For Johann Buis, a music history professor at Wheaton College and a candidate for River Forest village trustee, racial equity isn’t an abstract concept.
As a Black man who was born in South Africa during apartheid, he faced discrimination and ran into barriers trying to get a college education. He fled to the United States in the 1980s as a “political refugees” because he was threatened for opposing the regime.
Buis said his experiences taught him the importance of building consensus and actively working to ensure equity. If elected, he would also advocate for environmental sustainability, putting more resources into disaster prevention, encouraging local arts, and using zoning codes and other tools to beautify the village and make it more attractive to tourists.
Buis said he is running not so much because he wanted to, but because people have been asking him to run for the past 13 years. Serving on the River Forest Traffic and Safety Commission gave him a glimpse of the village government “behind the scenes,” and now, he is ready for a more public-facing role.
If elected, Buis would focus on environmental sustainability and disaster prevention, especially flooding and freight train derailments. He wants to avoid something similar to the March 2017 derailment of a sulfur-carrying train in Lake Forest. Like other candidates, he would focus on fiscal responsibility, while also supporting going out for state and federal grants to fund projects that would benefit residents.
Buis praised the village’s overall response to the pandemic, but he argued that it could have done a better job letting the residents know about vaccination opportunities. He also felt that River Forest should do something to memorialize the residents who died of COVID-19, noting that, because of the pandemic restrictions, residents couldn’t be there for each other.
“I think easily we overlook the fact that the pandemic is fatal, and we don’t have the ability to mourn with those in our mist who are undergoing it,” Buis said.
While he believes “we have to be intentional in working for equity at all times” instead of waiting for it to happen, he said would do his part to make it happen.
“I’m the only candidate of the four who happen to live on the south side of River Forest, and that’s an equity issue as well,” Buis said. “Voices of all the citizens and the residents must be known to us, but not all those [have been represented].”
He would bridge the gap by organizing town halls, which would be advertised as widely as possible. “I want everyone to know that I’m a listener and [will] take their ideas forward, because they’re passionate about them,” Buis said.
He said he was in favor of having River Forest police officers have body cameras recording “all encounters with the public.”
“[Just as] the village trustees need to have open meetings, so that the community can see and hear them at work, so too must the police be seen at work,” Buis said.
He also argued the encounters between police and civilians usually escalate because of unconscious biases that trigger a fight-or-flight response.
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To illustrate his point, Buis recalled a time when a group of kids damaged his lawn. Instead of getting mad at them, he introduced himself and asked the kids’ names. This diffused the tension, the kids apologized – but things could have ended very differently.
“Just because a person is a transgressor, or appears to be a transgressor, doesn’t mean we need to be fearful people,” Buis said. “Every police encounter must presume the humanity of the other person.”
He said he fully supports making the village departments as diverse as possible — something that, Buis believes, could be accomplished by having a vision, committing to it and being willing to discuss biases.
“It is important for us to recognize that it is not the matter to shun and be afraid of, but to [be] embraced,” Buis said.
The same considerations, he said, should apply to a village administrator. Buis would look for someone with a good “bedside manner,” someone who would advocate for community, be good at getting federal and state funding and collaborating with the surrounding communities.
When it comes to debating issues and casting votes, Buis said he would take inspiration from Nelson Mandela, whom he met in person several times.
“The Mandela Principle looks at the two sides of the issue and takes the good from each side,” he said. “They might be totally in conflict with one another, but there’s good in each point of view, and you marry those points of view so it’s a win-win. My track record [shows] that I’m not a partisan, because I want to find solutions and not victories.”