The village of Oak Park has a long history of aspiring to achieve racial diversity and inclusiveness, from the historic Fair Housing Ordinance of 1968 to the more recent Welcoming Village Ordinance, establishing Oak Park as a sanctuary city.

But there still is more work to be done, according to members of the village’s Community Relations Commission, an advisory group which presented a plan to the Oak Park Board of Trustees on Jan. 29, to advance the concepts of racial equity in Oak Park.

The plan, known as “Governing for Racial Equity,” would train village employees and officials to approach decision-making through the prism of racial equity, according to members of the commission.

Terry Keleher, of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice and Innovation, told the board that decision makers have to focus on equity, which is different than diversity. Equity focuses on positive outcomes for racial minorities, he said, while diversity is about variety.

He made the point that diversity is necessary for racial equity, but without positive outcomes for minority races, you have not achieved equity.

Keleher said it is, perhaps, more important now than ever for local governments to make a commitment to equity, because of the changing role of the federal government under the current administration. He said the total cost for training for village staff and officials could run anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. 

Keleher emphasized the importance of being mindful about racial equity in every decision made by government staff and officials. He said his organization already is working with Oak Park’s elementary and high school districts on Governing for Racial Equity approaches to decision-making.

Commissioner Kelly Benkert gave an example of how the city of Seattle began using racial equity techniques in its decision-making. In one neighborhood that had experienced a spike in crime, city officials found that street lights in the area had burned out, but the public works department only replaced them when a complaint was made.

This can be a problem in communities of color where residents might distrust police and government officials. She said the neighborhood had a large immigrant population, and the language barrier also might have prevented residents from calling for lights to be changed. 

Looking at the problem through a racial lens informed the city’s decision-making process, prompting officials to get rid of the complaint-based system. The change helped reduce crime in the area and served communities of color, Benkert said.

Oak Park Trustee Dan Moroney asked Keleher and other commission members if there were specific issues in the village that would be addressed through adopting the racial equity governance model.

Keleher, an Oak Park resident, said he was most recently concerned with comments he’s seen on social media concerning the increase in carjackings in Oak Park. He said that in one social media group, some have begun posting images of firearms and how they will use them if they are targeted.

He said that as the father of a 13-year-old African-American boy, the heated rhetoric has him worried.

“I’m actually more worried about some neighborhood vigilantes at this point than the rare instances of carjackings,” Keleher said, adding that while crime is certainly a concern, he was “more concerned about racial bias.” 

“No one knows why the carjackings are happening, and to me that’s inexcusable,” Keleher said. “There’s human people behind those carjackings, and if we had restorative justice practices, we might be able to talk to people and find out what’s going on.”

Focusing on punitive responses, said Keleher, discourages that.

 “It’s like, let’s get more cops, let’s get more guns, let’s stiffen the fines, but we’re not getting to the root of the problem,” he said.

Keleher said police tell residents to contact them when they see something suspicious, but he cautioned against an underlying bias that might be informing those suspicions. 

“When people make fast, automatic associations between dark-skinned and criminality, that’s a public safety threat I feel every day when my son’s out,” Keleher said.

Trustees voiced their support for implementing the new racial equity framework, and are expected to take action some point within the next couple of months.

Trustee Bob Tucker said it is important, especially considering members of the village board are predominantly white – Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb is originally from Palestine – that trustees need to always consider racial equity in their decision making. 

“What I like about this and learning about this is we don’t always know what we don’t know,” Tucker said. 

Trustee Andrea Button said the time is now for Oak Park to be a leader in racial equity. 

“This has to be a village-wide conversation,” she said.

Abu-Taleb noted that he, too, has been subjected to racial bias and efforts toward diversity and equity are ongoing.

“The village of Oak Park has made a lot of progress in this area, but it’s not enough,” he said.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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