This past summer racial disparities in the United States were thrust into the global spotlight, prompting organizations across the nation to reevaluate their operations. Coca-Cola made a pledge to invest in racial equity initiatives; Quaker Oats is dropping the Aunt Jemima name and mascot from its pancake products and, locally, the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC) has committed to taking an active role in making Oak Park more racially equitable.

“We were no different than most in that we started to look at ourselves and the way we do business and we wanted to try to put an equity lens on much of what we do,” said OPEDC Executive Director John Lynch.

In its newly created racial equity statement, the OPEDC states that it recognizes the “the relationship between economic inequality and racial injustice” and is taking action to address that societal affliction.

“We want our business community to reflect our village,” said Lynch.

The actions laid out in the statement include: proactive communication of the value of racial economic equality to development partners when discussing the values of Oak Park; targeted outreach to Black and minority-owned development and investment companies; the creation of a referral network with organizations that provide access to capital, advice and business services for Black and minority-owned business ventures; and working with community development organizations and private sector partners in the communities adjacent to Oak Park to expand development and investment that will benefit the whole area.

“We’re actually in the process of mapping out the actions we’ll take,” said Jackie Barlow, OPEDC board chair. “A subgroup of the board will work with staff on tackling each one of them.” Barlow is a managing director of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce U.S.

Lynch said he wants the development companies, business owners and investors to be entirely cognizant of the importance Oak Park places on racial equity when considering doing business in the village.

OPEDC wants a diverse group of people working on each project and working in the businesses themselves.

“It goes to construction and contracting; it may go to staffing once a project is built – it goes with any and all of those regards,” said Lynch.

While the Chicago-area has “unfortunately a relatively small number” of large development companies, according to Lynch, OPEDC has already begun its targeted outreach efforts.

OPEDC has reached out to the large companies that have expressed interest in developing in Oak Park to communicate that racial equity is a priority; it also plans to extend its outreach efforts to smaller companies as well.

Lynch said OPEDC staff intends to work with its board members to identify developments in neighboring communities being done by Black and minority-owned companies.

“It’s not going to be easy for us to find minority developers that are doing products of scale in the area; there just simply aren’t that many of them,” said Lynch. “But we’d like to find the ones that are. And the ones that aren’t, we’d like to encourage them to.”

To help identify racially equitable companies, OPEDC has started perusing lists of minority-owned businesses published by Crain’s.

“We’re already beginning go through those and identify minority-owned contracting companies and architecture companies and other firms that are related to the real estate arena,” said Lynch. “We’re going to reach out to those folks personally.”

The racial equity statement has been in the works for months, starting in the summer, when members of its board of directors approached Lynch and suggested incorporating racial equity into the board meeting discussions.

 “One of the things we talked about is that there’s tremendous value in our organization in being able to convey the goals of the broader community,” said Lynch. “Racial economic equality is a value in Oak Park, and we want to make sure that we communicate that.”

The OPEDC board wrote the racial equity statement with consultation from staff.

“The board really took ownership of drafting the statement itself and worked with staff to determine what were the ways we could be more intentional about inclusion and diversity in the work that we do,” said Barlow.

Over the last five years, OPEDC has made good strides to encourage diversity in business ownership and has worked with a significant number of people not in the majority, according to Lynch, but the work is not yet finished.

With its racial equity statement, OPEDC is committing to continue and grow the efforts to make Oak Park racially equitable in its development projects and business partnerships.

“I think that diversity and inclusion and equity are really core to who Oak Park is,” said Barlow. “It’s been implicit in what we do, but not intentional before. A really important piece of this is that we want it to make it intentional.”

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