Leader to expand Beloit's EOC role
BELOIT -- The Equal Opportunities Commission's duties are spelled out on the city of Beloit's website:
"Enforces equal opportunity in housing for all citizens of the city and receives and investigates all complaints alleging discriminatory practices in the provisions of fair and equal access to housing or housing accommodations on the basis of sex, race, color, sexual orientation, handicap, religion, national origin, familial status, sex or marital status of the person maintaining a household, lawful source of income and age or ancestry.
"The commission shall be representative of both sexes and of each racial group residing within the city as classified by the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics."
Steve Howland has been seeking to add much more meat to that definition since being elected chairman of the EOC in February, replacing Michael Zoril, who resigned last November after creating a public uproar over what many said were racist comments about African-Americans that he posted on Facebook.
Howland is one of seven EOC members who serve three-year terms on the committee -- plus a city council liaison.
"The EOC basically had become an entity that focused on fair housing complaints, but I believe it hadn't heard a case in five years or more," said Howland, 68. "We obviously maintain that function in addressing complaints, but in becoming chairman, I wanted to take a much broader scope and explore other issues of tension or conflict in the community. So, I wanted to reach out to many organizations and entities to see where we can provide input, develop relationships and find ways to work together."
Those kinds of efforts are nothing new for Howland, a former United Methodist Church pastor who served congregations in the Chicago area from the mid-1970s until retiring to Beloit in 2011 -- he and his wife, Mary, also own a place in Mexico and spend several months a year there.
It didn't take long for Howland to become active in civic matters after moving north of the border.
He was a Rock County Board supervisor from 2012-'14, and neighbors Chuck and Sandy Kincaid encouraged him to get involved with the EOC. His tenure on the county board led him to tackling mental health issues through YES Rock County -- Youth Emotional Stability. He also serves on the Rock County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
"I've always been interested in social justice issues," Howland said. "The goal is how do we make the system work for people, whether it's bail issues, working through the criminal justice system and issues with evidence-based tools and evaluations? We need good relationships with the community and the police, and that starts with good communication."
A key component of that for Howland involves outreach efforts to minorities, especially relevant during such contentious political times and in lieu of recent hate crimes/terrorist attacks, deportations, talk of travel bans and police-involved shootings.
So, instead of relaxing or playing more golf, he has tried to develop relationships with local Latino and African-American groups.
"The EOC has great power to investigate and study issues, especially when it comes to racism and fair housing, and make recommendations," Howland said. "We look at any class (of people) protected under state or federal statute and try to develop positive interactions between various groups and cultures within the city. I'm trying to be more aggressive (in engaging) Latino and African-American communities."
The Stateline features great diversity, and while those inherent differences can create barriers, they also present wonderful opportunities for education and growth.
One of those avenues involves education directly -- the school systems.
"We need to understand what's happening in our schools, which are dealing with great turnover, so we must support students, teachers and parents," Howland said. "We need to learn what students' needs are and help at the earliest possible age.
"We are all caught up in our own silos, so to speak, but issues in education are a community responsibility, and the EOC wants to break through, and that happens by working together."
Those strategies also must be undertaken when it comes to law enforcement and in the housing sector, but Howland said it's tough to foster better individual and neighborhood interactions and communications because Beloit has such a transient population.
"We don't want to overstep our bounds, but we want to build more trust between the community and the police department and be more responsive."
Despite gains in some areas, trouble spots remain concerning not only education and housing, but health care, jobs/income levels and infant mortality rates.
"We need to pay attention and talk to each other and keep asking questions in building coalitions," Howland said. "We need to get all of the players - health department, law enforcement, schools, social service agencies - on the same page in addressing the forces that create the many disparities we see.
"We can put some things in place, but we need to understand the issues at a deeper level," he added. "We can raise issues and put those in need in touch with organizations and resources, but we don't want to duplicate efforts, and that starts with effective communications."