By Dan Haley
Right at the very end of last week's blunt and searing forum on race and education at OPRF, a young woman, a freshman at the school, came to the microphone. She has attended public school in Oak Park through elementary and middle school, now high school. And in those years, she has never once had a teacher who wasn't white.
Aggressively growing the number of African American teachers was a recurring thought through the powerful session on Nov. 14. But it was this freshman's summary point that to me captured the night's intensity.
"We need to hurry up," she said.
We need to hurry up.
David Stovall, a professor of educational policy and African American studies at UIC, was the keynote speaker. And from go he was all about urgency — about the inevitability of pain that must be felt if actual cultural change is ever to move beyond talking points at the school and in Oak Park and River Forest. He was not buying Oak Park's self-satisfaction on diversity and integration.
"In Oak Park you have a particular condition," he said. "You all have a race problem. Racism is a system. Who is in and who is out. And it is reflected in the daily lives of students. … We have taught racism to be normal."
Oak Park, a town, he said, that prides itself on diversity, instead suffers from "historical amnesia."
Is OPRF's faculty "ready to engage?" he asked. "Not in a two-level system" of honors and everybody else, but "in an eight-level system" that takes hold of every child, that doesn't call white students' bad behavior "normal teenage stuff" whereas "non-compliance" by black students is a serious disciplinary issue. A system that doesn't put up with black male students being shunted into special ed and "the entire fourth floor in this school that represents" such an outcome.
Are white parents — they're not helicopter parents, he said, but F1 bomber parents — anywhere near ready to acknowledge that "your kids will be all right [because] a world has been planned for them," while students of color absorb the body blows of a system that over generations "has taken opportunities away from them"?
Are whites in Oak Park and River Forest ready to get past their "white fragility because the conversation is going to get tough"? Stovall asked.
Is this school district, led by elected board members and administrators, ready to use "a word that becomes fearful" to school districts — redistribution — which ruptures the norm?
Redistribution of resources, of energy, of unwavering commitment.
"You all got hell of resources," said Stovall. "That's not the issue. But do they go to referrals, to athletics or to transitioning kids out of special ed? ... Is school about order and compliance or about education?"
This was not an evening for the timid. "Fighting racism is unsettling the norm. You need to make a decision to engage in a long journey," said Stovall.
For the 300 people in the South Cafeteria — students, parents, faculty, community members, school board members and administrators — the decision is made. Each person who spoke, board president, keynoter, four articulate students on a panel, the line of commenters, the superintendent, were fundamentally aligned. There is a profound institutional racism at work at OPRF. It is baked into the system. And it allows a culture that the student panelists identified as a series of "micro-aggressions" from casual racist comments in hallways, to dismally insensitive responses from teachers, to balled up messages and expectations sent to black students.
The issue, said several students, is that this is a big school and 300 more or less like-minded people in a room for one night doesn't make plain to the rest of the student body and faculty and security guards the anger and the pain these students feel each day.
This school has a strategic plan that focuses on equity. It has a committee charged with taking on issues of culture and behavior. It has groups working on curriculum rewrites that might integrate black history into the mainline American history every student learns. It has an administration and school board in tune enough to bring in a speaker who breaks the arm that pats the back that says Oak Park is a racial pioneer and somehow gets a pass on making equity real at our high school.
This is the moment. But we need to take big chances. We need to offend. We need to fail and to win. We need to be humble and to be bold.
We need to hurry up.
Answer Book 2018
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