I was shocked by Matt Baron’s recent letter to the editor [When you see something, will you say something? Viewpoints, p. 39], its invocation of racist stereotypes and fear-mongering. In response to a Facebook commenter who called Trustee Dan Moroney a white supremacist, Baron labeled the commenter, who is a Muslim member of our community, a terrorist. 

He went on to speak of a “local far-left progressive bloc” that engages in “character assassinations” and “smear tactics.” Given our national leadership over the last four years, all of this felt incredibly familiar — the scapegoating, the hyperbole, the dog-whistling, the clear subtext that he is speaking to “us” while vilifying and dismissing the voices of a “them.”

I found Baron’s letter particularly disappointing and problematic given that he, like me, is an elected official in Oak Park. I serve on the District 97 school board (although these views are entirely my own). It’s a role, like Baron’s, that requires me to be accountable to our entire community. This means hearing folks who call me out and tell me I need to do better, even if it’s harshly communicated. And any Oak Park elected official will tell you that we get called out all of the time — by e-mail, in public comment at board meetings, on Facebook threads, and in the neighborhood. Oak Parkers are not shy about sharing their opinions. Sometimes the criticism is shared with an expression of gratitude, sometimes it’s put in frank and unflattering terms. I don’t always enjoy it, but it’s my responsibility to hear it.

I’m certain that the criticisms Baron and Moroney face don’t come from some radical fringe of Oak Park. I know from my own experience that they come from everywhere on every side of an issue. Despite this, Baron publicly singles out one commenter for harsh treatment. He then tries to rally Oak Park and its candidates to condemn the fictitious “intimidation squad” that she belongs to, by which he seems to mean people of color, and perhaps their allies, who are calling for us to do better on racial justice.

I don’t need to tell anyone that 2020 has been an incredibly challenging year. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has put into relief the inequities that continue to plague our nation. And we’ve seen the continued killing of Black people in the most callous and egregious ways — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and on and on. Out of this has also come a reckoning with the ways in which racism has shaped and continues to shape our society.

In spite of our progressive values, Oak Park does not exist outside of this reality. Because of our progressive values, I am confident that Oak Park is a community that can confront and move forward from it. This is already happening and so many Oak Parkers are doing hard work to alleviate the pandemic’s harms and build a just and resilient future. 

To continue and grow this, we need leaders who are willing to not only tolerate, but engage with criticism. For white folks who aspire to represent our entire community (including Matt, Dan, and me), we also need a commitment to self-examination, to checking egos and bruised feelings, to hearing other people’s voices, and to finding a constructive and collective way forward.

Gavin Kearney is a member of the District 97 Board of Education.

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