Lesia Hill-Driver has been the director of the Dr. John Bryant Community Center for 10 years. She has a master's degree in adult education with an emphasis on psychotherapy. She was a County Board supervisor and ran a program that helped men coming out of prison.
And in a few weeks, Hill-Driver may be unemployed.
Mayor Gary Becker's proposed 2008 budget recommends eliminating the director of the Humboldt Park Community Center. Due to seniority among the city's community center directors, the mayor's cuts would force Hill-Driver out at the Bryant Center.
It's a tough situation for Hill-Driver, who's spent a lot of time cultivating relationships in the surrounding neighborhood and developing the Bryant Center's programming to include more than just sports. She's brought in a full computer lab, dance classes, tae kwon do instruction, senior classes and other programs designed to appeal to a wide variety of interests.
"My vision for the Bryant Center is we become a center for the arts," Hill-Driver said. "That's why we have tap dancing, drill team, girl power and other things I'm trying to put into position. We're trying to bring culture to our children. It's a long way from just basketball and football."
Defending the city's community centers is personal for Hill-Driver. Her father, Augusta Hill, marched to create the Lafayette Community Center, which is now Tyler-Domer. Hill-Driver can remember being a little girl and coloring signs for the rally. Once the center opened, she remembers going there to participate in talent and fashion shows and to take crocheting classes. "I was into the girl stuff," said Hill-Driver, though the important of the community centers ran deeper than any one activity.
"To me, it was inclusion. It was having some place where the neighborhood children could go. Even then, it was a vision for the community to have fun, safe programming."
Heated opposition to the mayor's plans to rework the community center – no matter how minor Becker says it will be – lies in people like Hill-Driver's life-long trust and faith in Racine's community centers. It's this same trust and faith that Becker seemed to underestimate when he started talking about bringing in the YWCA and YMCA to partner with the community centers, and when he proposed eliminating one of the director positions.
Those actions have led to raucous community meetings with people openly attacking the mayor for his plans. Hill-Driver is among the critics.
"He should have allowed the changes to come from the people," Hill-Driver said. "It should come from the grassroots. You cannot take 30 years of heritage and history on a whim, and adjust it to one person's vision."
At least one alderman will try to save Hill-Driver's job. City Council Member Michael Shields is planning to introduce a budget amendment that would restore funding for the Humboldt Park community center director.
"I think the community centers are important," Shields said. "The directors in each center are important in building relationships in the community."
He added that Becker made a mistake in bringing up the community centers as an issue. "I think the mayor stuck his foot in his mouth," Shields said.
One reason funding for the community centers came under review is the perception that they're only used to play basketball, and a place like Humble Park doesn't offer much more than a gym and a game room.
But Hill-Driver said that is a narrow view of what the community centers do. The directors organize community events, like Juneteenth Day, work with nonprofit organizations, build relationships with children and oversee programs like Optimist basketball.
She also bristled when it was suggested that African Americans are the only group to use the community centers. People of all races attend the Bryant Center, Hill-Driver said, for programs ranging from ceramics to computer classes.
"There's passion from the African American community for the centers because of the roots, but the community centers are used by all," Hill-Driver said.
As for Becker's plans to partner with outside organizations to bring in more programming, she said the Bryant Center is already working with other nonprofits and all of the centers look for ways to collaborate with the community. Hill-Driver said she's skeptical of the mayor's plans because she sees what happened to the Lakeview Community Center after it was turned over to the Friends of Seniors.
"The public cannot even go in there and use the restrooms," she said. "The public can't park in the lot. Once you take a public entity and turn it over to a private entity, the public loses access to that facility."
Article by Dustin Block. It first appeared in the Nov. 15 edition of the Insider News.