There’s good news in Oak Park. Our school districts will soon adopt new racial equity policies. The new polices affirm and codify our responsibility to provide all students with the opportunities they need to succeed. Excellent schools for some will no longer cut it. Providing excellent and equitable schools to all is our mission imperative.
The new policies recognize that our school systems are prone to perpetuating inequities in their budgeting, hiring, contracting, procurement, policy-making, service delivery, and strategic planning. Understanding implicit bias reveals that unless you’re consciously and actively part of the solution, you’re probably unconsciously and passively part of the problem.
While our school districts are poised to leap forward, efforts at the village government level have been stalled. The Community Relations Commission provided the Board of Trustees a forward-thinking set of recommendations on governing for racial equity, based on successful models implemented in cities and counties around the country. But the recommendations have languished for two years with virtually no action from the board or administration. It’s time to jumpstart these efforts with real leadership and serious action.
If we’re not clear about the benefits, it’s easy to become narrowly focused on the costs. Equity is not a commodity, and we’re not shopping around for the cheapest deal. There’s a huge human cost to not investing in equity. Equity involves system-wide transformation in services, behaviors, opportunities, and outcomes. Our village values safety and sustainability by making decisions and investments to turn these values into realities. If we’re fully committed to the value of equity, we can find a similar viable way forward.
Equity is not a zero-sum game — meaning we can only meet more people’s needs at the expense of others. Actually, when you don’t use an equity lens in decision-making, that’s a recipe for uneven development, opportunity gaps, and social stratification. Equity recognizes our interconnections and strives to meet targeted needs while benefiting everyone.
And equity does not involve a quick fix, like one-and-done training. It’s a whole new way of doing business. It involves centering racial equity in decision-making, engaging stakeholders who’ve been historically marginalized, investing in professional development, routinely using racial equity tools and impact assessments, developing and implementing racial equity action plans, and continually evaluating and improving practice.
Longstanding racial disparities and segregated classrooms do not reflect our values, as too many students fall through the cracks. Inequitable and exclusive development does not improve our community character when the benefits and burdens are not fully assessed or evenly shared. And too many residents, facing real financial hardships, are excluded and neglected at decision-making tables.
Racial equity policies provide a systematic and strategic framework for change. But policy adoption is only a first step. Sufficient investment and effective implementation will make the real difference.
Let’s seize this opportunity to build the inclusive and equitable village we envision, where all can benefit and thrive.
Terry Keleher is an Oak Park resident, parent, and activist. He is also the director of Strategic Innovation at Race Forward, a national nonprofit racial justice organization, that works in partnership with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.