What was expected to be a night of ritual and tradition as veterans left the Oak Park village board and new arrivals took their seats, turned into something more intense last week. The practice of reaffirming Oak Park’s Diversity Statement, a document written in the 1970s and modestly expanded over the years, along with our collective consciousness, turned unexpectedly controversial.
We could focus on the controversy which, in some part, whirled around issues of public input and open process — or, as we choose to do, turn to the substance of the debate.
In the end the original Diversity Statement was approved, though not by its usual unanimous margin. And, we hope, the stage was set for a new, more open and more inclusive discussion not just about broadening the statement to reflect a determined commitment in village government to issues of race equity but to move forward on a wide-ranging equity policy initiative which makes real the rhetoric of any Diversity Statement.
Oak Park’s village government has been slow-walking an equity policy for too long. Whether it is the cost to a consultant for the necessary equity training across all parts of the government, the further investment in crafting equity policies and effective measures, or if there is some level of opposition to an equity policy, all need to be directly discussed by the village board under the leadership of Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb.
Already, village government has been lapped by the three public school districts in Oak Park and River Forest which now have in place comprehensive equity policies. There’s no shame in that, as much of the focus on equity rightly relates to public education. But it does not let our municipal government off the hook on a topic that needs to tackle substantive issues related to systemic racism in our institutions — think housing, policing, hiring.
It is time for village government to get serious and enthusiastic about equity. This new board needs an open conversation around a still-new concept that we acknowledge can be challenging to define (hint: don’t over-define it) and brings with it some fresh jargon (we’re still trying to figure out “intersectionality.”). Then it needs to be sent to the Community Relations Commission with high expectations for public input and a reasonably short timeline for delivery of a plan.
Simultaneously, the CRC should go back to work on an open process to update the Diversity Statement in a pivotal moment of equity focus. The draft which, to the surprise of some and the delight of others, wound up in trustees’ inboxes just last week is a good start. We think it needs more precision, a tight edit, and some wordsmithing which captures the aspiration and the expectation we set for ourselves.
Was it an awkward start to a newly launched village board? Mildly. Mainly it is a fresh opportunity to lead on a foundational issue for our village. Let’s get to this.