Oak Park leadership passes from integration generation

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Dan Haley

When one looks about Oak Park and River Forest, post-April election, it can be hard to decide which transforming event to concentrate on.

The swing to independents winning victory is extraordinary. Going outside the so-called caucus system worked wonders for Julie Blankemeier in District 97 and for Dee Millard at Oak Park and River Forest High School. While it is hard to demonize either of these quite remarkable women, you did hear the rumblings from the more established types suggesting ulterior motives in their seeking election at all.

What always amuses me is the implication that placing one or more somewhat independent thinkers on these school boards will somehow cause such disequilibrium that the center will no longer hold. Given the fierce co-opting and superintendent worship that is the practice on our?#34;and most other?#34;school boards, independence is a prime virtue.

The sweep of the Oak Park village board by the insurgent New Leadership Party and the presidency by an independent was, it seems a month out, the culmination of long deepening weakness by the ruling VMA. That group has shown itself tone deaf in both the elected leaders serving on the last village board and in an uninspired slate of choices in the last election. The VMA lost an election but they also lost the mythology of their connectedness to Oak Park's ways and needs. The magic is gone. Next time out, the VMA is going to have to scrap for issues, edges, and far better candidates.

A more subtle change, and one suggested to me over the past weekend, is a generational one. Partly, I'm getting older and everyone seems like a kid. I acknowledge that. Right now, though, I look at the current make-up of the one-short-of-a-quorum Oak Park board and hope David Pope and the trustees choose a black or Hispanic person, preferably female, to round out the board. A village hall watcher I was talking to last week, though, made the case for a grey-haired eminence of any race or gender being appointed to balance what they perceived as the remarkable youth of this new board.

The point made to me was that in multiple elections this spring, and in two cases with the election of board officers which followed those elections, Oak Parkers have turned to younger people of a generation that is removed from seeing race and integration as the sole crucible of governing Oak Park.

Patterns of mobility clearly indicate that the generation of white liberals who moved into Oak Park in the early 1970s to change the world, one ridiculously cheap Victorian home, at a time is edging out of power. Racial integration as the litmus test for all decisions isn't so powerful for villagers who have never known anything but rapidly rising home prices and steadily declining crime stats.

Two of those younger leaders, Pope at village hall and Carolyn Newberry Schwartz in the elementary schools, have the benefit of having grown up here, of having parents who were activists in the open housing movement.

The Oak Park park board's new president David Kindler grew up in Iowa, though he cut his teeth in the liberal politics of the city and the West Side. John Rigas, newly chosen as board president at Oak Park and River Forest High School is another native with ties in both Oak Park and River Forest. His focus at the high school seems less on the prism of race and far more on notably changing an inbred culture which lacked financial accountability to the community and actively deadened efforts to foster internal change.

In various ways, on every board in town, voters have loosed challenges to the status quo. Not a moment too soon.

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