Dozens of Oak Park residents gathered inside New Life Ministries Oak Park, 634 N. Austin Blvd., for the fall meeting of the Community of Congregations, an Oak Park-based interfaith organization that supports numerous community and social justice-oriented initiatives.
The Sept. 29 meeting, which focused on improving equity and race relations in the village, featured a panel of speakers that included Anthony Clark, an Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher and founder of the Suburban Unity Alliance; Nichelle Stigger, a teacher and member of Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church; Kristin Carlson Bogen, president of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation; Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center; and Robert Simmons, Oak Park Public Library’s manager of community resources.
Although much of the panel discussion was dedicated to mulling solutions to the issue of racial inequity in Oak Park, some panelists also expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of race in the village.
“There is a heavy level of disenfranchisement in this community,” said Clark, who spent much of his youth in Oak Park. “When I came back to OPRF, things seemed like they had gotten worse in terms of equity.”
Clark homed in on scholarships offered by the Park District of Oak Park as an example of an area where the problem of racial inequity can rear its head in seemingly innocent conditions. Clark said that, while district officials may think simply having the scholarships available will be enough to attract a diverse array of applicants, that’s not necessarily the case.
“They are going to look at the scholarship and say, ‘It’s not for me,’ and they won’t [apply],” Clark said.
He said the district should not only make sure the resources are available for people who need them, but help everyone feel like he or she is part of the community and is comfortable enough to take advantage of the scholarships.
Clark also recalled walking around Oak Park one day and seeing a dog running loose. He said his instinct was to try to catch the dog and look for its owner, but he walked back on that decision after considering what people on the block might think of a black man running through their yards after a dog.
“If that’s how I felt, imagine how our children, how our youth feel in this community,” Clark said.
Responding to a question about what resolutions they’d put in place to help improve race relations and other issues if resources or money weren’t an object, Breymaier said he would hire people to go into the community and ask about their needs.
“I can go chase a dog anywhere in this town and no one would question it,” said Breymaier. “And there are places in this town where Anthony can’t do that. It’s a reality I’ll never understand unless someone tells me about it.”
Stigger said she would give teachers more extensive hands-on training for teaching a diverse population of students. Bogen said every new teacher in Oak Park should undergo training to educate them on the village’s culture and history.
Lolita Flores, an audience member who attends St. John United Methodist Church, said she was impressed with the panelists’ ideas and discussion.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to share with my congregation,” Flores said. “We have to work as one.”