I had the pleasure of attending Project Unity’s closing event on March 8. Project Unity was a cross-cultural organization whose purpose was to promote mutual respect and friendship among children and adults across diverse racial groups. The group was largely formed to provide an example and opportunity for children to have the multicultural experience that Oak Park touts. 

Those children are now adults and many of the members continue that goal in their work with other community efforts such as the village Community Relations Committee (CRC) and creating Maker Spaces. Their discussion about what brought them to the organization, what kept them, and their hopes moving forward was very informative. As I look at how to build upon the efforts that have gone before, three things that come to mind:

1) Systematize the work. Anything that is worth having requires some effort and intentionality. If we are to claim that Oak Park is truly a place that welcomes and celebrates difference, then clarity on what is required to make that a consistent reality is needed; and commitment by significant members of the community to implement it is required. Project Unity members spoke of being challenged by their children to lead by example. The fact that they had to create an organization in order to provide opportunities for their families to interact across race and ethnicity speaks to the reality that it is not an ingrained part of our community culture. 

Systems are not designed to encourage or support this happening, particularly when socioeconomic status is added to the equation. In fact, many of our systems are designed to do just the opposite. So the only way to change it is to change those systems rather than relying solely on individual efforts. Efforts to increase the diversity of kids being served by enrichment and extracurricular activities, and work happening to update curriculum to more accurately reflect our country are a couple of examples of the type of systems change needed to be a community that is inclusive, as opposed to just a community with diverse people. 

The work that our school districts are doing to question who is being served by programs and methods and whether they are creating the desired outcomes is beneficial for all students. Having diversity, equity and inclusion sewn throughout the fabric of a community makes it more likely to transcend and live beyond the work of individuals.

2) Intentionally educate children. Many Oak Park residents have talked about coming to Oak Park for the diversity and being dismayed at the limited nature of interaction, particularly starting in middle school. Cross-cultural friendships require more than just proximity to others not like us. We need to develop the skills and knowledge that allow us to be comfortable and work with those not like us, let alone desire to form and maintain friendships. 

This becomes increasingly more challenging as our identities form and we experience the different reactions to those identities in the community. But this doesn’t have to be a given. Our community can intentionally help our kids build these assets. A team has formed that includes the Collaboration for Early Childhood, all three school districts, the E-Team and the Echo Center, that will create a plan for how our community can intentionally support healthy social and emotional development from cradle to high school. 

This includes taking an asset based approach to how we support the type of interactions that lead to healthy, whole and effective adults. These are skills that are desperately needed in our world and will set our kids up for success.

3) Make spaces for the work to continue. Despite the need for this work to also be personal, it can’t just happen in individual living rooms. This is an approach that may work for certain demographics but not others. Community life (after the coronavirus) needs to happen in the community. Not everyone has the space or ability to invite folks into their home. 

Middle-income suburban life had moved away from public spaces as places to gather with your community. But middle-income suburban life is also not what it used to be. As more white women have entered into the away-from-home work force, strong extended community has once again become a necessity even for this demographic. Creating spaces where all ages can feel safe to gather and people can have the opportunity to get to know each other in unstructured ways is important. 

It is also important for affinity groups to have the time and space to bond and share over common experiences. Spaces like the library, the Echo Center and the planned Oak Park Community Center serve these purposes and need to be supported. The annual Multicultural Festival is now being planned by Juanta Griffin. Please support it.

Some of the members of Project Unity spoke fondly of their discussion groups but everyone, including their kids, remembered the dances they had at the 19th Century Club. I hope this is something we can bring back. After a long period of self-quarantine, I could think of nothing else more joyfully welcome.

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