At Peter Traczyk’s funeral, Dan Greenstone remembered his neighbor and friend as a man who “studied people,” who “used his grace and wit to find a way in, a way to connect.”
Nearly a year after Traczyk’s untimely death, the former Oak Park District 97 board member and community leader is still connecting people.
The first grant from the Oak Park Education Foundation’s Peter Traczyk Innovation Fund has launched a Spoken Word poetry writing and performance program for all seventh graders in District 97. The grant has created part-time poets-in-residence at both Gwendolyn Brooks and Percy Julian middle schools.
Traczyk, 48, died last February from what authorities ruled was suicide. At the time, his family directed monetary gifts in his memory to the education foundation, a nonprofit that provides educational programming to Oak Park elementary school students. Both Traczyk and his wife Cindy were members of the nonprofit’s board of directors at one point.
“Peter was a wonderful supporter of ours in so many ways,” said Deb Abrahamson, OPEF’s executive director. “He went to bat for us many times and helped grow some of our programs. He even got the high school to start a robotics program so our students would have a place to go with all of their enthusiasm and expertise.”
Last April, Abrahamson announced the creation of the Peter Traczyk Innovation Fund — the result of the donations that had accumulated. The fund makes early stage investments in OPEF initiatives meant to serve District 97 students until those initiatives can generate their own funding, she said.
In order to qualify for the funds, an OPEF idea must, among other requirements, have “the potential for substantial, lasting impact on D97 students, particularly in students’ communication, citizenship, financial acumen, and/or practical, hands-on ‘maker’ skills, all exceptional qualities of Peter Traczyk,” according to a OPEF statement.
Each year, the fund will allocate $10,000 to new or existing OPEF programming, Abrahamson said.
Spoken Word is the first recipient of Innovation Fund dollars. This academic year, all seventh-grade students in D97 participated in a week-long spoken word residency program featuring one poet-in-residence at Gwendolyn Brooks and another at Percy Julian Middle Schools.
The two poets — spoken word artists Dan Sullivan, 33, and Ito Osaigbovo, 32 — gave students advice on writing and performing poetry during the residency program. They’ll each facilitate after-school spoken word clubs that will run until the spring.
Being poets, both Sullivan and Osaigbovo were quick to pick up on the rich irony of their experiences. They’re both back at their old middle schools providing a first-of-its-kind program that wasn’t available when they were students in District 97. And they both were founding members of Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Spoken Word Club — which formed in 2000 under the direction of English teacher Peter Kahn.
Sullivan, a 1998 graduate of Brooks (formerly Emerson Junior High School) said he relishes the opportunity to provide something to the school’s current crop of students that wasn’t available to him when he was their ages.
“I think, at their ages in particular, the students are just beginning to define themselves and to speak out about who they are,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of platforms for them to get up in front of a group of their peers and say, ‘This is who I am.’ When they get that opportunity, though, they light up.”
Osaigbovo, who graduated from Julian in 1999, said the students under her tutelage are also creating communities.
“The students are being courageous and self-affirming,” she said. “They’re also affirming others. I really like the community that’s being established among them. They’re finding things out about each other that they previously didn’t think they had in common. They’re discovering mutual experiences. They’re building bridges.”
Osaigbovo, who in addition to contracting with OPEF to provide poetry instruction also works in D97’s administrative office full-time as an administrative assistant, shed light on another point of irony about her experience.
“I remember the day we came to work and got the news. I mean, the way that Peter’s life, legacy and the tragedy of his death have now created space for this program speaks to what I appreciate about art,” she said. “It helps others find healing and beauty from unfortunate events.”