These are very troubling times for people concerned with racial justice and harmony. Fortunately for those of us who call Oak Park home, our community has long been a leader in programs and services created specifically to foster diversity and inclusion. In fact, Oak Park first embraced these heady goals in 1963 with the creation of the Community Relations Commission, the body I am proud to chair today.

For most, 1968 marks the beginning of Oak Park’s emergence as a national leader in the pursuit of a diverse and inclusive community. This is when Oak Park’s Human Rights/Fair Housing Ordinance, one of the first in the nation, was adopted. This single piece of local law would formally set the village on the path of promoting real racial harmony that we are still following today and others strive to emulate.

Visionary local leaders of the era and village officials took another important step in 1971 by creating and funding the Community Relations Department. This new department, unlike any ever created within a municipal government, was charged with not just talking about diversity, but doing something about it. I am pleased to report that the Community Relations Department first under Kris Ronnow, then under Sherlynn Reid, and now under the direction of Cedric Melton is still hard at work today.

Of course, many things have changed. The definition of diversity has grown far beyond race to include many other classes of citizens who can and have fallen victim to discrimination, prejudice and mistreatment. While continuing to embrace the original goals of fostering racial justice and harmony, the department has ushered in a modern program of mediation, cultural education and diplomacy to resolve scores of complex cultural, lifestyle and racial tensions that arise naturally when such a variety of people and viewpoints share a mere 4.5 square miles of real estate.

The Community Relations Department and Community Relations Commission have continued the efforts to ensure that all Oak Park residents are treated equally regardless of race, color, ethnicity, age, religion, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, and economic class. Key to our approach is the understanding that ordinances and policies are just words on paper that alone can do little to resolve specific issues between living, thinking people. Real resolution requires the understanding that comes from cultural and social interaction at the human level.

Since 2011, the Community Relations Commission has sponsored a unique program that brings together residents of various ethnic backgrounds, who have never met, to discuss and debate the tough issues that we face as a community today, such as racism, white privilege, gender equality and sexual orientation to name but a few. Called “Dinner & Dialogue,” this program uses the time-honored tradition of sharing a meal to foster honest, difficult discussions on many issues that tend to divide people in the community. Real talk happens here and participants who arrive as strangers leave as acquaintances and, hopefully, with a better understanding of each other.

Our efforts have not gone unnoticed in other communities. Most recently in Valparaiso, Indiana, facing racial unrest and waning confidence in the local government to resolve this problem, community leaders looked to Oak Park for guidance. Cedric and I spent two days there interacting not only with local leaders, but participating in community meetings where emotions were raw and the need for change real. Since our visit, Valparaiso passed its first ever Human Rights Ordinance, modeled after Oak Park’s historic document. The city also is planning to hire a community relations professional with a role and duties similar to those of Cedric’s.

Clearly, Oak Park’s vision and commitment to inclusion and harmony, started all those years ago, has endured and others have followed our lead. But we also recognize that there is much more to be done right here in our own community. Elected officials, staff, commissioners, Cedric and I feel called to action by the events of the day that have people expressing concern over their ability to afford to stay here or an inability to relate to their neighbor.

This is why the Community Relations Department and Community Relations Commission intend to follow the lead of those visionaries of the 1960s and tap the community’s most valuable resource to take the next step on the path to ensuring diversity and inclusion. Of course, that resource is the citizens of our community who have proven time and time again to be the source of the ideas and beliefs that have set Oak Park apart from others when it comes to such important social issues.

We hope to soon host a community gathering to discuss what more the village can do to address the issues of today’s troubling times. If you are interested in participating, please email cmelton@oak-park.us.

Tom Zapler is chair of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission.  

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