Dorrie Wilson (upper right) works for the Europe equivalent of the U.S. State Department. (Courtesy Dorrie Wilson)

A series profiling Oak Park and River Forest High School alumni.

While living in Oak Park in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Dorrie Wilson became interested in traveling oversees. 

She was able to do that for the first time at 14 while a student in Oak Park’s District 97. She was among a dozen or so students who traveled to Paris with their French teacher for a summer foreign exchange trip. 

From then on, she vowed to go abroad again. That trip also planted a seed that led to diplomatic service. 

Wilson, a 1981 OPRF grad, did graduate studies in Helsinki, Finland and Tilburg in the Netherlands. She later wrote a master’s thesis on European hip-hop culture while in Manchester, England. More trips to other parts of Europe followed. 

She ended up in Brussels, Belgium, where she now lives, first working in the local television scene as a public affairs writer/producer. Wilson, 51, has an entirely different career now working in the European External Action Service, Europe’s equivalent of the U.S. State Department. 

She’s worked there since 2008 as a logistics and planning assistant for the agency’s Middle East division. Her work includes providing administrative support on U.S. military bases and coordinating meetings with Palestinian officials. 

Much of what people see in the news concerning Middle East peace talks involves much behind-the-scenes planning, said Wilson, in a recent interview by phone from Brussels, which is also the agency’s headquarters. 

Being bilingual, especially French, helped Wilson land the job. While she’s traveled the world, she traces all of her experiences and interests back to Oak Park. Born in Omaha, Neb., along with her older brother and younger sister, Wilson’s family lived in many places in the states, including Oak Park and Berkeley, California. But Wilson, who has lived in Brussels for about a decade now, considers Oak Park home.

“Growing up in Oak Park and Berkeley, and being a black American, I’m very proud of that, even more so since I’ve been here,” said Wilson, who returns to Oak Park at least twice a year. 

Her family moved to the village in 1976 when she was 13. Her mom, Bette Wilson, was recruited to Oak Park to teach in District 97’s Mann School, which had no black faculty members at that time. Dorrie enrolled at Emerson Junior High, now Brooks Middle School, and talks proudly of learning from her mom and other Oak Parkers who tried to make village institutions more racially fair.

Her mom was among the founders of D97’s Multicultural Education Resource Center, shortly after arriving, and later served as its director until 1991 when it was formally adopted as a department. Now retired, Bette volunteers occasionally at the center, currently housed at Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland. She says she’s proud of all her children, particularly Dorrie.

“She had a life plan, like from the time she was born,” Bette said. “She always wanted to be an ambassador. She was just one of those thinkers, and she loved to read, loved to read.”

Her daughter was like a sponge, she said, soaking up everything she heard from all those Oak Park activists.

“She never left us. She was watching our every move. She watched what we did, and she was always in the room and nobody minded,” Bette said.

Dorrie said that experience shaped her.

“I sat learning from these people who really helped change Oak Park for the better,” she recalled.

Wilson’s father died when she was a toddler and after several moves Bette and her kids relocated to California. After graduating from OPRF, Dorrie returned to California and UC Berkeley to study performing arts, African-American studies and Black women’s literature. 

She continued those studies in Europe. 

Her professional career included working in the music scene, promoting festivals and local hip-hop artists. She returned to the States in the 1990s to pursue job opportunities, including co-producing the documentary Mississippi, America, about the aftermath of the Freedom Summer voter registration drive of black residents in the South. 

Moving to Belgium in the early 2000s, Wilson produced documentaries and local public affairs TV shows as a freelancer. As those opportunities dried up, she ended up working at the University of Belgium in the Student Affairs Department. Later, finally fulfilling those earlier diplomatic dreams, she was hired at the European External Action Service. But she still occasionally works in the performing arts as a producer. She said her performing days, however, are “long gone.”

She was in musical theater at OPRF, as a dancer and singer in several choirs. She was also a cheerleader and played in the marching band. Bette recalled once when Dorrie marched with the band and then rushed into school to change into her cheerleading outfit for the rest of the game.

At OPRF, Dorrie recalled being exposed to such stars as jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and conductor Andre Previn who did workshops with the students. 

“Clearly, Oak Park meant something to these people to come and work with these high school kids,” she said. “It’s the village, but it’s also the people in the village who used their networks to provide us this world.”

That network helped her make that first trip to Europe following eighth grade. Her family and teachers raised funds. 

“The black community in Oak Park held a dance for me to raise money for the trip,” Wilson recalled. “A woman there whose gift to me was 13 rolls of color film only had one requirement of me, that I come back and share with everyone, including the students, my experience and the pictures.”

She did just that. 

“I’ve lived all over,” Dorrie said, “but when people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I’m from Oak Park.”

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