Adressing inequity: Morgan Davis works inside her office at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center on Monday.J. GEIL/Photo Editor

Morgan Davis, a native of Oak Park, has been making an effort to be a friendly neighbor.

Davis, who is black, and her roommate, who is white, live in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, where they decided to move because “we don’t look like a typical household.” The area is predominantly black and low-income, and Davis is hoping to slowly build a level of trust and community.

She realizes she engages her neighbors “more than they’re used to,” baking them cookies and making sure to say hi when she’s sitting on her porch or mowing the lawn. Davis and her roommate are also trying to start a community garden, which the neighbors agreed is a good idea.

“Every place has the potential to become racially integrated,” said Davis, 26, who works as a fair housing policy analyst at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. Part of her job is to make people realize, however, that communities don’t start out that way.

When she was a student at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Davis said she enjoyed the benefits of a racially-mixed community. She had friends from different backgrounds and says people of different races were able to build relationships because they lived side by side.

After high school, Davis headed to Grand Rapids, Mich. to attend Calvin College. The community there was welcoming, she said, but there wasn’t a large representation of different racial groups. While Davis was majoring in sociology, she began to learn about inequities in housing.

“There are policies in place that people just don’t recognize, they’re not held accountable for, or they’re just not implemented properly,” she said. “It made me think that was something I wanted to help to prevent.”

Davis became a housing counselor at the center when she graduated from college, and Executive Director Rob Breymaier said her energy and enthusiasm were obvious.

“People have a false understanding of [Oak Park] being magically diverse,” he said. Davis knows that diversity requires effort and doesn’t just happen automatically.

She was hired for her current position in January after getting a master’s degree in public policy and administration from Northwestern University. Now Davis talks with local municipalities about creating fair housing ordinances. Although Oak Park has policies in place to prevent barriers to housing access, Davis said some surrounding communities do not. It’s the housing center’s job to create a landscape for those places, she said.

Part of the way residents can help promote housing integration is just to stay informed about fair housing policies and speak out for people who are being discriminated against. Davis said most of the discrimination takes place under the table, and it’s not talked about as much as it should be.

Last month, she co-authored a response to a study published by the Manhattan Institute that claimed racial segregation was nearing its end in American neighborhoods. Davis said the study was “so blatantly against what reality looks like,” using Chicago neighborhoods as an example. Though some are mixed, people just live next to each other not talking and not getting to know each other, Davis said.

In Oak Park, she said it can be surprising how talking to neighbors at village events and a friendly attitude encourages people to stay in the community.

“It’s just going outside of your comfort zone and building relationships with neighbors that don’t look like you,” Davis said.

And housing center staff will try to keep the dialogue open. They recently applied for a grant that will allow them to work with students at OPRF High School, Fenwick and Trinity high schools.

During workshops at the schools, Davis said housing staff would explain to the students that Oak Park is diverse for a reason, but there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s harder to explain that to younger people because they haven’t experienced injustice in the same way many adults have, Davis said. But raising awareness among them is a goal.

Davis and her colleagues know people will feel uneasy talking about racism. But celebrating differences is one reason people move to Oak Park, she said.

The village certainly has a special place in her heart, and Davis said she may eventually move back. Her passion is preventing discrimination, though, “so I will go where that is.”

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