As a new village trustee with no prior experience in local governance, I was hoping for a slow transition into my new position. I wanted to spend the first few months watching and learning. But as it turned out, I became engaged from Day 1 in the controversy over the update to the 50-year-old village Diversity Statement.
My opinion on this controversy became clear to me as soon as the first resident gave their public comment on the issue at my first village board meeting on May 6: I fully support the updated version written by the Community Relations Commission. I am saddened by the reaction of my fellow trustees and other residents of Oak Park who have expressed their reservations about the CRC’s recommended updates, and I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the concerns.
First, opposition to adding the words “shelter” and “refuge” to the sentence, “The people of Oak Park choose this community, not just as a place to live, but as a way of life and as a place to seek [shelter, refuge, and] acceptance.” I can’t get my head wrapped around the opposition to this addition. Surely every heterosexual Oak Parker has a gay or transgendered friend or neighbor. Do you think some of them (us) live here only because of the good schools and proximity to Chicago? Many of them are here not just because they sought “acceptance.” It may have been more than that. Perhaps they sought “refuge” from hateful families, bullying, and threats of violence. Is it that difficult to understand why for those folks, Oak Park is a place of refuge as well as acceptance?
Second, opposition to the phrase “break down systems of oppression” in the sentence, “By embracing equity, with an explicit but not exclusive focus on racial equity, we work to break down systems of oppression and achieve a society where race no longer determines one’s outcomes, and where everyone has what they need to thrive.” You may not understand or even believe that systems of oppression exist in our society. But people of color are telling us that in their lived experiences they face systematic oppression. Why don’t you believe them? Just do it. Believe them. Otherwise you just sound silly, and worse.
Third, the board should vote unanimously to approve the statement. I do understand the heartwarming feelings generated every election cycle when the new board unanimously votes to accept the Diversity Statement. But we are at a unique point in the evolution of American society. Minority populations are demanding to be heard like never before, spurred on at times by the hateful bigotry on display by our nation’s leaders. And others are pushing back, just like they did against the efforts of Oak Park activists in the early ’70s, who passed plenty of initiatives with less than unanimous votes, and thank God for it. So I’m not concerned whether the entire village board votes to approve this statement or not. Let’s get our four votes and move on to the real work of the village board.
Finally — and now I’m feeling cranky — why is my letter even needed? There are people in Oak Park, including many people of color, who have pleaded with the village board for over a year to formally address equity and are now asking us to pass the updated statement.
Shouldn’t that be enough? For goodness sake let’s get on with it.
Susan Buchanan is a trustee of the village of Oak Park.