Part 1

We’re halfway through the extraordinary stories of our community’s children of color, their families, and their teachers in America to Me (ATM). Sadness, outrage, amazement, laughter, and hope consume me with each episode. I am buoyed by the courage and resilience of our students of color, yet also see their great pain. This past week in Episode 5 we finally meet two white students and their families and begin to see how they, too, live school and understand race in Oak Park and River Forest.

We are impacted by the dedication of teachers we meet who too frequently feel unsupported, discouraged, and even hindered in their efforts to support their students. We see their work to improve instruction and enhance racial equity, and we are encouraged to be hopeful. For five engaging hours, we have traversed a school and community, and we search for ways those in charge might be working to alter long-standing and systemic institutional, racial inequities — and District 200 leaders hardly show up. Fortunately, we are to a degree comforted as ATM gently assures us of something we have known but may never have seen firsthand: Many teachers are doing inspiring work with our children. 

As we start the second half of ATM, viewers need to know that racial-justice-minded individuals and organizations in our community are fighting for changes that can move OPRF closer to true racial equity.

The racial equity challenges we see in ATM are not unique to our community. Oak Park and River Forest are part of the wider and deeper American story of race, power and education. We can change, but only if we see and act with an honesty and commitment missing in the past. As ATM instructs us, juxtaposed to the liberal racial idealism and mythos many have believed, there is a very different reality for our African-American families, students, and teachers. Members of our alliance working for racial equity are hardly surprised. As student Ke’Shawn asks in Episode 1: “What’s the big deal about Oak Park?”

Our local racial contradictions, and the failure of the dominant culture to fully sponsor racially equitable education where all students feel welcome, affirmed and achieve to their fullest potential have been documented for decades in Oak Park and River Forest. As last week’s commentary by Wednesday Journalist Michael Romain points out, race in our community and in ATM has predominantly been about black people, largely leaving out, thus far, any examination of what it means to be white or to critically look at the need for whites to take responsibility for ending schoolwide racial inequities.

Today, we reach out to justice-minded people of all identities to join with us, teachers, the board and our administration in taking an irreversible step forward, to seize this moment and forge a racial watershed where we begin to act differently. To do so requires the white majority in our community to engage with a new resolve in confronting our conscious and unconscious beliefs about race and to critically unpack our past and current school practices, which, intentionally or by default, block our path to racial equity. In this pursuit, it is imperative for whites to listen intensely and compassionately to our students, parents, families and community members of color if we truly seek change. 

CEEE has been fortunate to work in alliance with other local organizations on critical racial equity goals and actions: African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE), Suburban Unity Alliance (SUA), Oak Park Parent Empowerment Network (OPPEN) and Oak Park Call To Action (OPCTA). We seek changes in four key areas at OPRFHS. These include: 

1) developing an All Freshman Curriculum experience that addresses the long-standing racial inequities in our current curriculum organization, 

2) reforming the district’s recruitment, hiring, support and retention of more teachers of color, 

3) supporting and monitoring the implementation of restorative justice and behavioral intervention practices, and, 

4) formalizing the district’s commitment to racial equity with the board’s adoption of a Racial Equity Lens Policy.

With bold and courageous leadership from board President Jackie Moore and Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, we believe D200 is primed to advance racial equity. In that process, they cannot be left alone. As history so poignantly demonstrates, racial justice will only come about with the unwavering involvement and pressure of an organized, community-based movement. 

John Duffy is chairperson of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE).

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