Understanding the state of human relations in the model community of Oak Park isn't easy.
So says Cedric Melton, Oak Park's director of Community Relations, who as a staff person at village hall, is in a position to try to improve social and cultural interaction between residents.
"One of my concerns, and it is certainly one of my (Community Relations) commission's, is that we don't want Oak Park to be caught resting on its laurels," Melton said. "Oak Park has encountered issues and then established inclusion policies in the past that a lot of cities emulate. But you have to continue to push and prod to make diversity happen, which is my mindset, because it does not happen on its own."
In essence, that was Melton's opening pitch to a room of 22 invited guests at the final Village of Oak Park-produced and -funded Dinner and Dialogue event of the season.
"In Oak Park, we pride ourselves on being one of the most inclusive communities in the nation, and even around the world, and I think Oak Park does a great deal in terms of diversity and inclusiveness. But I think we can do better, and we should do better," Melton told the group, which included individuals of various ethnicities, social and socio-economic backgrounds, just prior to serving them a meal.
Melton created VOP's ongoing diversity dinner series, which he says is an offshoot of the Jane Addams Hull House Association Center for Civil Society's Chicago Dinners Project.
"Based on the diversity dinners I had attended in Chicago, I wanted to create these informal conversations within small, [intentionally] diverse groups [usually 12 people from different backgrounds] because I believe it can be a vital step in helping improve our village's cultural and human relations," Melton said.
To date, he says, 14 such events have taken place in large and small private homes, including condos, thanks mostly to the legwork of the members of the Human Relations Commission. In 2014, four dinners are scheduled, and attendees and hosts are needed.
"We want the public to know that we're working hard to make this community more inclusive, diverse and strong," said Melton, who suspended the program's confidentiality rule for one night only to allow a reporter in. "We hope tonight is a start of new relationships, and I am challenging you all to speak to someone here you don't know. That is the way you light little fires, and once you light enough of them in the village, they will continue to grow into change," Melton said.
And what better way to dissect the state of human relations in Oak Park than over a free meal, Melton joked, breaking the ice in his role as the evening's facilitator.
The inspiration for these two-hour discussions was "What's going on? Am I a racist?" by Wednesday Journal columnist John Hubbuch (Dec. 7, 2010) and a One View rebuttal, "Wow! Blacks like Oak Park for the same reasons whites do" by Oak Park resident Lynn Adams Whitaker (Dec. 14, 2010).
Margaret Fleming led off the discussion.
"I have my own diversity at home, in that I have adopted a number of children," said Fleming, one of the "commissioners," who had invited a friend to attend with her that night. "I have a Japanese child, two children from Vietnam, a number of African-American kids and a white child. So that is why we live here comfortably. I am learning more how we here in Oak Park can be less superficial in saying how diverse we are and how accepting we are because it feels to me like it is a veneer."
After sharing her thoughts on the topic, Linda Leonard's husband Jim spoke frankly about how living as an interracial couple in Oak Park can be personally challenging for everyone.
"OK, the first question is: What are the expectations we have, or should have?" Jim Leonard said. "If you are talking about racial diversity — or more cultural diversity to a great degree — people in this village tend to accept each other. At the same time, we all have a tendency to go to our own boundaries where we feel comfortable because that is a natural tendency of human beings."
Amy Hill, also in a mixed-race marriage, has a bi-racial child and is a stepmother to African-American children.
"Diversity is very near and dear to my heart," she said. "A really deep engagement in diversity is difficult for me — and worth it."
Hill's spouse, Jameel Abdur-Rafia, one of six commissioners at the table, said so far living here hasn't been easy at all. He told the group how last summer, venturing out on an early morning ride, he was stopped and felt racially profiled by the police as he pedaled his expensive touring bike out of his northeast Oak Park alley.
"Oak Park has this great image of being this pie-in-the-sky place. I have been living here a year and one-half, and I don't see it," said Abdur-Rafia. "I get this impression in Oak Park that they wear a diversity mask, but at 5:30 or 5:45 p.m., it's gone. There is an old saying, 'How do you treat a person with a disability?' The answer is: like a person."
He shared that "sometimes I push myself to feel uncomfortable, so I can't point fingers and say this person isn't doing this and that person is doing that. It is more about what am I doing outside my comfort zone?"
One point of consensus was the concept that how an individual acts toward another person isn't always personal, but sometimes it is taken so — painfully.
"I don't know if I can say I was welcome or unwelcome in Oak Park," said Maggie Duran, "but when I was younger, I applied for a job at a restaurant in Oak Park. I wanted to be part of the wait staff. Because I was Hispanic, they thought I belonged in the back of the house [washing dishes]. I said, oh yeah, well, I'm not going to eat there anymore. In my family, we live on a two-way street. It doesn't matter what color you are. You are accepted."
Tasha Knight, an African-American woman who has resided here for six years said, "I think the good thing about Oak Park is the gift that we have living here, that we have the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of each other, and how many other communities have that? We have this wonderful opportunity. How much we take advantage of that, and what prevents us from taking advantage of that, are the real questions."
Delena Wilkerson grew up in a small town in the South and now lives in Oak Park with her wife and family.
"I am in a 'tri-racial' family and we came here because we knew we could walk down the street without getting beat up … and find a church where we could all walk in and worship, and I did experience that here," Wilkerson said. "I came tonight because I was invited, and I am interested in hearing and participating in conversations that expand beyond black and white. My observation is that the divide is along socio-economic lines, and I don't know what to do about that. To create diversity and acceptance, it has to be intentional."
To sign up for, or host, a Dinner and Dialogue event, Melton suggests linking to http://www.oak-park.us/our-community/community-relations/dinner-dialogue, or contacting him via phone, 708-358-5407, or email email@example.com.