Joplin will thrive or fade, depending on our ability to build a diverse and inclusive community. Building that authentic brand requires us to acknowledge our challenges and begin honest conversations that lead to positive change.

Recently, Toby Teeter, the chamber president, authored an open letter to the community that sparked an important and ongoing conversation. The chamber staff and board have been inundated with calls, questions and letters from chamber members and community members voicing both strong support and strong objections. We recognize the opportunity to add additional context to Toby’s letter, address some of the concerns, clarify the statement and restate the chamber’s aspirations for a better Joplin.

This is not a retraction of the open letter. The chamber staff and board are committed to improving the economic prosperity and quality of life in the Joplin region. While many in the community applauded the open letter, some were offended and believed the letter was calling past chamber leadership and some members racists. Instead the letter was intended to be an acknowledgement of structural racism. Structural racism occurs when institutions and systems perpetuate racial group inequity and cause disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, etc. It was not our intention to imply that any individual is or was culpable. Our point is, structural bias exists all around us and change will only happen when we acknowledge this fact and take action. We, as a chamber, acknowledge we can do better, and we ask other institutions to self-examine and join our efforts to do better.

Why is structural racism critical to understand and overcome? Not only does racism negatively impact the emotional, social and physical health of people of color in Joplin, it also inhibits Joplin’s ability to build and sustain a thriving economy. Economic development is increasingly a competition between communities to attract and retain workers and to build thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems. Young professionals are flocking to communities that value diversity. So too are entrepreneurs and innovators, where diverse perspectives and experiences create the innovations of tomorrow.

Reduced to more practical terms, we must retain and develop our Joplin K-12 students, 25% of whom are students of color. We need to retain MSSU graduates in our market, 25% of whom are students of color. We need to retain KCU-Joplin medical students in our market, nearly 50% of whom are health care providers of color. We need to build trust and practice inclusion with our growing immigrant workforce. In our attempts to diversify our economy into tech and biotech sectors, we must overcome pointed questions from companies about our inability to attract and retain diverse talent and support a culture of diverse ideas. We also recognize a diverse and inclusive employee base, with a range of approaches and perspectives, is a competitive advantage in our global economy.

You belong in Joplin. That’s the message the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce uses to attract talent and new industry. But, through our equity, diversity and inclusion efforts and through conversations with our community members of color, it has become clear we have more work to do as a community to make “You belong in Joplin” an authentic message.

That’s why, as a board, we want to make sure you know that we stand behind Toby Teeter as the president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce. We stand beside him and his passionate efforts to build a better Joplin. Now we ask you to join us in this effort. In the coming weeks, we will launch a series of community conversations and we invite you to come ready to listen, learn and better understand.

The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors consists of Todd Chenault, Melodee Colbert-Kean, Brandon Davis, Jeremy Drinkwitz, Vickie Dudley, R. Chad Greer, Richard Grise, Jacqueline Hackett, Jerrod Hogan, Betsy Kissel, Julie Larson, Alan Marble, Matt McConnell, Kelli Perigo, Katrina Richards, Dustin Storm and Mark Johnson.

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