Oak Park, this is your village board.
At this moment a sorry mess. An embarrassing mess. But duly elected. And therefore responsible to work diligently and collectively to find a path forward. Not one papered over with apologies and promises to do better. That note is for Susan Buchanan. Not one that involves stirring the pot to gin up wider controversy as a salve to bruised egos. That one’s for Dan Moroney.
Over two election cycles, Oak Park voters concocted a fractious village board. This is a group of seven without a common organizing principle. Did we think we’d miss the VMA so soon? A group of seven led by an individual, Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who lacks patience for issues beyond economic development and government efficiency. There’s the Deno Andrews-Dan Moroney wing of the board that tilts toward libertarian. There’s the newly elected Arti Walker-Peddakotla and Susan Buchanan who want local government to earnestly work against society’s unfairness and inequities. Simone Boutet was sort of elected with Andrews and Moroney but now feels some sting in perceptions she’s not as progressive as Walker-Peddakotla and Buchanan. (And, adding to the stew, she made the preemptive announcement she is running for village president in 2021.) Then there’s Jim Taglia, rightly described as this board’s glue, the fellow all the various factions talk to. After last week’s unravelling, Taglia will need more glue.
The breaking point came a week ago when the village board once again took up revisions to the historically notable diversity statement. Even in the midst of Buchanan’s fully uncharacteristic freak-out targeting white men on the board, even with two of those white men — Andrews and Moroney — just not being able to let go of one last obsessive moment over the “systems of oppression” language, the board approved a much improved diversity statement unanimously.
Weird and disorienting. A moment of accomplishment for this board, one centered on inclusion, that revealed profound splits in world view among these seven. While some have suggested that the unanimous vote reflects some foundational agreement, I see no evidence of that.
Social media has been laced with demands for Buchanan to resign or be forced from office through some undetermined process. Perhaps an equal share of voice has been from people fully excusing Buchanan’s outburst, even celebrating it as overdue. I’m for dismissing both those extremes. Resignation is too easy a way out for Buchanan. She was elected to lead, she screwed up, and now she has to do the redemptive work. That said, it is hard not to be legitimately, collectively, angry at white men in this moment. I’m mad at white men. Plenty mad, for reasons historic and also for what happens every damned day. Mad in this moment about Oak Park turning up on the repugnant InfoWars, and every other right-wing conspiracy outlet because an elected white man lit a wick.
But being mad is not a path to progress; it doesn’t resolve what aches, what scares. Progress comes by going deep into the division, doing it personally, being vulnerable.
We’re in this mess not just because Susan Buchanan lost her temper or because Dan Moroney felt disrespected. We’re in this mess because for all the decades of integration and diversity hype, Oak Park’s village government, the elected leaders, have never had an authentic conversation about race, about equity, about how it has shaped their own lives.
Years back, long before OPRF was able to even understand the inequity in its institutional bones, it chose to hire a facilitator and have what it called “courageous conversations,” first just among board members, about these complex and defining confusions of race in each of our lives.
This should be the next step for the village board. Set aside the time it takes for the seven people elected to lead this town to be awkward, to fumble for words, to embrace the risk of authentic conversation about race.