An attorney who moved to Oak Park from New York City in 2015 says that he’s running for a seat on the Oak Park Elementary Schools District 97 Board of Education so that he can utilize his policy-making and consensus-building skills to make equity a reality in the district.
Gavin Kearney, a 49-year-old father two D97 students, said that he moved to Oak Park “for the same reason lots of people choose it — it has a history of being diverse, inclusive and progressive.”
Kearney eventually got involved with policy, joining the PTO Diversity Council’s policy team and steeping himself in District 97’s more than year-long effort to draft what many community leaders are calling a landmark racial equity policy.
And while the policy will likely be voted on before Kearney takes office, if the attorney gets elected, he’ll have a hand in guiding the most important part of the plan — its implementation.
“I really want us to get more serious about stakeholder engagement and how we value those voices and prioritize those communities most impacted — that we don’t just have events and say, ‘Whoever can show up great,'” Kearney said.
“I think the board is going to have a really important leadership role and I think that because I have a very deep commitment to racial equity issues and experience working on policy and policy implementation that I can be a productive and effective member of the board.”
Kearney referenced his 20 years of professional experience working on racial and environmental justice issues. Kearney said that he has extensive experience working on drafting legislation that affected how industrial facilities were located in New York state.
Kearney said the end-goal of much of that work was to help address the fact that industrial polluters were disproportionately located in black and brown communities. The work often required extensive data collection, legislative advocacy, research, coalition building and community organizing.
“With a complex system like a school district I think it’s really clear to have a clear plan of what you’re trying to do,” he said, adding that district decision-making should include “not just formal experts, but people with diverse experiences.”
Those diverse experiences, he indicated, can help clarify how actions are communicated to key stakeholders.
“One of the persistent issues in the environmental space that has relevance in education is that a lot of the discussions get super technical really quickly,” he said, before explaining that through his work he’s often been confronted with the question of what it takes “to have people be equal and valued partners.”
Kearney, who works at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, said that, from his vantage point, District 97 has a lot to improve when it comes to real stakeholder engagement.
“We should think in a purposeful way about why we’re doing community engagement and what it takes to get the right voices to the table. I feel like there’s an important role to be played in terms of keeping attention on the policy, ensuring the benchmarks are hit and the planning processes tp happen the way they’re supposed to,” he said.
For Kearney getting equity right, particularly through leveraging effective community engagement, is “mission critical” for the district.
“Our mission for the district is to ensure that every kid gets an excellent education and if we year after year have the same kids not getting that that is a mission failure,” he said.