Forest Park gets a diversity commission

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

I've been appointed to be on the brand new Diversity Commission in Forest Park which our village council established last week Monday by passing an ordinance. 

 

            While it's one thing to have lived in and worked with diversity for most of the last fifty years of my life, it's another thing to serve on a commission which is supposed to give guidance to the village regarding its diversity.

 

            Our stated mission is to promote social harmony and deter prejudice, discrimination and intolerance through educational and action programs.  The duties and responsibilities include: The Diversity Committee will be a resource for experience and information on diversity issues and serve in an advisory capacity to the Mayor and Village Council. They shall help to enrich the social and intellectual life of all residents through educational and social programs. They shall facilitate awareness and promote the understanding and acceptance of all people, especially those who have different racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, sexual preferences, physical limitations, gender, educational, and economic levels. They may invite and enlist the cooperation of racial, religious and ethnic groups, community organizations, fraternal and benevolent societies, veteran's organizations, professional and technical organizations and other groups to assist in their mission.

 

            How do you like that for a job description?  Where do you begin?

 

            One of my friends advised me to begin by checking out how other communities have dealt with diversity.  That made sense to me.  Why reinvent the wheel?  The only town I know anything about in that regard is Oak Park, so I'll share with you what I have learned about how our neighbor to the east achieved racial diversity.

 

            During the late 1960s and early 1970s the west side of Chicago in general and the Austin Neighborhood adjacent to Oak Park in particular was changing from all white to all black almost overnight.  That frightened many Oak Parkers, not because they had anything against African Americans but because they saw how unscrupulous, red lining, block busting realtors had used those tactics to enrich themselves at the expense of homeowners who saw the market value of their homes plummet.

 

            That's where the name Bobbie Raymond comes up.  She submitted a masters thesis to Roosevelt University in 1972 titled "The Challenge of Oak Park: A Suburban Community Faces Racial Change."  She focused her research on three communities which had made racial integration work: Shaker Heights, OH; West Mount Airy, PA; and University City, MO. 

 

What Raymond learned was that all three communities based their strategies on intentionally seeking to attract a certain type of white person to live in their towns.  "All three," she wrote, "recruit those wanting open space and the 'good life' of suburbia, but without total escape from the urban area.  When integration is added, a more specific type of white is attracted. . . .well-educated, intellectual, liberal.  This group, then, becomes the target market.  The blacks who have moved to the three communities are, in most cases, not only equal to the whites socio-economically and educationally, but often surpass them."

 

Raymond's research led her to conclude, "It has been demonstrated that stable, integrated communities require careful planning and organization, and that neighborhoods successful in accomplishing stability offer facilities and qualities that continue to attract whites. Oak Park is, therefore, at a crucial point in its history.  The community, through its institutions, must state its goal explicitly and show its residents that it has and will use the resources to achieve that goal." (thesis 147ff)

 

Working with the Community Relations Commission, an official government body, and the Citizens Committee for Human Rights, a citizens' group, Raymond led the way in creating a strategy to stabilize Oak Park's transformation from a homogeneous village to a diverse community.

 

And creating the conditions conducive to maintaining diversity required some social engineering.  In her thesis she outlined specific tactics.

 

  1. Establishment of a housing bureau to promote the village and to insure fair housing practices by realtors and lenders;
  2. The coordination of existing community agencies and volunteer groups.
  3. The improvement of block clubs.
  4. Hiring of black personnel in schools and governmental departments
  5. Education of business interests to the positive aspects of integration.
  6. Upgrading of housing inspection.

 

Obviously, we're not Oak Park and this is not 1970.  The census data indicates that Forest Park is 46.4% white, 32.4% black, 10.1% Hispanic and 8.2% Asian.  Oak Park is 67.7% white, 21.7% black, 6.8% Hispanic and 5.2% Asian.

 

The estimated median household income in Forest Park in 2013 was $50,380, and the estimated median house or condo value was $209,156.  In Oak Park the median household income in 2014 was $78,895 and the median house or condo value was $354,400.

 

            Conclusions?  In Forest Park whites are in the plurality but if you lump all other races together, they/we are in the minority.  And hardly anyone cares about what the statistics say.  What most people care about are the schools and if their neighbors are decent folks.

 

            We're significantly different in terms of socio-economic class.  How would you like to be making $28,000 more a year?  Our housing stock is less expensive for buyers but earns less as an investment when it comes time to sell.

 

            What is known as the "Oak Park Strategy" won't work here, I think.  What I would like to borrow from our neighbors, however, is their intentionality.  We need a rudder, a guiding vision to at least clarify where we want to be at the end of our journey together.  Maybe that includes targeting empty nester refugees escaping Oak Park's high taxes.  I think we should also copy their integrated, "all organizations on deck" approach to maintaining a healthy balance.

There is hereby created the Diversity Commission of the Village of Forest Park.

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