There could perhaps be no starker illustration of the divide between Oak Park’s lofty image of itself as a bastion of racial diversity and the much less airy reality than last Friday night’s celebration at Dominican University.

Two of Wednesday Journal’s most valuable platforms — its regular Wednesday Journal Conversations series and its annual Villager of the Year distinction, given each year to notably newsworthy residents of Oak Park and River Forest — merged during a panel discussion featuring the 2018 Villagers of the Year. The event was the brainchild of Dominican University President Donna Carroll.

On the panel, last year’s designees — District 200 Board President Jackie Moore, Oak Park filmmaker Steve James and River Forest District 90 Board President Ralph Martire — talked about the strides the villages have made in the area of racial equity during a conversation moderated by Frances Kraft.

More than a dozen of the roughly 150 audience members were Villagers of the Year from years past. If they were in attendance they were asked to stand. For Dan Haley, Wednesday Journal’s publisher, assessing some 33 years of Villagers of the Year in Oak Park was both illuminating and indicting. Haley said that staffers scoured the archives to identify past winners before attempting to locate them to send an invite for Friday’s event.

“To talk about systemic bias, when we look back over all of these photographs — a whole lot of white people, a whole lot of white men,” said Haley. “That reflects us and our limited view and it reflects the way people have risen up to impact our communities.”

Another bias, Haley said, was more geographic in nature.

“We started Villager of the Year in the mid-1980s and it didn’t occur to me, to us, with my biases, that there should be a River Forest Villager of the Year until substantially later,” Haley said.

If those biases were on full display Friday night, so was the Oak Park’s potential for transformation it the area of racial equity, he said.

“We started Wednesday Journal in 1980,” Haley recalled, adding that his motivation to start the paper was “to write about race.”

Some 40 years later, he said, the paper’s focus has evolved from housing integration to diversity and now “to this really fascinating conversation about equity.”

“This is really a moment of alignment of Steve’s [America to Me documentary] series, of school boards’ consensus on equity, of pretty remarkable leaders in the administration of our three school districts to focus on this issue and it is this moment of urgency. And now, we’ve got the village of Oak Park talking about equity as well.”

During a roughly hour-long conversation, the panelists all pointed out the racial equity progress that the Oak Park and River Forest area have achieved over the last several years. Martire — the D90 board president who received co-Villager of the Year with D90 Supt. Edward J. Condon (who was unable to attend the event) — said that the River Forest school district’s recent strides in racial equity were rooted in simply pointing out the problem.

“If the board didn’t buy into addressing this issue, then [the progress] couldn’t have happened, because we could’ve hidden it,” said Martire. “We’re a high-achieving district and we really could have hidden the fact that we weren’t serving our black and brown children. The board, however, chose to go public with the fact that we’ve looked at ourselves and we see a failing system. That’s bravery.”

Moore said that, if real systemic change is going to happen, then “relationships need to be built, so that there is trust” at a community-wide level. She shared the story of her own mother, a public school educator, who insisted that when she had parties at their house to invite her friends from the predominantly black, working-class neighborhood where she grew up, as well as her friends from the mostly white and wealthy private school across town she attended.

“You’re the bridge,” Moore recalled her mother telling her. “I watched and saw my friends from my different groups become friends. [My mother] was right and it’s something that my husband and I have almost insisted on with our own kids.”

During a reflection on filming his 10-part docuseries that aired on Starz last year, James offered an anecdote that served as something of a cautionary tale for how the moment of alignment that Haley referenced could be lost.

James said that he was surprised at how strong feelings were “for and against” an equity learning strand at Oak Park and River Forest High School, which was in its fifth year when James and his crew filmed and that still exists today. James said that the conflict over the program did not appear in the docuseries “in any meaningful way,” since the administration didn’t allow his crew to film meetings related to the program.

“To see the cross-purposes at which people seemed to be working on the equity work being done at the school was distressing,” he said. “There were a lot of good people with good intentions. Oak Park and River Forest are full of lots of people with good intentions who care about these issues deeply. But we just weren’t seeing [the program] manifest itself as one would hope and expect.”

How to overcome this kind of stalemate-inducing conflict, Haley said, is the challenge of the moment.

“If we don’t figure this out, this is going to be lost,” he said. “We’ll be left with kind of our smug successes from the 1970s and we really need to do better than that.”


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