The Twin Villages Covenant, which is a vow made last summer by the village boards of River Forest and Maywood to forge a deeper, more meaningful working relationship, has proven to be pretty catalytic.
Earlier this year, Dominican University in River Forest announced that it would, for the first time, send students to Maywood on spring immersion trips in order to build relationships and do some service work. The Covenant, signed by the boards in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last May, even prompted the River Forest Youth Soccer program to open up memberships to Maywood residents.
This time, the combustion of activity is in the local business world, with the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber’s launch of its Multi-Chamber Women in Business Collaborative.
Since January, women from the OPRF Chamber, the Berwyn Development Corporation’s Chamber Services Division, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and the Maywood Chamber of Commerce have met monthly to network and share ideas.
Liz Holt, the OPRF Chamber’s executive director, said the Collaborative was born out of the momentum created by the Covenant. Holt said she’d been wanting to get more resources to support the chamber’s Black businesses and nonprofits, but was also sensitive to the potential pitfalls of that kind of outreach.
The Covenant, she said, provided an inroads for the OPRF Chamber to step into the often uncomfortable area of race in a way that didn’t seem intrusive or insensitive.
The Collaborative meets virtually every third Friday of the month. Each meeting is hosted by a partner organization. The Berwyn Chamber hosted the January meeting while the OPRF Chamber hosted the February meeting, which was premised on Black History Month. The Maywood Chamber will host the next meeting in March.
Holt said the meetings have “allowed us to talk about topics relevant to each of these communities. Everybody gets a voice at the table and has a say in what we all want to talk about. And we’ve had some pretty real conversations about racism and race in those meetings.”
At this month’s meeting, Oak Park radio host Doris Davenport interviewed Lynn Allen, the founder of Tri-Star Gymnastics and the former head of District 97’s Multicultural Center. The February meeting was the brainchild of OPRF Chamber board members Carla Taylor, a local realtor, and Vicki Scaman, the Oak Park village clerk who is currently running for village president.
Taylor said the Collaborative grew out of the OPRF Chamber’s Women in Business Affinity Group.
“We already had the affinity group, but due to COVID and everyone being virtual, along with the rest from last year and all the riots and everything, we thought it was important to be intentionally diverse and that’s how the Collaborative came about,” Taylor said.
Scaman said the Chamber didn’t “want to host yet another brainstorming event in Oak Park” that would not go beyond conversation, adding that conversations with the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation fueled the Chamber’s resolve to take the discussion beyond its own silo of influence.
“This group needs to bring what we learn in those spaces and advocate for real change,” Scaman said. “Now, the burden is on us to keep moving this forward.”
Taylor said the Collaborative was one of a series of steps the OPRF Chamber has taken toward grappling with racism and racial equity since Floyd’s death last year. As a Black Realtor, Taylor said, she was one of several Black business owners featured in Chamber advertising.
She said the Chamber has also released statements condemning acts of racism, including the assault by a white River Forest man on a Black woman from the West Side outside of the River Forest Jewel last summer, and last month’s hate crime outside of Live Cafe, which is owned by OPRF Chamber member Reesheda Graham Washington.
But Holt acknowledged that the Chamber has some ways to go if it wants to seriously confront racism and racial inequities, particularly in the local business environment — one that’s been devastated by the pandemic.
Last year, Yelp made headlines when it reported that nearly 98,000 of the businesses listed on its website for reviews were permanently closed.
Less widely considered has been the pandemic’s much more severe impact on Black-owned businesses.
Holt said the OPRF Chamber recently became affiliated with the Illinois State Black Chamber of Commerce, a new chamber founded by Siri Hibbler, the executive director of the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce.
“Our goal with the Collaborative was to have hard conversations and to think about how we can make sure that in 20 years, we’re not having the same conversations,” she said.