Finally on Monday night Oak Park’s village board adopted a thoroughly revised, actively more inclusive, consciously more direct diversity statement. And the vote was unanimous.
The discussion leading to that unanimity was alternately powerful and ridiculous, contentious and, maybe, productive. We’ll see about the productive part as we find out what next steps, if any, the village board takes on creating a genuine equity plan, funding equity training for all staff and elected officials, being open to authentic conversations about policing, being ready to actually upend business as usual in how it operates our municipal government.
Before we get to the part of the meeting where an over-the-top Trustee Susan Buchanan told the white men on the board to “shut up” and that “no one cares what you think,” I’d go back to the start of the discussion when, during public comment, John Duffy, a white guy, spoke eloquently and provided essential context for all of us to consider.
Duffy recalled that it was 50 years ago when the Oak Park Village Board faced down wide fear and actual hate in adopting open housing in the village. I look back at that era and recall that, soon after approving open housing, the village board and the one that followed took additional aggressive steps to create the possibility that Oak Park could become racially integrated. The board wasn’t perfect, it operated with self-interest in mind, but it was audacious in a hard time and led when it could have folded.
Duffy, who has long been an equity activist in our public schools, said Monday that District 97 and District 200 have taken over that leadership role on racial equity, and the village board is now “behind the times.”
“It is time for this board to move,” he said, while acknowledging that equity work in the schools is hard and uncertain. “We’re just learning to do it. It’s a revolution. It’s intimidating.” But, he said, the Oak Park Village Board “faced history” 50 years ago and had to do it again.
Trouble is, Oak Park’s village government is years behind on equity work. Doesn’t mean the village hasn’t taken progressive steps on issues of race as individual matters have come up. But it has failed to understand the need for a much more elemental choice that brings equity to the core of the mission, every day, in every discussion and decision, that it needs to accept, as our schools have, that there is racism baked into the systems, which we have long just accepted.
The failure to do that results in a seven-month delay in adopting a Village Diversity Statement after the April election, resulting in unexplained delays moving forward on endlessly discussed plans to tackle equity in a conscious way, putting necessary funds against it, resulting in white men on the board having to be schooled over months on equity and oppression, resulting — unacceptably — in those white men being told at the board table by a colleague that they have no business talking about equity, that their opinions do not matter.
This is what a failure to get ahead of equity looks like. The meeting was riveting, like a train wreck, to watch but there is still wreckage to be dealt with. Either this was a cathartic experience for this still-new board that will clear the air or it was the determinant moment that assures more dysfunction.
It is good to have a new and much improved diversity statement. Essential, though, to remember that this aspirational document, gradually updated over decades, reaffirmed by every new elected board since the 1970s, was never intended to be static. Our aspirations as a village have grown so much since the open housing days, from the then-radical concept of racial integration in housing to hard-won progress on sharing power, to wide definitions of inclusion and protections.
Now the goal is true equity. For some as scary or misunderstood as a black family on the block in 1969. It is time for this village government to lead again. May Monday night’s painful progress be a necessary step forward.