from time to time, but I am having so much more fun in Peoria than I ever thought possible. In almost three years of being in the States, Peoria has won my heart as the place where I live a full and well-balanced life with a great job and fun things to do, even as an LGBTQIA person. I attended my first-ever drag show—the refreshing Drag N’ Paint event, organized by the fabulous Miss Flo—right here at the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts. And the city is small enough for me to interact with these stars and talk to them. Honestly, it is like a fever dream to me. I love it!

Finally, there was Diesel… that club on Main Street with all the rainbow flags but a bit of identity crisis: “Is it a gay bar, or is it not?” That’s what’s great about Peoria, isn’t it? Go to Diesel and you will see queer and straight people having fun in perfect harmony. It reminds me of a place in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, known as Jamestown. Right smack in the most homophobic part of the city is a gay bar called 10 Poundz, right next to a stretch of straight bars. On the weekends and especially on Sundays, these bars spill out into the street and becomes one big carnival of people, everybody having fun as one. Diesel gives me that vibe, too. It makes the ache of missing home lesser sometimes. My friends want to visit for this experience, too!

This is Peoria, a region aware of its shortcomings and working hard to make them right. This is Peoria, my home and a place I truly enjoy. PM

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