Watershed moments around race, power and deliberate intentions to do things differently have occurred throughout our history. They happen here when citizens of Oak Park and River Forest set forth on a journey to live differently with respect to race and the special powers that race sadly and unjustly confers on whites to the detriment of African Americans and other people of color. Not surprisingly, these turning points can be deeply contentious, but also hopeful, times.
We are at one those moments when we can make change and move forward.
Affirmative racial watersheds usually include events where what follows substantially changes the historical landscape — how large numbers of people think and behave and how dominant institutions operate. Unfortunately, watersheds, as the rising tide of police violence against African Americans painfully shows, can also be regressive and repressive. Decades after the expansive racial watersheds like the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school integration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, racist behaviors persist, even as we make incremental progress around race and gender equality.
Racial watersheds that expand freedom and opportunity require special circumstances. They occur when enough people of all racial identities and neighborhoods realize we are not living up to our religious, social and moral ideals. These awakenings contribute to initiating public policies and practices that seek new ways of thinking and acting around housing, schools, and our daily social existence. When watersheds succeed, a sense of expanded racial justice, inclusion and equitable opportunities for all members of the community, while not perfect, are certainly more palpable than before.
Innovative, fair and equitable ways of thinking and acting racially are never easy for the dominant controlling culture. Epiphanies around race relations invariably place society’s strongest idealism in a tug of war and balancing act with ensuring self-interests around white property in real estate and in schools.
In our community, over a half century ago a racial watershed developed around how people thought and acted with respect to racial power arrangements, first in housing and then in schools. An emerging commitment to open housing accelerated in 1964 when hundreds of justice-minded citizens of River Forest and Oak Park signed the public declaration “The Right to Live Where They Choose.” This epoch support for racially integrated living, in turn, contributed to the passage of the Oak Park Open Housing Ordinance in 1968. A second defining racial watershed came to Oak Park in the 1970s with the creation of two junior high schools and eight neighborhood schools to ensure racial integration across school populations.
As Oak Park struggled into the era of “managed integration,” many people remained skeptical, even oppositional. Large numbers of white households fled Oak Park while new residents moved here to embrace the ideals of a racially diverse community. Other people consciously or unconsciously waited for the next opportunity to reorder institutional structures and social processes in ways they believed might make their lives more racially predictable and secure.
In the early 1980s divisions around school reform called “rescheduling” in District 97 eventually focused on how school curriculum and programs should be organized to promote racial equity. The central question then became not whether schools in Oak Park would be integrated, but whether children in our schools would learn in racially integrated or segregated classrooms. After much rancor and soul-searching, the answer came with the landmark 1990 District 97 Strategic Plan, which pledged racial integration of classroom learning and enrichment opportunities for all children.
Today, OPRF High School teachers and administrators, with community accountability, are implementing the 2017 Strategic Plan. This process offers us a potential racial watershed moment in the pursuit of racially equitable learning opportunities and achievement. That goal, as envisioned in the plan, is reaching the day when race is no longer a predictor of academic success.
In a follow up essay, we will present the case for how key parts of the plan might move us closer to this ideal. We will also propose actions on how our community can come together and live with the uncertainty that bold, new approaches present in creating a school where all our children can experience “those things that are best.”
John Duffy is chairperson for the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE); Mark Christensen is a member of CEEE; Melanie McQueen is co-president of African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE); Burcy Hines and Wyanetta Johnson are APPLE members. Anthony Clark is the founder of Suburban Unity Alliance (SUA) and an OPRF faculty member.