GREEN — The five people sitting at Mayor Gerard Neugebauer's desk all have decidedly different backgrounds, but a similar goal.

As they speak about the city's new Citizens Group for Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, their differences emerge.

Ayda Qureshi, a recent Green High School graduate who will attend the University of Michigan, said her time in the school system was an enjoyable experience.

"I really liked Green High School a lot, but there's not a lot of diversity," Qureshi said. "I really do love Green."

Qureshi graduated with a 4.6 grade-point average and had many friends during her school years. But that wasn't the case for everyone.

"I do know others that had more difficulty in school," she said.

Henry Johnson, a 15-year resident of the city and the only African-American at the mayor's table, said his experience with the school system wasn't as positive as Qureshi's.

Johnson said that when he and his family attended sports events, they would sit alone. Sometimes, the students were not very accepting. His children became involved in confrontations.

But Johnson said he's determined to make the citizens group a success by involving residents who haven't always felt included in the city's political and cultural processes. He'll lead the group, which will have its first meeting Saturday..

"What we don't want to do is have city officials dictating [to the group]," Johnson said.

He hopes to bring awareness of what the city has to offer to residents who haven't participated in the past.

That sounds good to Neugebauer, who started what he calls an "intentional" process with Councilman Rocco Yeargin to boost inclusion. It's an effort many larger cities have undertaken, but it's not all that common for cities the size of Green.

A 2016 study by the Urban Institute showed many larger cities have found that demographic changes are creating a need for inclusion efforts.

"With an explicit emphasis on inclusion, local stakeholders are partnering formally and informally to address issues — such as housing, transportation, and infrastructure — that spill across jurisdictional lines," the study reads.

Neugebauer said the demographics of Green are different from many large cities, but the need for inclusion is the same.

"We know we can make this happen with very intentional purpose," the mayor said. "We want to experience the best of everybody."

In January, Yeargin invited a small group and the mayor to his home. They spoke about the challenges of being a minority in a community that is 93 percent white. As meetings continued in the first half of the year, ideas emerged about how Green could be inclusive to all its residents.

Ayda's mom, Zara Qureshi, said she came to the United States 22 years ago. Her husband was teaching at the University of Akron, and it was a cultural shock.

"Everything was new," Zara Qureshi said. "It was pretty hard to get adapted."

She said her participation in the group will aim toward greater involvement of minorities. She'd like to see cultural shows and food festivals that reflect different cultures.

Neugebauer said that the idea emerged from observing the participation of younger residents in the Student Municipal Representatives program. Ayda Qureshi was one of those participating.

Yeargin began hosting the meetings, building interest in the idea. Like Johnson, he believes the citizens group must have autonomy.

"We are of the opinion that it can't be top-down," he said. "We want it to be grassroots."

Johnson said the group will examine legislative, cultural and economic solutions to increasing diversity and inclusion in Green.

"[We are] throwing that all on the table," he said. "We'll be coming up with real answers and conclusions."

 

Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or emailed at aaashworth@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconjourna.