A Publication of WTVP

Man on the move

by Bob Grimson | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Andre Allen

Peoria County now has its first diversity, equity and inclusion officer in the person of Andre Allen.

When Andre Allen was an eighth-grader at Peoria’s Sterling Middle School, a teacher challenged him to “step up his game” on and off the basketball court. Rather than being resentful or hurt, Allen opted to show the teacher he could do just that.

At graduation the teacher told Allen, “You’re going to be in the White House someday. And I want to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

While Peoria’s City Hall isn’t the West Wing, Allen is comfortable there as the city’s Fourth District councilman. Now, he’s also getting acquainted with the courthouse as Peoria County’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officer.

“I get to be my own professional Picasso. It’s a blank canvas,” Allen said about the newly created job. “But there’s also no breadcrumbs to follow.”

Allen said the new job grew from the nationwide protests and calls for change following the death of George Floyd in 2020.

“You knew change was going to happen,” he said. “It had to happen.”

‘The tide that raises all boats’

Along with developing workplace policies and procedures, Allen wants to build the DEI unit as a resource for county government and others. Another goal is to fine-tune the procurement process. 

“DEI is the tide that raises all boats. Sometimes we lose sight of that,” said Allen. “Equity doesn’t mean that you have to give up something, it just means that this time, it may not be your turn. But at the end of the day, you’re still going to be OK.”

He characterized the famed GI Bill that emerged out of World War II as an example of affirmative action that ultimately benefited everyone.

From Peoria County Administrator Scott Sorrel’s perspective, the George Floyd case prompted many governments to act regarding equity issues. “It’s a significant undertaking,” he said. With Allen, “I was able to find someone who understands government and had the energy and the right kind of personality to be a change creator.”

A person of firsts

After graduating from Peoria’s Richwoods High School and Illinois Central College, Allen picked up bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Eastern Illinois University, where he was involved in several activities. In a nod to his future position, he also interned in the school’s Office of Minority Affairs. 

“I was doing a lot of things for our students from under-represented communities,” Allen said. “I really loved working with those students because those students were me. I was a first-generation college graduate.”

In 2016, Allen moved back to Peoria for a position at Methodist College, eventually serving as director of student affairs, diversity, equity and inclusion at the nursing school.

Deciding against “just going to work and going home,” Allen sought out ways to get involved in the community. Ultimately, that prompted a winning run for the Peoria City Council in 2021.

“I felt it was the next logical step for me to contribute to my community.”

‘Representation is important.’

“I believe in the mantra, ‘If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,’” said Allen. “You get in this (elected official) space and you just want to please everyone. You learn fast that you can’t do that and you just have to make the best decision based off your morals, your convictions, your values and you live with that.” 

The fact that Peoria’s city government is led by Mayor Rita Ali, the first Black and first female in that role, hits home with Allen. 

“Representation and exposure are so important,” he said. “My daughter is 8 and can say she knows the mayor of Peoria. And the mayor looks like her.”

Allen anticipated the potential for conflicts of interest between his county and city jobs.

“If there’s anything that comes up on the agenda, like an intergovernmental agreement, I run it past them (the state’s attorney and city attorney),” he said, noting that he even carries three cell phones for county, city and personal use.  

Between two demanding jobs, Allen somehow found the time to complete coursework and start his dissertation for a doctorate from Illinois State University in higher education administration. He’s had to step back from some activities, such as his sports radio show on Strictly Hip Hop 90.7 FM and a mentoring program at his middle school alma mater.

“You do have to prioritize,” he said.  “There’s an event every night if you want.” 

‘Why you do what you do’

Allen met his wife, Jaleesha, at Eastern Illinois University, where she was a cheerleader, sorority president and the school’s second Black Homecoming queen. 

“In Peoria, she may be known as Andre’s wife but when we go back to Eastern for reunions and homecomings, I’m her husband,” he said. Meanwhile, Jaleesha is Mrs. Illinois Earth 2022 and competing for the national crown.   

The couple is raising three children — daughters Barbie Marie (8) and Dream (2) and son Dreyton (4) — with the same ethos of community service. The oldest accompanied her dad on a holiday delivery of toys and trees. 

“My oldest wanted to go inside the last house because she wanted to see the reaction of the family,” Allen said. “When we came out, she said, ‘Wow, this is why you do what you do.’

“I think we can all give our time, talent and treasure to different organizations and different causes.”

Bob Grimson

Bob Grimson

is a longtime journalist. He also is quite active in Peoria area community theater