You never know where Oak Park is going to turn up. In last week’s On Being, NPR’s Sunday morning interview show with Krista Tippett, her guest, John Powell talking about race relations in this country, used Oak Park as an example of what is possible. Here’s the excerpt:

Tippett: Here’s something you wrote: “If you look at 1950s’ attitudes towards integration versus today, the majority of whites today say they’d prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood and send their kids to integrated schools. What they mean by that is a different question, but also the world and demographics of the country are changing. And to live in a white enclave is not to live in the world. It has a certain deadness to it. It has a certain spiritual corruption to it.” And you said, “I think most people, white, black, Latino, and otherwise, would like to see something different. We just don’t know how to do it. And we’ve been so entrenched in the way things are. It’s hard to imagine the world being different.” You speak for me, you speak for so many people. This is what we’re up against. I feel like this is what we have to attack first, this inability to see differently. 

You told one story about Oak Park near Chicago. It was just really helpful to me. You said when we tell stories about — you integrate neighborhoods, and housing values go down. And the way we always tell the story is blacks moved in, African American people of color moved in. And the way we could tell the story is whites moved out. But you talked about this very practical measure that was taken so that the housing values didn’t change — would you just tell that story? I feel like these little stories are really crucial as well.

Powell: Chicago’s one of the most segregated areas in the country. Cook County has the largest black population of any county in the United States, and a lot of studying of segregation takes place in Chicago. So here you have Oak Park, this precious little community. And they were liberal whites there, and blacks started moving in. And they were saying, “Look, we actually don’t mind blacks moving in, but we’re concerned that we’re going to lose the value of our home. That’s the only wealth we have. And if we don’t sell now, we’re going to lose.” And [the government] basically said, “If that’s the real concern … what if we were to ensure that you would not lose the value of your home? We’ll literally create an insurance policy, that we will compensate you if the value of your home goes down.”

 And they haven’t had to pay one policy. Whites didn’t run further out to the suburbs. And that’s a stable community. It’s been that way for 50 years. So part of it is — and this is sort of interesting on a number of levels because you could say those white people were just being racist. They were just using the insurance policy as an excuse. Maybe, maybe not. So are you willing to actually take them at their word? Are you willing to embrace them and engage them where they are? Because people do have anxieties, and they’re multiple.

According to the On Being website ( John A. Powell is director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California at Berkeley. He previously directed the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.

What Powell refers to here is Oak Park’s Equity  Assurance Program, which many credit as a key factor in efforts to sustain stable integration.

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