By Anna Lothson
More than 63,000 people call Oak Park or River Forest home. There must be at least one reason why.
That question has brought together four local leaders in a new campaign called OPRF Embrace, an initiative that's designed to remind people in the two communities about the people, places and institutions that make it worth sticking around.
This campaign is being organized through the Oak Park and River Forest Community Foundation's Community Leadership Program and has four committee members representing different groups. This includes: Cristy Harris, executive director of Prevail; Tracy Brooker, a lifelong OP-RF resident and vice chair of the Board of Trustees at Fenwick High School; Jill Moorhead, wellness coordinator at the West Cook YMCA; and Max Williams, executive director of Downtown Oak Park.
The project primarily involves communications outreach efforts, launched through Facebook (facebook.com/OPRFEmbrace) and Twitter (twitter.com/OPRFEmbrace). The committee members are also meeting with individuals and organizations to spread awareness and create dialogue.
"It's really meant to remind people in these communities why they chose to live here in the first place," Williams said. Even as a newcomer to Oak Park, with just 6 months at his post, Williams has identified the dynamic business districts, the farmers markets and the schools as obvious reasons that attract people to town.
"There is always this theme that people want to come back and raise your children. Oak Park and River Forest are not areas you just arbitrarily find yourself in," he said.
The clutch of the program, he said, sprang from identifying needs in the community, which included addressing a perception of negativity or proliferation of pessimism that can hinder a community's progress.
William jumped at the opportunity to work for DTOP because he thought Oak Park was an exciting place, boasting an urban feel in a community setting. Some discourse, however, made him realize that others in the community may need a refresher on what attracted them or people like him to the community. The group saw those gaps as an opportunity to reinvigorate residents.
"I think we worry about complacency. Communities like Oak Park and River Forest, they are both well-educated communities. We would hate to see those things wither in a sense of distaste," Williams said. "We don't want people to grow cynical of a town they enjoy."
This campaign isn't trying to sidestep issues, he said; instead it's attempting to make people "embrace" the best features and provide a sense of community pride.
"We've got a lot to work with here but sometimes it's nice to be reminded of the particular areas. …The things that are going on in these communities are very impressive and very forward thinking" Williams said. "That's why 'embrace' is a good word. It's not saying ignore."
The group's outreach has three parts, which will rely heavily on community input. First, OPRF Embrace is inviting individuals and organizations to answer the following question in 100 words or less: "What do you embrace about Oak Park and/or River Forest?"
Second, the group is inviting people to submit photographs of anything or anyone that they embrace in the community. "Seemingly 'small' things, or little-known individuals, are most welcome," according to a news release about the campaign.
Those responses will be included in a video that the group creates and plans to show at various venues, starting with its presentation on June 14 at the Community Leadership Program wrap-up event. The third component of OPRF Embrace is the gathering of facts and figures that underscore the dual communities' vibrancy, resilience and character, according to the release.
Those interested in submitting written or photographic responses can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Milestones in the campaign will include setting up a booth at the annual A Day in Our Village event on June 2; visitors can share their written responses and photographs there too.
"Together, we will be able to hold up a mirror to the community," Moorhead wrote in the release. "It will reflect what we look like when we give ourselves permission to shine a positive light."