Q&A with Dr. Farris Muhammad

Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, City of Peoria

Peoria Magazine sat down with Dr. Muhammad to discuss his role in Peoria, the improvements he has seen so far, and what any citizen can do to help the cause.

Dr. Farris Muhammad
Dr. Farris Muhammad in his office at Peoria City Hall, January 30, 2020

When Farris Muhammad came to Peoria, it had recently been labeled the worst city for black Americans in the country. That report, from the financial website 24/7 Wall Street, sparked the community into action with a series of public discussions kickstarting a dialogue on the many factors that cause racial disparity. 

In the fall of 2017, the Peoria City Council approved the creation of the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer position for the City of Peoria, and the following August, hired Farris Muhammad, PhD, MBA. A native of Detroit, Dr. Muhammad previously served as executive director of the Multicultural Family Center in Dubuque, Iowa. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northwood University, his master’s degree in business management from Eastern Michigan University, and his doctorate in education administration and policy from the University of Georgia. 

Since 2016, Peoria has improved its ranking slightly, moving up to second-worst (in 2017), fifth-worst (in 2018) and seventh-worst (in 2019). Much work remains to be done, but Dr. Muhammad’s presence has helped normalize a growing conversation surrounding racial disparity in the city. Peoria Magazine sat down with Dr. Muhammad to discuss his role in Peoria, the improvements he has seen so far, and what any citizen can do to help the cause.

Tell us about your background. How did you first become interested in the work of diversity and inclusion?

I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, the fifth child of nine. Growing up impoverished, I knew I wanted to be an advocate for equity. I always wanted to fight for justice. One of the things I observed growing up was the power disparity surrounding racial relations. Detroit has the highest population of black residents, percentage-wise, but in terms of the people in power—the store owners, police officers, judges, social workers and so forth—it often was people who didn’t look like me. That always made me curious.

In graduate school I wrote a paper about when I came to see myself as a racial being. For me, it was at age five. The treatment I saw black people receive from some business owners and employees, at grocery stores or from law enforcement—it was very blatant, to where you felt a sense of inferiority and lack of power.

You learn techniques to cope. Especially as a black male, you learn to navigate for your safety and maneuver in a certain way. Interacting with law enforcement, you learn to respond a certain way that maybe other people don’t have to do. So early on I wanted to advocate for the underresourced, and a series of circumstances led to me wanting to be an attorney. I thought the best way to advocate for people who are disenfranchised is by understanding the law and being able to make legal arguments. 

Despite not expecting to graduate from high school and never taking an ACT or SAT exam, I ended up getting an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, and then I studied business. During that process I became involved in a legal debate mock trial team, which was life-changing for me. The organization was AMTA, the American Mock Trial Association, and I became captain and president of the Northwood University team. We competed against any of the 500 schools with a mock trial team, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton and Duke. Under my leadership as president, we earned a fourth-place ranking, just beneath Harvard University in third place. I was then instrumental in Northwood University making history in becoming national champions the following year by outpacing more than 500 teams. 

That was when I really started to value education more. Growing up in Detroit and graduating from Detroit public schools—which at the time was considered the worst school district in the country—the fact that I could find success through hard work and being persuasive to some degree, which I learned growing up in the inner city… Those are transferable skillsets that I was able to leverage in a more professional capacity. I had an epiphany, that yes, there are inequities in the world; especially for racial minorities, that prevent you from accomplishing certain things, but you still have a responsibility to strive for greatness. And through a lot of hard work, you can compete and win. I took that experience and tried to figure out: what more can I do to try to bring about positive change?

When and how did you decide to get your PhD?

After graduating in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, I moved to North Carolina. I lived and worked there for just over a year, then I went home to Michigan and got my MBA, with a concentration in marketing. And I started to learn more and more about education.  

One of the things that is often a barrier for racial minorities and marginalized people is the lack of access to quality education. So I really wanted to have an impact in the field of education. How do I help educate people? And how do I first become educated so I can help educate others? So I decided to get my doctorate degree. I was accepted into the University of Georgia to pursue a PhD in education, administration and policy, and I started studying different things related to education and black students. 

I started looking at the black/white achievement (opportunity) gap, the over-representation of black kids in special education, and the black dropout (push-out) rate. And then I came across some literature from a scholar out of the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Gloria Ladson Billing. A lot of her research focused on what she called “deficit ways of thinking.” When research is conducted on marginalized community members—women, gays, so on and so forth, but especially when it comes to black or Hispanic youth—people start their analysis from a deficit perspective. Because these kids are dropping out… you start with this negativity and you kind of pathologize that group of people a certain way. 

I also came across an appreciative model. If some kids are dropping out, while other kids with some of the same challenges are graduating, how are they overcoming these challenges? So I decided to take that approach and study the resilience of black children in inner cities. I looked at learning in a holistic way: How are kids learning at home, at school and throughout the community? What are the challenges they’re facing? And how are they overcoming those barriers to be successful? 

So how did you end up in Dubuque, Iowa?

After I graduated with my doctorate, there was an opportunity in Dubuque, and I became executive director of the Multicultural Family Center. It was designed to be an inclusive space for community members who didn’t feel welcome in the city. This gave me an opportunity to really engage and build relationships with people from all walks of life… black, Hispanic, Marshallese, undocumented citizens, LGBTQ folks, women, youth—just building partnerships to help people understand that they are valued, regardless of who they are. 

And from there, I came to Peoria. I saw some of the narratives in the media about Peoria not being such an attractive place for African Americans, and that really caught my attention. I said, wow, considering the size of Peoria, the racial composition and demographics, there’s enough people there from different backgrounds to be able to come together and make an impact. So how can I be instrumental in that, based on my experience and education?

24/7 Wall Street

The 24/7 Wall Street report had recently ranked Peoria as the worst U.S. city for African Americans to live. Was the position of chief diversity officer created specifically to deal with this issue?

I think that was a factor. I wouldn’t say that was the sole cause of my position being created. The City had an Equal Opportunity manager, David Watkins, who had retired after a long, prosperous career. That office was vacant, and based on some of those reports, conversations with the community, and various police shooting incidents… I think there was kind of a pause to consider: How do we enhance this position to be more visible, and engage more with the community? And how do we enhance diversity and inclusion in not only City Hall, but throughout the entire city?

So you came to Peoria with a challenging task ahead of you. Tell me about your early experiences here.

First was getting a grasp for what the position encompassed. What are my expectations from a job description standpoint, from a community accountability standpoint, from a City Council standpoint and other stakeholders in the community? Who do I need to be meeting with? How do I give weight to the voices and perspectives of different people? And where do I start? 

I continue to learn more every day. When people share their stories and you hear their pains, frustrations and desire to see change happen more rapidly, you have to kind of balance that with others who may feel as if change is happening too fast. So, how do you do some level setting to get people to come to a neutral ground and say, look, we can agree… Let’s start from here and work. That way you’re not creating any kind of disdain from certain populations as you’re trying to make progress. 

Can you give me a rundown of your duties at City Hall?

I oversee the Equal Opportunity Office, which allows any citizen of Peoria—if they have a complaint related to discrimination, wrongful termination, housing discrimination or public accommodation issues, or believe they were treated unfairly in some capacity—to reach out and share their concerns. I have jurisdiction within the City proper, but I also get phone calls and visits from people in Morton and Pekin, etc. Despite not being City residents, they still come and go throughout our community, so I spend time educating them on the best route they can take regarding how to file a complaint, and what those procedures look like.

I am an office staff of one, so I am the admin person and the intake specialist that hears complaints and helps people fill out paperwork. Then I’m an investigator, so if they complain about a business, I may have to go out to the site and make an assessment, follow up with the person who had the complaint, and see where he or she wants to go with the complaint . 

I am also essentially a community outreach coordinator, connecting with organizations and attending different meetings. People request me to speak at different events and provide a perspective on how their organization can be more diverse and inclusive, or how a program can have an equity lens to it so it’s impacting the right people. I always enjoy connecting with individuals and organizations who desire to be proactive related to inclusion and equity. 

And then internally, if staff has a complaint they believe to be some form of mistreatment or discrimination, a lot of times they stop by my office. I try to consult with them and offer some options they might want to pursue. I also serve as the contract compliance officer by ensuring that contractors are meeting the City’s minority workforce and minority subcontracting goals. 

I serve as staff liaison for the Fair Employment Commission, Fair Housing Commission and the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for Citizens with Disabilities, making sure their voices are being heard and advocating for that population. And then I have my regular management and staff responsibilities. We have staff meetings every week, and I have meetings with the city manager every week. I also oversee Peoria Corps, in addition to day-to-day administrative stuff. 

What about police-community relations? Are you involved on that side at all?

I’ve been to several meetings and sat in on other meetings with Chief Marion and the Mayor to talk about police-community relations. I’ve attended several meetings of the NAACP and we’ve talked about two things. One, the recruitment side. We just launched a pilot program—the Council approved a $30,000 budget to help the City be more strategic in our recruiting efforts. That will allow us to visit more historically black colleges and universities to help diversify our police and fire department. I also do a lot of work with the Subcommittee on Police and Fire Diversity, in partnership with the HR department. We’ve had meetings about best practices we can incorporate from other cities that can be impactful here.

Have you seen improvements since you came to Peoria?

I have seen improvement from the police and fire department on both race and gender. There is a strong desire to make sure we are diversifying. We are working in partnership to see that the City is taking steps to be inclusive. I’ve been to several meetings where ideas have come up, such as looking at different things with the NAACP, and I’ll take that information back to the City to see if we can incorporate it. Several things have happened as a result of being engaged and really trying to listen to concerns from citizens. We’ve done more events related to supplier diversity and how more minorities can do business with the City. 

In our strategic planning, we are trying to infuse equity in everything that we do. We did this recently through the budgeting process—different departments and requests for certain programs had to explain how those dollars were going to be dispersed in an equitable way. That was something we’d never done before. In addition, the company we consulted with was a black woman-owned company, and it was all women who conducted the strategic planning consulting. I thought that was phenomenal, and a different approach than what we’ve done in the past.

One of the first things I did when I got here, I looked at our strategic plan and did some keyword searches to see to what degree “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” were present. And the words were just not there. But now it has become part of what we do, so I’m very proud of that. I’ve watched the conversation surrounding equity and race become more normalized, where people are able to respectfully have a conversation about… how might this impact racial minorities? How might this impact women? I’ve seen a lot of progress.

We also became a member of GARE, the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and I’ve been able to extract some ideas from their racial equity toolkit. I gave a presentation at their national conference last year, which was ranked the second-best presentation by equity experts, that provided a spotlight on the work we’ve embarked upon. When they see we are really pushing the needle on equity, I think that gives a positive representation of who we are as a city. To that point, I was recently asked to be a keynote speaker for ELGL—Engaging Local Government Leaders—which is spotlighting why more local governments should follow our lead in creating a chief diversity and inclusion officer position. So that’s more positive press at the national level for Peoria. 

Back to the Wall Street 24/7 article, Peoria went from the worst city for African Americans in 2016 to seventh-worst in 2019. It’s a modest improvement, if nothing to celebrate. But are we over-dramatizing these numbers, which are compiled and interpreted in many different ways? How does that play into your presentations?

I address the discrepancies. It’s the Metro Statistical Area, so it’s not just a City of Peoria problem; the numbers are skewed. We can get into that from a methodological standpoint. But Peoria still holds most of the population, so we are in large part responsible for a lot of things. How do we model what we want to see? That’s the conversation the city manager and I continuously have and try to develop strategies around.

But my largest takeaway is that I think there was some good in that article, if it calls for us to be more reflective. Whether or not we agree with the specific numbers, can we agree we have work to do in this area? For me, that’s where it’s really at. How do we look at these areas and ask if there are disparities in housing, employment and incarceration? And if so, who do we need at the table to bring about change? That’s another thing I feel like I’ve contributed to here—as a new guy, a fresh face… I’m coming in with an objective lens. 

My perspective is that changing the culture in a positive way is not incumbent on just the City. I subscribe to the collective impact model, making sure you’re working with the faith-based community, nonprofits, the private sector, anchor institutions, other governmental agencies, school districts, neighborhood associations, and so on. We all have to be on the same page and work together.

Pull Quote: When people share their stories and you hear their pains, frustrations and desire to see change happen more rapidly, you have to kind of balance that with others who may feel as if change is happening too fast. It’s not easy to pivot from having a conversation to enacting real change. Do you get a sense that people are appreciating the changes that are slowly being made?

I do. I think it comes down to two things: education and transparency. My philosophy has always been that disappointment is based on expectations. All citizens are going to have different expectations of what the City should be doing, and they could all be valid. But when the City starts doing certain things, some people are going to be very excited, some are going to be in the middle, and some are not going to be excited at all. So you have that continuum. 

I think you have to be somewhat informed on where the City is financially and the resources it has available to bring about change. I’m saying all that to dial back to my position on educating people about the role of the City from a governmental standpoint. What are the challenges the City is up against? And despite those challenges, how are we going above and beyond to make sure we’ve been as impactful as possible?

What do you think is the most pressing issue right now in terms of making an impact with regard to diversity and inclusion? 

I think there are a lot of areas where more research needs to be done, which again, goes back to education. I imagine some citizens think the City should have research on these things, but to what degree do we have research experts in certain areas, other than those who serve in the various practitioner roles, such as myself as chief diversity officer? So it’s incumbent upon me to conduct research related to diversity and inclusion throughout the City. But if I shut down for two days to conduct research, a lot of other things are not getting done, so there are trade-offs.

What can the average citizen do to help this cause? 

I think any citizen can continuously reach out to the City to be involved. I think people sharing their ideas is very, very important because you often have a small population of people who share their ideas, and they become the voice for the masses, even if they are not really representative of the masses. But if people don’t know who to contact and how, it becomes challenging. 

That’s why I try to do as much outreach as possible. I value the voices of the residents, but sometimes it’s just impossible to know what the concerns are. For example, I serve as staff liaison for the Fair Housing Commission, and sometimes we just don’t hear about certain housing complaints. It doesn’t mean these issues are not happening; it’s just that the City is not informed of it, and the City can’t take action until we’re informed. I think the City has a responsibility to create easier access for citizens to engage, and I think the communication has to be bidirectional. The City has to communicate better with the public, and the public with the City for us all to work best together.

What do you tell those organizations that want to do better, but don’t know how? 

One thing I stress is the concept of cultural humility, and how far that can get them as they move forward on this journey. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know, right? A lot of times people are hesitant to engage in conversations surrounding certain topics because they don’t want to step on a landmine. But if you approach people with a certain level of humility and say, hey, I’m trying to better understand something here—is there a way you can help me better? I think people are open and appreciative of that. 

Even that first step of inviting people to have the conversation is important. The GARE organization takes a three-pronged approach: normalizing, organizing and operationalizing. How do you normalize the conversation? How do you organize surrounding that? And then, how do you operationalize it—how do you put it into practice? The first step is just having that conversation. For some people in the room, it’s going to be repetitive information; for others, it is going to be breaking news. Again, you have to try to find that happy medium… and follow up with the people who may have gotten lost in the process. So first, I think, is encouraging people. 

One of the things I really appreciate is the number of people who have reached out to me from various organizations. I always get excited when someone or an organization seeks assistance on diversity, equity and inclusion. I think that’s a great first step—acknowledgement that I don’t know if we’re doing the best job in these areas, and how can we improve? How do we say, “We need help?” Because one cannot grow in denial. PM

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