Oak Park likes to think of itself as a wonderfully integrated community that celebrates diversity. However, if one looks just below the surface, conflict and frustration can be seen bubbling underneath. Some of that frustration came out into the open at last Tuesday's meeting of Black/White Dialogue, which focused on the unsuccessful attempt of dialogue co-founder Gerald Clay to be appointed to just-filled open seat on the Oak Park village board.
Clay, who has lived in Oak Park for 22 years and is a founder of APPLE (African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education), said that his experience is an example of why many blacks in Oak Park fail to get involved in village government.
"It is this kind of thing that causes friction in the community," said Clay. "I want parity, I want equity. We have issues in this community. We have to face them as openly and honestly as we can. We can't sweep them under the rug."
According to Clay, many blacks in Oak Park feel angry and disenfranchised, and he said that he received numerous messages telling him that he was naive for believing that he ever had a real chance to be appointed trustee.
"This is the kind of attitude seeping into the community," said Clay. "The only way we can stop it is to talk about it. We need to be able to talk to each other better than we do."
Clay said after reading about the trustee selection process in Wednesday Journal, he submitted six copies of his resume to a sitting trustee whom he had known a long time and who was a past participant in Black/White Dialogue. While Clay did not name him, it was clear that he was referring to Bob Milstein.
Milstein confirmed this week that Clay submitted materials to him late in the selection process. Milstein said he brought Clay's interest to the attention of Village President David Pope the last week of June while Pope was on vacation.
Pope confirmed that he received a message from Milstein while on vacation that Clay was interested in the position, but by that time he had decided upon Elizabeth Brady.
Milstein also said by the time he had communicated Clay's interest to Pope that Pope has already decided upon Brady. By the time Clay and Pope met face to face at the village's Fourth of July Parade, Pope told Clay that he was going forward with Brady's nomination.
The next night Brady, who is white, was nominated by Pope and confirmed by a 5-1 vote for the trustee position at the village board's July 5 meeting.
Milstein does not believe that race was a factor in the village board's decision.
"He gave me an application in the last week of the selection process," Milstein said this week. "Every time a decision is made, it is not a decision about race. There were whites who applied, there were African-Americans, there were men, there were women. Everything is not about race."
Pope who attended the black-white dialogue meeting at the library said that 56 names were suggested for the vacant trustee position. Pope said that he had actively encouraged an African-American male, whom Pope declined to name, to seek the position but said that the person decided not to.
"It is fundamental to the health of our community that we have people of all backgrounds participate in the life of our community and in the governance of our community," Pope said.
Expanding the scope
While Clay believes that the controversy demonstrates the need for continuing Black/White Dialogue, which he and actor Lanny Lutz began about eight years ago, some of the 17 people present last week at the meeting wondered whether the dialogue should be expanded.
"Why is this just a black-white group when the Latino and Asian population in Oak Park is burgeoning?" asked Catherine Bendowitz, a member of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission who is white and was attending her first Black/White Dialogue.
Fred Blakey, who lives in Forest Park and works for the Oak Park Health Department agreed.
"Why can't this be a dialogue of all people instead of just a black/white dialogue?" said Blakey, who is black.
Clay said he is not opposed to expanding the dialogue, and it is a discussion that the founders of the dialogue have had numerous times.
"It doesn't matter to me what we call it as long as we have dialogue," said Clay. "We have problems. Oak Park is not what it purports to be. We have an opportunity to be what we claim to be."