Rantoul’s Debbra Sweat is nothing if not persistent. She said she has always stood up for what she believed in, has refused to back down and has defended herself and others who aren’t as strong-willed as her from attacks by individuals. When hearing a song by Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down,” she said she would add that to her “play list” and it will be a “go-to song when I hit those brick walls.” Many don’t agree with some of her stances on local issues and her opinions, but one thing is certain: She cares about Rantoul and is active in the community, which she wishes would be true of more residents. Following is a question-and-answer piece with Editor Dave Hinton:
Are you a native of Rantoul? If not a native, how long have you lived in town?
I am not a “native” of Rantoul. I am a former military brat and moved here in 1971, 50 years ago, when my father was deployed to Vietnam. I was born 1959 (60 years old) in Champaign/Urbana when he was deployed to Korea. Champaign is my mother’s home as well.
When my father returned from Vietnam in 1972, he was stationed here. We then moved from what is now Falcon Way Town Homes on to Chanute AFB until he retired from the Air Force in 1977. He went on to work and retire from the city of Champaign, and we remained because my brothers were in or entering college, his job and extended family.
Please tell me about your education.
When my family moved to Rantoul in 1971, it was the latter part of my sixth-grade year. I attended Eastlawn, Myna Thompson, JW Eater, then graduated from RTHS in 1977. I briefly attended Parkland College. My siblings attended and graduated from four-year educational institutions. Like a number of youths today, community college or a four-year institution was not my path. So contrary to the path expected, I branched out.
Tell me about your vocation/avocations.
Graduating from RTHS along with taking clerical classes as a backup plan, it prepared me to find gainful employment. At the age of 19, I began working at the University of Illinois. My goal was to work and experience life for a few years then return to school. My aspiration was social work, psychology or law. However, life took me down yet another path, family.
Over the years at the U of I, I promoted and worked in various departments until retiring in fall 2011. I had the privilege to work with, be mentored by and learn from incredible, well-educated and diverse individuals.
You are very active in the community, active in matters dealing with the village of Rantoul. What got you interested?
Growing up and in school, I found myself advocating for and defending myself and others. It got me in a lot of trouble with teachers and other kids. They realized I wouldn’t back down. I was picked on and victimized in high school because of my weight. Now they call that bullying. There was a lot of defending and fighting for myself. When others would be picked on for different reasons, I would stick up for them.
My parents didn’t expect me to speak up as often. I was taught to be an independent thinker and to speak up and out if I or others were wronged or I saw wrongdoing.
I try not to back down. I didn’t mind hitting my head against the wall a few times to bring attention and change to things which didn’t seem right. I think that’s why I speak up at the village board meetings.
One person in particular, the mayor, thinks nothing is wrong in town. When Wendell (Golston) and I met with the mayor about changing the board to the aldermanic form, I thought we had made inroads with trustees. We met with them two by two and some individually. We thought we had their support, ... but when it came to the board meeting, I think Chuck had convinced them as well that it wasn’t a good idea. He said there’s nothing broken in the village. It’s the ‘If it ain’t’ broke don’t fix it’ mentality. Then we went back to the drawing board and brought in outside counsel, and that’s when the idea of districting came up and we decided to pursue it.
One of my concerns, the apathy in this town is terrible, the lack of interest, the lack of input. I also put the blame and responsibility on the village because they have isolated themselves from the community by making people come to them. It’s a deterrent to get people involved when you have to go to the village. They don’t do town halls, very little community outreach. One board member was doing a monthly outreach-community coffee, and he still tries to do things, but none of the others do. And if they do any, it’s only with their friends and their inner circle which is pretty much each other.
Talk about your local involvement
I briefly joined and became the secretary of Concerned Citizens under Rev. Freeman, Wendell Golston and the late Roy Marcelin but stepped back.
After retiring and with time on my hands, I decided to become involved in the community, trying to discover how I could be an impact and help. I also heard for myself or was privy to disparaging racial/bias comments by leadership and individuals in this community, which made me more determined to get involved to make changes for the betterment of all citizens, not just the 1 percent.
I began by mentoring in the schools. I volunteered with TALKSMentoring, ran by Dr. Harold Davis, at Northview School. It was very rewarding and opened my eyes regarding the needs of children and families in the community. I began paying more attention and listening to people regarding their needs, plight and concerns. I also became concerned as to why Rantoul had not really advanced since the 1992 closure of Chanute AFB.
I decided to approach Wendell Golston about reviewing the mission, goals and effectiveness of the Concerned Citizens organization. He was on board with revising, and that led to our renewed energy to serve with the approach of being active in all facets and being a voice for the people (especially the marginalized and disenfranchised) of this community.
My involvement as a board member and officer with the Concerned Citizens propelled me to be more attentive and involved with advocating the concerns and needs in the areas of education, community government/leadership and criminal justice system and reform.
I resigned from the Concerned Citizens in June 2018. However, I still stay involved in community and government issues because voices are needed, and I hope I inspire others to let their voices be heard. Change is needed, and it won’t happen remaining status quo, silent and not communicating the needs of our citizens and community.
Civic and community activism has been on the decline. Maybe what’s happening in the country might stir some up.
Please tell me all about your activities/involvement.
Until COVID-19, I recruited my mother, and we have been volunteering for the last couple of years calling bingo for Peace Meal Senior Nutrition Program at the Community Service Center.
This also brought light to the limited services and opportunities for seniors in Rantoul. Rantoul has a large senior population, and Rantoul should provide more. I am contacted occasionally by community members seeking help and direction on issues and concerns. I try to assist directly or by referring them to resources (individuals or agencies) which can assist.
I believe you were involved in getting the districting question on the ballot regarding electing trustees to the village board, an issue that was approved by voters. Can you please talk about that issue?
Wendell Golston and I, as president and vice president of Concerned Citizens, approached and met with Mayor Smith (with Brenda Runyon in attendance), to explore moving the village government to an aldermanic form of government in order to provide better representation for the citizens of this community. We also met with each trustee to educate them on the value of distributed representation. We thought we made the case and had the support of the trustees. Then, the board made the decision not to proceed. Mayor Smith felt nothing is broken in Rantoul. We were troubled by the trustees living in the exclusive northern areas of town which left south of Rt. 136 and east Rantoul underrepresented and unsupported. We did not let this deter us from the goal of better and equal representation in our town.
In consult with an outside source, the idea of districting was discovered. It is a medium to distributing representation without changing the actual form of government. With the task of exploring this idea and launching a referendum campaign, a separate and dedicated group was needed. That launched Rantoul Residents for Representation, a grassroots organization consisting of some members of the Concerned Citizens and volunteer community members interested in and supportive of better representation.
Do you feel there is a segment of residents who feel disenfranchised in the community?
Yes, there is disenfranchisement in the community. We have areas of town which haven’t had any improvemewnts made to them in 25 yers. Money and resources are moving west, and people see it and feel left out of any advancement/progress in this town.
We’re seeing a change being brought on because of the national leadership and what’s been going on with the death of (George) Floyd. I think people became comfortable and status quo with their lives. His death has brought to light some of the problems that have been plaguing some of the black community, the racism, employment opportunities, socio-economic issues and just how we’re viewed in this country.
Now a lot of people are apologizing to Colin Kaepernick for torpedoing his career. Now the LA Chargers want him to work out. This man lost his career. He was isolated because he took a knee to bring awareness to what was going on. If we had opened our ears and listened and tried to understand. We don’t practice active listening. Our leadership in this town, they don’t do it as well.
Yes, residents feel disenfranchised. We may have diverse neighborhoods in Rantoul, but as a community we are segregated. We have areas of town which haven’t had any improvements made to it in 25 years. Money and resources are moving west, and people see it and feel left out of any advancement/progress in this town.
What are steps that can be taken to get them involved on both the part of village government and citizens themselves?
Since districting passed with the referendum and adopted this month by the village, people should become aware of what district they reside in and strongly consider running or encouraging someone you feel can represent our town, the citizens and their district well. Remember just because the trustee is from your district, you can approach any trustee. You also have the right and power to hold them accountable by listening to you, answering your concerns and expressing the people needs and wants when it comes to community strategic planning.
I think we have forgot our constitutional rights and how government is supposed to work.
You asked the mayor to consider reinstating the human relations committee, which he said he plans to do. Please talk about that.
The Human Relations Committee has existed in our community for years. When I first began to research of our government structure, I noticed the committee had not met for years and one member listed was deceased. I approached Mayor Smith about the appointment and functionality of the committee during his first term. He did appoint new members, but the committee continued to fail to meet. He also never responded directly to me either. I spoke with one of the first appointed members and was told the committee had not met in at least 10/12 years.
I honestly feel the mayor saw this committee would only be hearing and addressing citizens complaints and concerns, something he/they did not want to hear. This stifled open communication, controlled the voices and narrative and swept concerns and dissatisfaction under the rug.
In learning of a new five-year plan being developed and will include stabilizing and improving the infrastructure and development of east Rantoul, I felt the committee could assist by opening lines of communication and building trust and bridges with citizens.
I also heard dissatisfaction with how the assembled committee for Rantoul Tomorrow disenfranchised members of that group and went from over 120 citizens and business owners to about two dozen business owners and the 1 percent.
My asking the Mayor to rethink the mission was a plea to open lines of communication with your constituents, build bridges along cultural, racial and socioeconomic platforms. Utilize this committee to be your community ambassadors.
What are your thoughts on developments regarding the Black Lives Matter initiative and other issues in the nation?
I fully support BLM and the quest of any organization seeking equality, civil and human rights, as well as criminal and social justice reform.
I believe there is failed leadership at the national and local level. We are in a trajectory of a two-class society. Civil, human and social rights are being trampled on and challenged again.
A man taking a knee during the National Anthem reared the suppressed hats of racism in this country. It unveiled the ugliness and disdain towards a race of people whose history and contributions to this country have been hidden, suppressed and slowly recognized.
The history of our country and people of color, which is taught and learned in schools and at home, is abridged and contains falsehoods. We need to fully educate our children and ourselves to broaden our knowledge and perspective, which can lead to more understanding, tolerance, communication, inclusion and embracing diversity.
We cannot be afraid to have that talk. To hate and devalue a race of people because of the color of their skin and sacrificing other races for the fragility of one is abhorrent. People do have the right to believe what they want to believe in. However, when those beliefs impede on the human and civil rights of others and acts of separatism and aggression are blatant and harmful or deadly, it should be addressed and changes made.
The demographics and socioeconomics presence of the town have changed.
As President Obama said in a recent town hall, the country was founded by protest and anarchy. It was called the American Revolution. We forget colonists marched, protested, formed groups, destroyed property in protest for fair/equal representation, self government and the change in philosophy for those who settled in America. People of color are doing the same to be heard, to be recognized and respected, not devalued, disparaged, and discarded.
What do you feel are the biggest issues facing the village of Rantoul.
The greatest issue I see facing Rantoul is finding leadership willing and committed to uniting Rantoul and our schools. This would involve restoring and stabilizing the basic infrastructure of this community, our schools and its people.
Without a strong and secure foundation, what can you truly offer? A community, family or house can’t stand and thrive without a strong, secure foundation. When the majority (not minority) of a town’s citizens and business thrive, we all benefit. This is what attracts interest and people. Securing short-term goals can lead to long-term successes.
Have you considered running for village board or other local office?
I have thought about running for office. However, I feel more comfortable on the other side. I am not a political person. My belief and values are more simplistic and lean towards what benefits the people and wants is best for the community as a whole. Most important, I think I can do more for the people to help them resolve their concerns and voicing their opinions. It is better when there is leadership willing to work in concert with people like me.
What are your other interests?
I haven’t developed any hobbies. My interests lie in family, friends and my community. I read occasionally, talk politics with my mother (as she did with hers), have my TV line up. My daily joy is my grandkids, and it is all centered around home.